Monday, June 20, 2011

Jesse / Shadows of the Lynching Tree

Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

Official Website

Shadows of the Lynching Tree, a documentary written and directed by Carvin Eison played recently at the African Diaspora International Film Festival at Chicago’s Facet’s Multimedia.  According to Eisen, it is still not a “completed” work, though IMHO (and to the others present at the screening) it is largely complete.  Eison hopes to have it ready for general release by 2012. 

He says that in its final form, the documentary may be renamed as Jesse, to highlight the two Jesses in the principal incident presented in the documentary – Jesse Washington, a 17 year old youth who was lynched (tortured, set-afire and hung) in Waco Texas on May 16, 1915 and Jesse, a 10 year old child taken by his father to the lynching in James Baldwin’s short story Going to Meet the Man in the anthology by the same name available at

As awful as lynchings (the summary executions of mostly black men by mobs of white people throughout the United States during the 100 years between the end of the American Civil War in 1865 and the collapse of the Jim Crow Laws of the still Segregationist South in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement) were, the special horror of these “events” was their often “carnival nature.”  WHITES TOOK THEIR KIDS TO THESE EVENTS.  THEY SMILED, ATE ICE CREAM (as documented by pictures of that era) WHILE BLACKS WERE TORTURED SET AFIRE AND KILLED.  Often the crime for which the blacks were tortured and murdered in this way was “sexual” in nature – a black man having sex with a white woman.  Often this was presented as rape.  But whether this was actually the case, and today it is generally understood that these cases generally _didn’t_ involve rape (but simply intermingling of black men and white women), the black men were tortured and strung-up just the same.  And often enough, there was no “intermingling” at all, but a black person, male or female, simply became perceived as “uppity” in the local community and had to be “shown a lesson.”

Eisen notes in the documentary that in more recent times, the hanging noose may have simply been replaced by bullets, like those which cut down Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968 and, yes, like President Barrack Obama has been threatened with ever since declaring his intention to run for President and since winning his office.

Yes, Jesse / In the Shadows of the Lynching Tree is a dark, deeply disturbing documentary that makes one wince everytime one sees a white kid captured in photographs of that time playing, smiling, and yes, eating ice cream on “lynchin’ day.”  But I do deeply agree with the movie's director, Eisen that we’re not going to be able to talk honestly about America’s past (or _present_) without asking ourselves what drove this or drives hatred toward people like Barrack Obama today.  Is it simply that many of us continue to believe in one way or another that “black people ought to stay in their place?”

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