When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before. When again tired, he would repeat the same question, and receiving the same answer, continue his cruel labor. All this time, the incarnate devil was uttering most fiendish oaths. At length the paddle broke, leaving the useless handle in his hand. Still I would not yield. All his brutal blows could not force from my lips the foul lie that I was a slave. Casting madly on the floor the handle of the broken paddle, he seized the rope. This was far more painful than the other. I struggled with all my power, but it was in vain. I prayed for mercy, but my prayer was only answered with imprecations and with stripes. I thought I must die beneath the lashes of the accursed brute. Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell! At last I became silent to his repeated questions. I would make no reply. In fact, I was becoming almost unable to speak. Still he plied the lash without stint upon my poor body, until it seemed that the lacerated flesh was stripped from my bones at every stroke. A man with a particle of mercy in his soul would not have beaten even a dog so cruelly. At length Radburn said that it was useless to whip me any more—that I would be sore enough. Thereupon Burch desisted, saying, with an admonitory shake of his fist in my face, and hissing the words through his firm-set teeth, that if ever I dared to utter again that I was entitled to my freedom, that I had been kidnapped, or any thing whatever of the kind, the castigation I had just received was nothing in comparison with what would follow. He swore that he would either conquer or kill me. With these consolatory words, the fetters were taken from my wrists, my feet still remaining fastened to the ring; the shutter of the little barred window, which had been opened, was again closed, and going out, locking the great door behind them, I was left in darkness as before. In an hour, perhaps two, my heart leaped to my throat, as the key rattled in the door again. I, who had been so lonely, and who had longed so ardently to see some one, I cared not who, now shuddered at the thought of man's approach. A human face was fearful to me, especially a white one.Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853: Electronic Edition. Solomon Northup (b. 1808)
Is this wrong because it is happening to Mr. Northup because of the color of his skin? Or is it wrong because it is happening, and racism is wrong because, among other things, judgement on the basis of the color of ones skin enables this kind of abuse?
Does this still happen, including in Harrisounburg? Yes and how.
The picture is from the George Grantham Bain Collection. I first encountered it at a site where it was incorrectly associated with slave times. Putting it in its correct historical context is more powerful because it shows how much deeper both domination and solidarity run. The person doing the whipping is surely not the person who ordered the whipping. This practice of outsourcing barbarity did date from slavery times. Now we do it by managing human beings by file cabinet and committee, with the whipping passed on the the human resources department and ultimately to the prison system. It makes evil easier to inflict.
While this picture evokes rage at the abuser, that feeling taps into the dominator dynamic within us. The center of the picture is unbearable, so the only thing I can see next is the crowd, and face by face each face in the crowd. How can they bear to look? And why are they not seizing the whip? Some of the crowd may be guards. Some are no doubt reprehensible. But why are the rest there, and why do they look? The faces tell the story. They are there in solidarity, to witness and protect. They are jostling to crowd out and block the view of hostile people . They are there to shield the victim from humiliation. At the same time, they are looking, faces full of empathy, so the victim will not suffer alone, like holding the hand of a sick child or loved one. This is not the picture painted of the July 4th 1910 Harrisonburg lynch mob nor the crude thousand curious onlookers. The eye glasses glinting white on the intense face of a young man suggest this. To glare that way, the lenses must have been for myopia. This man would have to have grown up with electric lighting in his infancy. He is probably a member of the African American elite, a highly educated man who could not bear such a spectacle except as a partisan for the rights of his people and of humanity.
In this photo, the evil is still sufficiently raw that we can see exactly what it is. The act that elicited this abuse is completely irrelevant. In these postures, the act has been stripped from the person, and it is a person, a precious life and that alone that is being scourged and humiliated. Yet this is the essence and embodiment of modern 'criminal justice' thinking since James Q. Willson , whose ideas some embrace in Harrisonburg and that has helped fuel America's skyrocketing incarceration rate that has left the rest of the world far behind. A hundred years later, the evil has been sanitized but not eradicated.
People might object that it is not appropriate to associate this picture with Harrisonburg. In this time period, an article appeared in the local paper reporting on Mayor John Roller (the advocate of the equality of men in the constitutional convention election) ordering that a 14 year old African American girl be whipped by an African American woman. The charge was that the girl had stolen a watch from a man who employed her as a domestic. The description of the evidence reveals that she had left the watch with a watch maker to be repaired. The story this suggests is that the young woman had dropped the watch, breaking it, as a friend of mine did with a watch from that period. She must have tried to have it fixed, hoping her employer would not notice. When confronted she did not dare talk back and contradict the accusation of stealing. Rather, she turned the other cheek and took her whipping. It is up to us to be her witnesses.
These pages are dedicated to liberation, deeply diagnosing and treating the illness of hierarchy and domination at its root. To that end, through the struggles and confusion of the 20th century, Dr. Martin Luther King's vision is emerging as having been deeper than the rest.