The Power of Memory in a Culture of Terror

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Angela D. Sims
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , September
     213 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Many people do not know about the history of lynching horrors committed by ordinary people. Many are unaware of how those persecuted by lynching culture experienced and survived these terrible injustices. And even of those who are aware of this history, few have considered how the memories of lynching culture might influence the way we pursue justice in society today. To rectify the historically and morally tragic silencing of the history of racial terror in the US, ethicist Angela D. Sims started an oral history project, with the aid of Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History, called “Remembering Lynching: Strategies of Resistance and Visions of Justice.” From 2009 to 2011, more than fifty participants (all but one were self-professed Christians) who were at least seventy years old at that time recorded oral histories of their experiences with lynching. They focused on “(a) why people do or do not talk about lynching and what it means, (b) how lynching or a culture of lynching shapes their understanding of justice and faith in God, and (c) their concerns and desires for future generations” (2).

Far from a basic summary of these oral histories, Lynched offers Sims’s ethical-historical analysis of the oral histories. She describes her method: “From their stories [about lynching], I retrieve usable data I employ to interpret present dilemmas so that I can, individually and collectively, participate in the unfolding of a more hope-filled future for all of creation” (96). Sims asks how the incarnation of Jesus Christ should “inform the manner in which we seek to remember that which epitomizes evil as we simultaneously strive to embody that which is just” (16). She demonstrates a deep understanding of scholarship on both lynching and ethics, undergirded by her 2008 dissertation that uses Ida B. Wells’s critique of lynching as a springboard for a womanist ethical analysis of lynching. As in her dissertation, Sims here uses the analysis of lynching and lynching culture (via oral histories) as resources for “ethical-theological insights into and a potential response to counter the deadly effects of a neo-lynching culture that is a current reality” in the US (139). Throughout the book, Sims effortlessly moves back and forth between the past and the present, from analysis of oral histories to reflection on ethical living in the current racialized US culture.

In the pages of this short book, organized into five chapters, readers meet interesting individuals with stories that, on the one hand, exemplify terrifying violence and injustice, and on the other, illustrate faith-induced hope and endurance in the midst of unimaginable terror. People recount lynchings they saw or heard about, their own or others’ escape from lynching, the way adults shielded children from the details of lynching, lynching culture’s attempt to dehumanize black people, and the fear induced by lynching culture, which led black people to do everything in their power to become invisible to white people. Any wrong move or wrong word or occupation of the wrong space at the wrong time could mean the death of a black person without due process of law. Throughout the book, Sims emphasizes what many of the elders also said: similar social navigation is still required in police-occupied neighborhoods where innocent black people continue to be killed without due process.

Yet the narratives also demonstrate a remarkable capacity of faith, forgiveness, and resolve to pursue justice despite the injustices deeply embedded in American systems. During times of trial, and in the midst of pervasive attempts to dehumanize black people, those oppressed and persecuted by lynching and lynching culture almost always relied on their faith in God and hope in the eventual justice of God to endure the most sickening and evil acts of terrorism by people who often professed to be Christians themselves. Sims’s ethical-historical analysis provides insights on courage, silence for survival, faith, justice, the human capacity to thrive in the midst of evil and systemic inequality, good stewardship of one’s suffering, compassion, authenticity, repentance, self-examination, forgiveness, and much more.

In the final chapter, Sims summarizes four pieces of advice the elders wanted to share with future generations. First, they encourage the next generation of black people to aim high, set goals, do the best they can, and live well with a clear vision. Second, they encourage young people to keep the faith. Faith in God “gave us strength to endure many of the wrongs that was and is being done to us” (130). Sims emphasizes that this faith is not passive, but an active faith fostering vigilance in the “pursuit to name injustices for which persons charged to protect and serve are often exempt from being responsible and accountable” (131). Third, the elders urge young black people to value learning and get as much education as possible. While the participants emphasize the need for the community to provide support for this education, Sims highlights the systems that continue to perpetuate unequal access to education. Finally, the elders want the future generation to forgive wrongdoers without forgetting injustice. To let go of hate signaled a “determination not to be controlled by internalized rage against persons who choose to behave inhumanely” (48). Forgiving “will empower them to name evil unambiguously . . . and to offer a comprehensive solution developed to address the magnitude of contemporary issues forged in a national identity that benefits from selective forgetfulness” (138).

Although the technical language will make some parts of the book inaccessible to some readers, Sims offers ethical insights that shed light on lynching culture and how we continue to experience its effects today. As a historian, I appreciate the model Sims provides for using history as a means of ethical reflection. At every step along the way, while analyzing these disrupting oral histories about an evil era in American history, Sims provides ethical reflections and draws out unsettling analogies with modern America that deserve attention from a wide readership.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James L. Gorman is associate professor of history at Johnson University.

Date of Review: 
September 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Angela D. Sims is Dean of Academic Programs, Robert B. and Kathleen Rogers Chair in Church and Society, and Associate Professor of Ethics and Black Church Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology.


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