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Memorial to the 4,424

In Montgomery, Alabama, 300 miles east of Graball Landing, a new monument at the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) Peace and Justice Memorial Center honours Emmet Till along with 23 other victims killed by racial violence in the 1950s. To aid the public in comprehending the historic and geographic scope of racial terror, the new monument, along with the nearby National Memorial to Peace and Justice, designed by Mass Design, recognises the 4,424 documented victims of lynching during the Jim Crow era. In collaboration with groups around the country who seek to publicly recognise lives lost to and those impacted by organised racial violence, the EJI has also launched the Community Remembrance Project that places historical markers at lynching sites around the nation. Like the Till marker at Graball Landing, the EJI markers remind local residents of the acts of lynching whose perpetrators were rarely brought to trial, and if so were never convicted for their actions like Till’s murderers.

The EJI, a private non-profit organisation, took up this civic task of making visible the history of lynching and its legacy in mass incarceration amid Montgomery’s heritage landscape, one that dutifully honours confederate presidents and generals but has remained silent, for example, about those sites where its lucrative slave trade transpired. As a consequence of not being a municipal endeavour, the new EJI’s memorials were built on a site south of the city’s historic civic centre.

While it is not obvious or noted by most visitors as they enter the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, a secure entry point and fence encloses the six-acre site, a condition rarely found at memorials or monuments erected in public spaces or on public land. The enclosure of the fence signals, like the plexiglas-enclosed bullet-proof historical marker at Graball Landing, that violence in the name of white supremacy continues to shape the spaces of America’s commemorative landscape.

Coda: continuing inequality

The symbolic expression of white supremacy through the erection of monuments in counties like Tallahatchie and Leflore demarcated where Black Mississippians under Jim Crow’s prohibitions could or could not venture. These worked in concert with the pre-civil rights racial assemblages of substandard houses, segregated public amenities, redlining of neighbourhoods, systemically low wages, the terror of the Klan, and the violence of law enforcement to diminish the prospects of Black life. That tyranny, the violence of the state in the service of the private interests of racial capitalism, which operated through the spatial logics of enclosure, is what Achille Mbembe has labeled as “necropolitics,” a recalibration of Michel Foucault’s “biopolitics” wherein the modern state apparatus became the arbiter of what conditions allow some lives to thrive and under what conditions others deteriorate and die. In America’s “necropolis,” death continues to haunt those disenfranchised from the rights of citizenship – rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – which defines the public domain and includes domestic sphere whose social order of privacy is also defined and delineated by the law.

The most recent call to make Black lives matter addresses this ongoing policing of public spaces by law enforcement and white vigilantes who have murdered, often with the same impunity of Till’s killers, Black men, women, and children while in everyday acts of walking down the street, standing on a sidewalk, playing in the park, driving a car, shopping in Walmart, or merely sleeping in one’s own home.

It is important to recognise that the necropolis of the United States is vast and its violence is structural. It permeates systems like healthcare, which is ideally designed to ensure a thriving and productive society. In Black communities across the US, the lack of access to healthcare, to fresh air, to clean water, or to healthy foods works to incrementally reduces the life expectancy of Black Americans. The novel coronavirus, for example, opportunistically continued the devastation of Black life in the wake of slavery, the crippling segregation of Jim Crow, and current regime of mass incarceration. Mississippi, for example, maintains the worst healthcare system in the nation.See the Commonwealth Fund’s rankings on healthcare state by state, ➝ 2020scorecard.commonwealthfund.org/state/mississippi. As of September 2020, Mississippi’s Black residents made up 37.5% of the state’s population, but comprised 49.8% of Covid-19 infections and 48.6% of its deaths.Mississippi Department of Health, ➝ msdh.ms.gov/msdhsite/_static/14,0,420.html#caseTable, September 28, 2020. These remain the deadly inequities of America’s public sphere for those who struggle to live within its everyday spaces.

Mabel O. Wilson 

Mabel O. Wilson is an architectural designer and cultural historian. She has authored Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture (2016) and Negro Building: African Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (2012). At Columbia University she is a professor of architecture, a co-director of Global Africa Lab and associate director at the Institute for Research in African American Studies. She’s a founding member of Who Builds Your Architecture? (WBYA?) a collective that advocates for fair labour practices on building sites worldwide.

Monument is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and Het Nieuwe Instituut.

 

Delany Boutkan, Marten Kuijpers, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Setareh Noorani
Alex Walker