Radical empathy (Part 6)

Dear President Trump,

You know Mr. President, there are a lot of people out there who toil away at thankless tasks day in and day out, year in and year out. The variety of such tasks is vast; some get undone almost as fast as they are done and some would be squelched if the powers that be had their way, but the toilers keep on keeping on because they are driven by a need stronger than fear. An African American man named John Johnson is one of those latter types of toilers. Johnson has lived in Wyeth County, Virginia all his life and for 30 years he’s been collecting data in the form of names, stories, and artifacts about the lynching death of Raymond Byrd 93 years ago. Mr. Johnson became a bit famous today because the WP ran a very long article about him and his work. You see, Johnson is 80 years old and he’s trying to sort out what to do with the information, the data, he has gathered – he wants to put it to beneficial use.

He has catalogued the names of many, if not all, of the men who comprised the lynching mob that shot Mr. Byrd in his jail cell, mutilated his body, dragged him behind a truck through town, and then hung him from a tree near the town of Wytheville’s church where a crowd of hundreds gathered to see the spectacle and take his body parts as grisly, sick mementos. As a boy Johnson learned that his father stood with a group of other African American men who tried to protect Byrd since they knew he was likely to be targeted for lynching because he was accused of raping a white woman (the woman denied he’d assaulted her and said the sex was consensual). The woman’s father, Grover Grubb, organized the mob. The younger Johnson talked with as many African American elders as he could, most of whom warned him not to dig around in that past, most of whom made him turn off his tape recorder when it came time to name names.

Over the years Johnson became friends with several white people in Wytheville and the greater County and they also told him stories and gave him names. One white man gave him a length of rope that he’d kept hidden in his basement that was ostensibly used to hang Byrd, though this was apparently never stated overtly. A white friend who provided data told Johnson that she doesn’t want him to go public with the names of the men involved in the lynching mob because she doesn’t want the relatives of those men to be hurt, doesn’t want them to feel guilty for what their ancestors did. While these sentiments may well be truly felt, it was her concern that going public with the information would stir up anger that rings truest to me. What was left unsaid, though, is that such anger could lead to more violence.

The article doesn’t connect these dots and it’s unclear how concerned Johnson is about violence should he go public with the names of the lynching mob, but the stories from the course of his life make clear that he is no stranger to harm, including physical harm, at the hands of white men. There are pictures of both Grubb’s headstone and Byrd’s headstone. Only one of them looks like it’s been shot at.

From here in Seattle, ensconced in my white privileged remove, my first impulse is that I want Mr. Johnson to tell the world what he knows about who was involved in murdering Mr. Byrd. I want him to be thanked for having undertaken this labor of love. I want this to not be a thankless task. I want Mr. Johnson to have the satisfaction before he dies of lancing an old, old wound that will remain infected and inflamed until it’s dealt with directly. And, as I try to imagine the risks to him and to those he loves if he takes that fork in the road, I frankly feel ill and afraid for him. She didn’t come out and say it, but I think his white friend tapped a well of radical empathy when she warned that “people would be very angry about it — I can feel it” if he were to publicly name names. She essentially validated the fears of the elderly African American people who insisted that they meet with Johnson in the dark, with the blinds drawn.

May we be safe to tell all the truths.
May we be willing to honor the heavy, hard truths.
May white people do the work we need to do to make space for these truths.
May we hold space in our hearts and between us for a new, beloved community.

Tracy Simpson

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