FENCE IN THE JASPER CEMETERY

Living in Texas only one year at the time of the James Byrd Jr. tragedy, I immediately held race relations as was my experience in a context of the 92 LA riots and of the O.J. Simpson murder case.

I was a young man about to be married, living in Colorado, and listening nightly to the unfolding drama of the LA riots on the radio. LA was a world away from the rural mountain village where I was living at the time, but I held a keen interest all the same. Shortly after that riot, O.J. Simpson became the lead suspect in the murder of his ex-wife, and as a white man, I sensed rather viscerally the turning of tables as it seemed this guilty man was going to get off. It appeared he would go free for sake of peace in the streets of LA! (At least that sure seemed to be a real factor from my vantage point.)

Justice.

Rodney King didn’t get any. O.J. Simpson didn’t. But ironically, it felt like maybe, just maybe, in some poetic sense all of white racism did get justice – at least a small measure of it for once.

Was Simpson responsible for the murder of his wife and the young man with her? I believe so. But you would be hard pressed to find a black person who thought so in those days. I didn’t know many black people, but every one I saw on a TV screen with a microphone in their face sure seemed adamant that Simpson did not do this crime.

Also, ironically, I came to be a fan of Johnnie Cochran, and I wanted to litigate like him. “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit!”

Oh yeah! This was better than the blues! This was poetic justice. Those cops framed Simpson! They were racists cops!! Racist cops, ironically, got this murderer off!!!

I felt the salt in the collective wound, yet from my vantage ground, it almost felt good. It felt like atonement.

How many young black men have been hanged in the woods, beat to death, or burned at the stake over the mere accusation of looking at a white woman? Ahem, I mean raping her.

Yeah. There are no records to research. We can name a few celebrated cases. Emmett Till comes to mind, but he was way before my time. There are a LOT of ghosts riding his shirt tales into infamy. Far more than we will ever remember or know. I will never forget visiting Hubbard, Texas one time – ONE TIME – when I was a kid with my grandmother and her brother who told me about a day his daddy brought him into town for supplies but they stayed to watch the black [insert the N-Word here] burn at the stake for raping a white woman.

Yeah. That salt in the collective wound felt just a little atoning to me.

But in 1998, I was living in West Texas, many miles from Jasper, which is way back in East Texas. I didn’t know where Jasper even was. I didn’t know anyone from Jasper. But I quickly saw that Jasper was several hundred miles away – the opposite direction from LA.

Jasper was all country people living simple country lives. I could plainly see that, and fast! I might not have ever visited the place; I might not know the people personally speaking, but – BUT – but these were MY PEOPLE.

Jasper hit home.

The brazen way these men chose to kill Mr. Byrd demonstrated the impunity they expected.

Did they think they would get a medal?

I hesitate to describe my feelings about the news coming from Jasper. I had all kinds of empathy for the people in LA. That Rodney King thing was just so ridiculous that I actually almost rooted for Simpson to get off. (Almost. Not quite. I have watched the Goldman family mourn for years, and so I don’t, in the final analysis, wish Simpson any sympathy. But except for that personal loss at the center of that case, yeah. I get a measure of … of… of… I’m not sure. It’s not joy, but there is poetry in the injustice. There is justice in the big scheme of things.)

I don’t know. Let me amend that a bit: Watching Reginald Denny take a death-defying beating live on TV did NOT give me a good feeling, though I did ask the TV screen what that man thought he was doing going into that part of town on that day! The part that gave me a good feeling, and in fact the only part that could, was watching black people come to his rescue. That rise-above spirit was far better than the revenge spirit, even if the revenge spirit was so well deserved.

The good folx of Jasper were my people. That was me you saw on the TV in that one. Not me personally, but me in every other way. That was my Mammaw and my Pappaw!

I didn’t know James Byrd, but I was good friends with a young African man named Andrew Bukuru, and he was a guest in our country, in fact at our school here in Texas.

How could I look Andrew in the face? It was my people that did this to his people. Maybe not our personal social circles, but close. A lot closer than those plastic, rich, Hollywoody Californians! This was Texas-friendly people being neighborly! In the worst way. Andrew was our guest in this country, a very long way from home, and I was one of his hosts! This was more than embarrassing.

Well, these things are never too terribly far from my heart and mind, but in the wake of George Floyd’s death last Spring, I have gone back to watch the documentary about Jasper called Two Towns of Jasper. I have watched it several times during the pandemic lockdown. I keep seeing my people in that film. I keep seeing me – almost. I could be too comfortable there.

They sent two film crews in, one black and the other white, to film a single documentary. So every interview conducted gets a candid statement that is not being sanitized by the interviewees for cross-racial consumption. I am amazed at how much the white people seem to honestly try to be even handed and fair minded, yet how far they wind up away from being anything sensitive. There is a staunch concern that Mr. Byrd is being portrayed as a saint in death by the media – a martyr of the first order. And of course, I keep thinking, “So what?”

I don’t think Nicole Brown Simpson was in anyway a bad person, per se. But if we dig, really dig, into her personal life, there is no doubt we will find sin, selfishness, someone she hurt. But I don’t have a need to drag any of that out to ensure the public realize she was after all a flawed person and not some super saint. Neither did her being white and her killer being (supposedly) black make the crime any worse, though I think that aspect sticks in many a craw.

But actually, I am writing today about the fence in the graveyard at Jasper. According to the documentary, there was a lot of talk about “healing” that community in the months surrounding the trials of the men who killed Mr. Byrd. I can’t help but think the white people in that town felt they were depicted as barbaric. I bet that was at least a partial motivation for “healing” among some. I can only imagine, and I have to work at it as a white man, but I can imagine it still, that little black children growing up in Jasper (and most anywhere else too) for the last 20 years are told the story of James Byrd as a cautionary tale about very real boogeymen that will really hurt you if given a chance, and there is just no arguing against that!

And so a few of the “religious leaders” in Jasper got together and noticed a fence, a very old, dilapidated iron fence, running through the cemetery. They discovered that it separated the white side from the black side. As a step toward “healing” the town, they took it down.

Just a symbolic thing.

Some people interviewed in the documentary question the purpose, the meaning, the efficacy.

I can’t help but think that the fence there is, paradoxically, both a big thing and a little thing. Nothing replaces LOVE and kindness as true healers, but then those are paradoxically big and small too.

So the fence is gone! So what? Do they start burying whites on the black side and blacks on the white side now? Is this a first step among many?

But then on the other hand, if you protest this small gesture, then you protest too much. It becomes Shakespearean. You betray the bigness hidden in the smallness of the gesture.

Aha!

And that has me thinking about those small things that are deceptively big.

How do you heal what happened in Jasper?

Well, they got justice in Jasper for Mr. Byrd. They got the justice in that country-simple town of rednecks and racists that eluded the courts in LA just a few years prior. Seems ironic. Perhaps, that is meaningful too.

I am glad the religious leaders there took out that fence. That fence, of course, wasn’t any less or more racist than a confederate monument and was just as full of heritage too. But at least the dead are not fenced off from one another by the living anymore in Jasper. I take comfort in that. I find wisdom in that too.

I like to think that with that fence gone, James Byrd Jr is on the other side preparing for the arrivals of John William King, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and Shawn Allen Berry… preparing to welcome theme them into the grace of God. Like the final scene in Places of the Heart, perhaps killers and victim share communion.

Now if we can get the living to imagine it.

3 comments

  1. harolene · December 4, 2020

    You echoed some of my exact feelings here… good to see you back !!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. gregvonhaesler · December 11, 2020

    I love you my friend, very intelligent works.

    Liked by 1 person

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