This year I am reading The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn. There are 52 stories and essays from 52 writers and I am focusing on one each week. I was going in order, but as February is Black History Month, I have skipped ahead to read the stories from Black writers.
This week is the story A Party Down at the Square by Ralph Ellison.
I will be utterly honest, this story was hard to read. It is the story of a young boy witnessing a lynching. But as I read it, I realize that as hard as it was to read, these things really happened, some in the town and county where I live, so it was worse to actually live through.
A young white boy from Cincinnati, Ohio, visits his uncle in the Deep South and hears a group of men tell his uncle that there will be a party down at the square. He slowly realized when he gets to the square that there is a Black man who is being burned to death. The fires from the death interfere with an airplane flying over in a storm, and the plane crashes through some power lines, but lands successfully. A woman is electrocuted by the flailing power lines. Once that happens, the mob returns their attention to the Black man. As the man politely asks for a merciful death, the leader of the mob says no, “no Christians around tonight.” The Black man is burned to death.
The thing that stood out to me the most, besides the narrator and his reactions to this event, are the sheriffs that are there at the square. They stand there, guarding the dead woman, to make sure she is undisturbed until help arrived. They were there for the entire murder of the Black man, and NEVER did a thing. A man was murdered in front of them and they did nothing to stop it.
While the story was published after Ellison’s death in 1997, I believe it was written in the 1930’s, so almost 90 years ago. At first I was going to write that it was back with lynchings were common in the south, but looking at the state of justice in our country, lynching still happen. We don’t always call them by that word, but the the Black Lives Matter movement came about because lynchings are still happening, and not just in the south. We have phone videos and body cam videos recording our lynchings. We have our supposed law enforcement breaking the laws that they are sworn to uphold, hurting those they are sworn to protect. While using the reason of self-protection, what makes us so afraid of each other?
I have no answers, but I think everyone should read this story and realize that it’s easier to read than to experience.