From The Trees

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday Image : Library of Congress

A poem by Cathy Muskett
Edited by Freddie Ramos and Jenika McCrayer
Responding to the Equal Justice Initiative’s project: Lynching in Americ

We know,
oh, who we?
White women.

We know that white men are murderers
140 million indigenous souls
gone in a few hundred years.
They are so gifted in violence,
aren’t they?
Our men.

You saw them there,
hanging from the trees.
Your man came home,
smelling of smoke and whiskey
what you wanted to call sweat
what you knew was blood
because you washed it, didn’t you?
Washed it from his clothes

Out, damn spot!
as if you could possibly forget
that this was fiction.

I wonder what fairy tales you tell to children
you know won’t live very long.
Did you ever wonder that too?

You saw them there,
hanging from the trees.
You smelled their skin,
rotting like strange fruit.
Some of you might even
recognize the rope.

Did you tell your children?
How it used to be?
What their granddaddies did
for fun
when they were bored
or just too hot?

Did you tell them?
All the jokes you laughed at
all the dinners you dressed for
knowing that each man’s hands,
at the table you set for him,
had taken many lives
in cold blood on hot nights
or worse:
objected and said nothing?

What did you say when they got old enough?
When the children started noticing things
noticed little cracks in the ivory
that fine china of white supremacy.
Children borne by better castes
aren’t always born to stay blind.

How many times do you wonder,
when you watch your beloved sleep,
wonder how his
very vanquished,
equally imaginary, enemies
never seem to
into his dreams.

When your children were old enough
When your husbands took your sons
out to the forest at night
did it give you a little fright?

Were you just happy those hands
weren’t on your body?
Did you really not know?

I don’t know if I can believe that.

I don’t know whether or not I want to stand in your shoes.

Or do you still not know?

Maybe you were glad when he came home tired
because then he wouldn’t try to pretend
that he wouldn’t do the same to you…
…and get away with it.
He always gets away with it.

When our grandparents were young
that’s when 4,000 people were executed
4,000 people who had either been slaves
or were the children of slaves
4,000 deaths.
Not including those courtesy of the state!
They could hardly keep up
with all the other extrajudicial killings
with all the torture and imprisonment
with all the rape of black and brown bodies.

We know they’re all caught up now.
They traded white hats for badges
Oh, how we know.
But, oh, those faces got bold!
Almost like klansmen
got their own cop show.

You do love a man in uniform
How do you keep his whites so bright?
When you’re bleaching
his white hood
after cold water and dish soap
finally got out the blood.

What did you do
when you caught yourself staring
at the beautiful people
you were supposed to hate?
How did you feel
when you heard their music
swelling upwards in celebration
of your shared God?
Did your stomach churn
when you watched their women
nursing your infants,
tending your sick,
raising your children
putting their very tissue, very cells
into your body, into millions of white bodies
cells into vaccines that protect you
protect your babies from harm
Do you feel a little sick?
knowing that your husband
could be the one,
the one that murders her sons?

Did you think he’d mellow with age
—he probably has—
and come to see some reason?
That it was finally over, that the
wouldn’t find you at the strangest moments
and the cries of the women would quiet
and you wouldn’t have to look away
from their small children, pretending they were
a different species from your own?

You saw them there,
hanging from the trees.
You saw it many times.
What would you think
if you weren’t already thinking
“What would he say?”

What would you do
if you weren’t already worrying
about what he’d do if he found out?

Who would you be with
if you thought it could be different
if you thought anyone could hear you?
If you thought being quiet
was better than being dead.
If you thought being careful
was better than being alone.
If you thought that nothing
was more important than home.

I don’t blame you for that.
I blame you
because your children are the same,
and you’ve seen fifty years pass
and the killing hasn’t stopped, only changed.

You saw them there,
hanging from the trees.
Do you tell your children, your grandchildren,
you were pretending to be blind,

praying for the dead…

…or hoping for a breeze?



Cathy Muskett