Memory  /  Comment

Uncovering Hidden History on the Road to Clanton

Documentary filmmaker Lance Warren interrogates the silence around lynching in the American South.

We drove 6,000 miles last year to meet descendants of lynching victims, activists working to preserve memory of this past, and scholars with personal connections to America’s era of racial terror. We encountered history at a human scale. From Richmond to Clanton to Marbury and beyond, we took our cameras to places that are hard to see. We visited the unmarked sites that define, through silence and void, the region’s — the nation’s — enduring danger to black Americans. We pursued a forgotten past and found ourselves explaining the roots of our present. One man told us: “Being forgetful, truly forgetful, is a luxury, that whites could afford, but blacks couldn’t. It’s a luxury — to not have to remember painful acts.” And it’s a privilege, he made clear, with great consequence. “If you have that luxury, a system can keep repeating itself, because no one remembers to say, ‘Wait a second: We’re doing the same things all over again.'”

Since premiering the film in March, we’ve hit the road again. We’re bringing the film to audiences who are using it as a hub for action, fuel for existing efforts fostering honest dialogue, and a tool for activists looking to identify areas of common ground.

But we’ve also seen that lynching remains a mysterious wedge. Perhaps because the history hasn’t settled, lynching isn’t tightly threaded into narratives of the American past. A few audience members have worried that sharing the film with schoolchildren could put parents in a tough spot. (I ask: Isn’t parenting, by its nature, the toughest of spots? And as with so many junctures in raising children, do not our answers to them helpfully reveal us to ourselves?) Another found political rather than historical a moment where we put a fine point on lynching’s modern resonance. (Exactly where should one draw a line between past and present?) We’ve been praised and challenged, and we’ve tried to take heart that even those unwilling to join us on the barricades nevertheless have chosen to spend a half-hour thinking about black lives.