Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

George Yancy: Ahmaud Arbery and the Ghosts of Lynchings Past

As a black man living in Georgia, I am all too aware of the state’s history of lynching.

Well before the tragic killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man, in Glynn County, Ga., on Feb. 23, I had a conversation with a very close white friend of mine. She wanted to exercise outside. I preferred the treadmill. I told her that I find it easier to walk or jog on the treadmill. She insisted the air is better for me. Again, I protested. Yet, I had not disclosed the whole truth.

You see, we live in a predominantly white neighborhood in Georgia. And while I’ve not experienced any overt in-person racial incidents here, I often remind myself that Georgia seceded from the Union in 1861. Being here, I often forget. And while I love Georgia’s beautiful flora and weather, my enjoyment of it is always muted by the persistent reminders — in the form of plantations, antebellum architecture and Confederate flags — of the state’s brutal past.

My white friend had no knowledge that Sam Hose, who was accused of killing a white man and sexually assaulting his wife and child (the last two accusations being false), was lynched in 1899 in Coweta County, Ga. According to reports, Hose’s fingers, ears and genitals were cut off, as was the skin from his face as some 2,000 white spectators watched. He was eventually burned to death and his body parts were sold. My friend didn’t have to deal with the knowledge of the lynching, in Lowndes County, Ga., in 1918 of innocent Mary Turner, a young black woman, who was eight months pregnant. Turner was hung by her ankles as her body was burned and as she cried out. After her cloths burned off, a white man cut her baby from her abdomen as onlookers watched the baby fall to the ground. A white man crushed its tiny form under his boot. You see, Georgia is stained with the blood of black bodies.

The lynching of a black man in Royston, Ga., around 1935.Credit…Gamma-Keystone, via Getty Images

My friend’s reality as a white person prevented her from understanding my reality. It never occurred to her that walking through white neighborhoods in the South was an act I experienced through the lens of a murderous history that filled me with fear and a sense of deep trepidation. So I made it clear: “I don’t want white people stereotyping or profiling me. This can easily lead to my death. Look, for many white people, when they see me, they see danger, an outsider, a criminal, a sub-person. So I refuse to walk or jog!”

For me, walking or running through such white spaces reminded me of Richard Wright’s account of grasping the realities of white racism, its history of terror against black bodies: “Anxiety entered my body. Somewhere in the unknown the white threat was hovering near again.” The cultural theorist bell hooks notes that most white people “do not imagine that the way whiteness makes its presence felt in black life, most often as terrorizing imposition, a power that wounds, hurts, tortures, is a reality that disrupts the fantasy of whiteness as representing goodness.” So there we were, occupying two worlds, one black and one white, one based in reality and the other based in white privilege, which is another way of saying white fantasy.

Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed by two white men while jogging in Brunswick, Ga., on Feb. 23.
Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed by two white men while jogging in Brunswick, Ga., on Feb. 23.Credit…Reuters

And here we are now, yet again, facing two realities: one unarmed black man, Ahmaud Arbery, 25, killed at the hands of two white men, Gregory and Travis McMichael, implicitly deputized by their whiteness to protect all things “pure” and white. Just as George Zimmerman pursued and killed Trayvon Martin in 2012, these men acted under the white rule that black bodies are by definition “criminal” and must be stopped dead.

If you don’t see the horror and white vigilantism in this act, then flip the script. Imagine a black father and son who jump into their pickup truck, armed to the teeth, to apprehend someone’s white son who they assumed committed a crime. And now imagine the white son being shot dead in the street.

American history is replete with white forms of policing black bodies. Recall the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Whites were “authorized” to capture and return any enslaved black person back to the plantation. In fact, even free blacks were apprehended and enslaved. This “heroic” whiteness functioned to solidify whiteness across class differences. I can only imagine the deep sense of white patriotism experienced by Gregory and Travis McMichael as they brought a .357 magnum and a shotgun to apprehend an unarmed black man out jogging.

Historically, white people have always had this sort of power over black life, functioning as judge, jury and executioner. To understand Arbery’s death as anything other than predictable is to miss the persistent history of white supremacy in Georgia and throughout the United States. Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery Sr., who rightly referred to his son’s death as a “modern-day lynching,” reflected on his life in Glynn County by noting, “I’ve dealt with racism my whole life here.”

What if I told you that as a black man living in white America I feel as if I am already dead? I imagine that your first response would be disbelief. After all, I am typing these words and I am posing the question. I admit that it must sound a bit strange. But what is perhaps even stranger is that as a marked black man, I mourn my death in advance.

How can that be? In her 2002 work, “The Time of Slavery,” the scholar and historian Saidiya Hartman asks: “How might we understand mourning, when the event has yet to end? When the injuries not only perdure, but are inflicted anew?” I understand the weight of that question as I, too, have black sons. Their lives, too, seem to be on borrowed time. So I mourn them constantly.

To be black in America is to spend a lot of time talking about how to avoid death. Conversations with my sons go something like this:

“Keep your hands within your car when (not if) a white police officer pulls you over.”

“Don’t pull out your cellphone or your wallet carelessly, because around white people those things magically become weapons.”

“Don’t blast your music in your car, as this can be offensive to whites within earshot.”

“Don’t sit in a Starbucks and have to use the restroom.”

“Don’t take a nap at your university unless you are in your room.”

Hell, I even tell them not be feel too comfortable while in their own home. I remind them that on Sept. 6, 2018, a black man, Botham Jean, was killed when a white off-duty police officer, Amber Guyger, killed him as she entered his apartment thinking that it was her own. Even one’s home is no sanctuary against anti-black racism.

Home. My white friend knows what it means to be at home: It means being at home in her house, being at home in white America and being at home in her white body. I wonder what that feels like, where such moments don’t feel like exceptions or stolen, as if they don’t or should not already belong to me.

There are times when I wish that I could go for that walk, that jog, and feel absolutely at ease, free of worry. But that would entail becoming white, and the price of that ticket is far too high. I shouldn’t have to become white. After all, I’m not the problem; Ahmaud Arbery was not the problem. As James Baldwin wrote, “When white people … talk about progress in relationship to black people all they are saying and all they can possibly mean by the word progress is how quickly and how thoroughly I become white. I don’t want to become white. I want to grow up. And so should you.”

I know that this most recent killing is not the end. More black bodies will follow. This is not pessimism; it is a black reality that my white friend can’t see, a reality that I know in my bones, even on the sunniest days in Georgia. Ahmaud Arbery’s death refuses to let me forget it.


George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Emory University. His latest book is “Across Black Spaces: Essays and Interviews From an American Philosopher.”

First published in The New York Times. Included in Vox Populi with permission.

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