By Caira Wynn Blackwell
In February 1910, a Black man named Allen Brooks was accused of attempting to rape a two-year-old white girl in Dallas, Texas. In early March, his jail cell was stormed, he was dragged—very literally, with a rope around his neck—for half a mile through the streets before being hanged from a telephone pole in a popular intersection downtown. A postcard was made of the spectacle, capturing only a fraction of the 5,000 people who gathered to watch. The individuals in the crowd were not only angry white men, but also children. In the foreground of the postcard celebrating Allen Brooks’s death, two young boys stare the camera down. A third child, a little girl, stands in front of them, her back to the boys as she bears witness to the brutal death of a man.
Only a few steps to her left is another man, two tense hands gripping his bike as if he were only there in passing, his focus on the camera behind as well. His eyes, unlike the rest of the spectators watching, are haunted. He, a Black man, is immortalized as the figure among thousands whose horrified eyes seem to ask: what has God done?
Only, it’s clear that the lynching of Allen Brooks on that telephone pole wasn’t the work of God. Man did that, and never reaped what he sowed.
Eula Biss wrote an essay called “Time and Distance Overcome” which looks to unveil the ugly truth about this country in respect to Black men and telephones poles. Originally titled “The War on Telephone Poles,” she describes how ‘good Americans’ chopped down the first of many telephones poles because they were “dead-tree-looking-things” symbolizing more than technological advancement. To them, telephone poles represented very un-American utilitarianism. In 1889, the New York Times called the people’s hostility toward the tall, leafless trees a “war on telephone poles.” At the time, people hated these tall lifeless telephone poles, until they discovered that these looming wooden giants could be used to hang Black people. Suddenly, the war on telephone poles stopped, and the war on Black people persisted.
Interesting, how these things which were hated because they signified a specific utilitarian purpose so quickly became acceptable when used in opposition against Black bodies. Maddening, that the very technology meant to bring the U.S. closer was actually used to divide it further.
The road to recovery for the American people is a long one in the making, not only because of the depth and darkness of the history this nation carries, but also because the racist legacy of this country can never stay buried in the past. It’s violent anti-Black practices continue to bleed through the well-tailored suits that don the technological business class. Telephone poles, large staples in our lives most people barely take notice of, are directly symbolic of this unhealthy erasure.
I often wonder what people think when they look at telephone poles today. Probably not the fact that they were used as the centerpiece to the moral crime of anti-Black terrorism. Why would they? Americans aren’t taught the specifics of this country’s troubled collective past, and, as a result white society is unable or unwilling to see the direct linkage between chattel enslavement and mass incarceration.
In the early days of the telephone, those who used them (usually middle to high class whites) could hear the gurgling, screaming gasped sounds of Black people who were being lynched. Instead of outrage or startle, they pressed their ears to the receiver and desperately talked over the excruciating wails of Black death. Much like today, when white people enthusiastically ignore our screams for Liberation and equity as we shout “I can’t breathe!”
America has literally choked up the lines of honest communication and sweeps over the uncomfortable, horrible parts of its history. We are stuck in a limbo of misrepresentations of the past, of purposeful ignorance in the present, of dangerous prejudices leading us into the future.
A favored folly of white Americans (and some Black liberals) centers on the belief that time alone will solve anti-Blackness. But, ironically it was time as dictated by the oppressor that allowed for centuries of subjugation against Black people.
If we are to look at the racist underpinnings of the telephone pole, then we are reminded of how anti-Blackness is normalized as public utility. How anti-Blackness has egregiously shaped this world into the mundane. How anti-Blackness is the root of all things we take for granted. And we must be dutiful in how we pull back the veil of innocence and analyze the ugliness underneath.