This is a piece of three-dimensional artwork that resides in Montgomery, Alabama at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Museum, a museum dedicated to acknowledging and educating America about its racist past and present. There are many different names and locations etched onto these jars, but they all have something in common. Each jar names a real person who died of a horrible, specific crime; one that was sadly seen as commonplace at the time – lynching. The team at EJI work to bring justice to these victims by going to the very site where the lynching took place and gathering dirt to put in their corresponding jar. This project seeks to bring awareness to the horrible crimes of racism that many African Americans dealt with.
Some might not consider this art, but I certainly do. This is a very moving piece that made me reconsider all my previous notions about racism. Its poignant visual forces the onlooker to recognize what they might have previously ignored. There are two things that especially struck me when I saw this piece for the first time. The first was that there are several jars that read “Unknown” instead of a name. The sad truth is that there are many victims of lynchings who still remain nameless today. Their life was not valued enough to keep record of their death. This realization was very harrowing for me. The second thing that struck me was seeing how recently some of these lynchings took place. Some of the jars revealed dates as recent as the 1960s. It is so easy to think of the 50s and 60s as a cute, fun era with poodle skirts and peace signs. The reality is that while teenagers were jamming out to The Beatles and Elvis Presley, many racist acts were still being carried out and, even worse, going unpunished.
As someone whose privilege has allowed me to lead a comfortable life free of discrimination, it was all too easy to ignore racism and pretend it did not exist. I did this not out of hatred but simply ignorance. Seeing the wall of jars puts this very prevalent problem into perspective for me, and I’ve had to reckon with my previous ignorance and lack of understanding. This artwork was a turning point that sparked lasting change in my thought process and its haunting image will stick with me forever.
In this soil, there is the sweat of the enslaved. In the soil there is the blood of victims of racial violence and lynching. There are tears in the soil from all those who labored under the indignation and humiliation of segregation. But in the soil there is also the opportunity for new life, a chance to grow something hopeful and healing for the future.Bryan Stevenson, EJI Executive Director