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TikTok confession of alleged lynching recalls history of Black trauma and white lies

OPINION: Performative solidarity in the digital space is yet another example of how we can be seduced into Black trauma porn while emotionally investing in the illusion of white redemption

In a viral TikTok video which racked up over five million “likes,” a white nurse claimed that one of her dying COVID-19 patients was haunted by a Black teenager who had been beaten, castrated, and lynched because of a racist lie she told when she was a child. In the clip, posted by user Dawn @benzosandespresso, the alleged incident took place somewhere in Louisiana in 1936.

Dawn told her more than 80,000 followers that the dying woman, “told me that when she was a teenager, she told her mother that one of the local Black boys had touched her behind the grocery store.  Not only was the boy lynched, but he was beaten, and his genitals were cut off.  And then the family home was burned to the ground. And she watched it all happen.”

She continued, “You wanna know why? Because she saw that his sisters had prettier dresses than she did. And she just didn’t like it. So, she lied.”

The delirium didn’t end there.

“And then it clicked. This same woman had been hallucinating for the past couple of days, saying there was a Black boy in her room watching her, would not stop staring at her, and she was scared shitless,” Dawn explained.

The dying woman wanted to relieve her consciousness and receive absolution before transitioning to the afterlife. “She asked if she could be forgiven. I told her the only person who could forgive her was the boy she killed. Not sorry.”

The video ends with a hip-hop track playing in the background while another white woman in big glasses quietly sipped from a large cup of tea, like a character in a meme or GIF shrewdly taking in valuable gossip.

As a journalist and historian who is writing my next book on the history of Black child lynchings during Jim Crow, this story sounded suspicious to me and felt offensive to my spirit when I saw it.  Part of it was the narrator’s tone, her wry smile, and her affective disconnect as she recounted this barbaric crime that took a life, traumatized a community, and left behind a grieving family haunted by the lack of justice and aching questions of what could have been for this child’s life and his future offspring.  

For 85 years there have been no answers.  No justice. No closure. A young soul has not been properly laid to rest.

My spidey senses told me that this video might be yet another quintessential example of racial virtue signaling, performative solidarity, and racial trauma porn rolled into one. Not to mention, we are living in a digital age where unverified information is often treated like journalism on social media.

As with any story that appears on social media, we always have to question its veracity and accuracy and not simply accept it as standard news. Because of the way this story was shared on TikTok, it is difficult to verify the specifics of this alleged incident or know if it was a recorded event. Most viewers likely do not have the historical research tools to dig deeper. So, I turned to a number of lynching databases and news archives that contain the names of victims by age, race, the year they were murdered, and the location of the crime. I found no record of a Black boy being lynched in Louisiana that year.

(Photo: Kai Kalhh from Pixabay)

I called Jay Driskell, an historian and civil rights cold case investigator based in Washington, D.C. whose research focuses on lynching and police violence. He looked through thousands of potential and rumored cases of lynchings.

“I found no matches,” Driskell said. “I did find matches of victims of that age, but they all had records on them. It is possible that if she lived far away from a city where there was no newspaper that reported the murder, this lynching could have happened, and it would not have made an impression on the historical record.”

If the nurse had been more helpful and provided the dying woman’s name, a Census search could help us trace where her family lived in the 1930s. We might have been able to find press clues, court records, and death certificates to see if any Black teenage males were killed in that town in those years.

At least 4,000 human souls were lynched in America between 1882 and 1968, and doubtless many more whose names have been lost to history. Most of these crimes took place in the South, and the overwhelming number of documented victims were Black males. As historian Vincent Vinikas has noted, “Those missing altogether from the record are inaccessible to historical inquiry. Many lynching victims belong to a secret and irrecoverable past.”

Whether this nurse’s story can be confirmed through documentary research is an open question, but this lynching certainly could have happened exactly as the dying woman recalled it.  

“What is important about this account is that it was and certainly is possible even today,” said Tommy Curry, a philosophy professor at the University of Edinburgh whose research focuses on the sexual vulnerability of Black men and boys. “Black men and boys remain the primary targets of white women’s rage in the United States. This brutalization of Black males occurred in a world where white women were actually sexually assaulting Black males and accusing these men and boys of rape if they refused the white woman’s advances. The amount of power white women have in these white patriarchal societies are only outdone by certain classes of white men.”

Young white girls and teenagers, with varying levels of sophistication, actively participated in and instigated lynchings.  In her book Raising Racists, historian Kristina DuRocher writes that “adolescent girls leveled more than half of all accusations of rape,”which resulted in the murders of Black men and boys.

DuRocher shares a number of examples.  

Raising Racists
The Socialization of White Children in the Jim Crow South (Photo: The University Press of Kentucky)

In 1921, an 8-year-old girl from Beaumont, Texas accused a Black man of raping her while walking home from the store. Henry Cade was arrested and proclaimed his innocence. While he was being strung up, the crowd sent for the girl. “With the negro standing on the gallows, the girl pointed her chubby hand at the negro and said: ‘He is the man.’ The trap was then sprung and the negro’s neck was broken.” Similar cases happened in 1900, in Hunstville, Alabama, in 1924 in Fort Meyers, Florida, in 1919, Ellisville, Mississippi and Omaha, Nebraska, and other communities throughout the south.

White girls misidentified attackers or concocted stories about Black males sneaking into their bedrooms. They lied to conceal sexual assaults perpetrated by white neighbors and relatives who sometimes wore black paint to hide their faces. They sometimes lied to cover their own disobedient behaviors – sneaking out of the house, skipping school, arriving home from school late, and sexual affairs.

DuRocher explains that white girls told these damning lies for attention and clout.  “It appears that most adolescents and girls utilized the power to accuse and identify for a measure of personal gain rather than for political power; the benefits the girls sought ranged from monetary compensation and communal attention to hiding misbehaviors and sexual promiscuity,” DuRocher shares. 

“White girls occasionally received praise for assisting in punishing a would-be ravager or helping to catch violators of segregation’s mores.”

Mark Naison, a professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University said this TikTok story “is a dramatic illustration of two things: first, the power that individual white people had over individual Black people in the Jim Crow South, which included the power over life and death.  And second, that the most dangerous thing a Black person could do in the Jim Crow South was being economically successful. As Ida B. Wells pointed out, resentment of economically successful and independent Blacks was the real reason for many lynchings.”

Deathbed confessions of lynchings printed in media are part of an old genre of sensationalist reporting practices designed to sell papers. I have come across a few examples from the early 20th century. Sometimes they were one-liners appearing in news briefs under headlines such as “Queer Events of the Day,” which were published in the Hutchinson Gazette, The Morning Times of Washington D.C., and the Washington Evening Star. They simply read: “a deathbed confession tells of the lynching of an innocent man.” No other details were given.

“DYING WHITE GIRL SAYS COLORED MEN ARE NOT GUILTY,” blazed a headline printed in The Washington Sentinel on February 17, 1923. In this story, Essie Beattie laid critically ill in a local hospital in Lexington, North Carolina after a “wild joy ride in which mountain moonshine and mountain lovemaking” ended with robbery, murder, and rape by two Black men. Authorities spent more than two months hunting the North Carolina hills and arresting Black suspects until the girl admitted that her attackers were two white men, John Carswell and Robert Grice.

In 1980, one of Emmett Till’s murderers confessed again on his deathbed to his role in the murder in Money, Mississippi in 1955. Historians have recounted similar deathbed confessions involving police, Klansmen, and other ringleaders at lynchings.

Dawn’s TikTok narrative reminds me of a July 10, 1943 story printed in the Chicago Defender under the headline, “Miss. Lyncher’s Conscience Talks on His Death Bed.” A white male doctor and a Black nurse were on the scene as a former deputy sheriff from Shubuta, Mississippi was being haunted by 14-year-olds Charlie Lang and Ernest Green who were lynched in October 1942. As the sheriff saw visions of Charlie and Ernest, he “breathlessly blabbered out a confession … naming many names.” At one point he yelled, “Get off me!” He clutched his own throat and gasped, “Take that rope away.”

Here we are in 2021, still living with these historical echoes. So, what do we make of this latest deathbed confession and viral video?

As I was writing this piece, another TikTok video posted by user Chris @cmdla dug into Dawn’s claims. After Dawn’s first viral video, she posted a follow-up video with a news clipping of the murder of 16-year-old Freddie Moore who was strung up from a bridge in Assumption Parish in 1933, not 1936.  I am quite familiar with this well-documented case. Moore was accused of raping and murdering a white girl, not touching her behind a grocery store. He was taken from the local jail, marched into a cane field by a mob of 100 white men and boys who beat and branded him with hot irons before hanging him from a bridge in view of a church.  

@cmdla

Please recognize the importance of this history before posting #fyp #history

♬ original sound – Chris

Dawn claims that her dying patient said the boy’s family’s house was burned.  This is not true. Moore’s parents moved out of the state, filed a lawsuit in federal court against the sheriff and was awarded $2,500, the first of its kind. The murdered girl’s stepfather later confessed to killing her.

A day later, Dawn posted another video highlighting yet another article of the lynching of a 26-year-old man that she said took place in 1936 in that same parish, but that incident took place two years earlier and 200 miles away. As with the previous case of Fred Moore, she claimed that this case matched her patient’s recollection. When Chris reached out to Dawn to inquire about her inconsistencies, she insulted him and deleted her viral video.

Some folks may be inclined to give Dawn the benefit of the doubt. She’s not an historian or trained researcher. So she made some errors when she tried to dig?  She meant well. Perhaps her reading comprehension skills aren’t so well formed. Not to mention, more than five million people gave her a thumbs up.  What’s that about? Perhaps that is a sign that many people think that 1936 is such ancient untouchable history that events cannot be verified and lynching Black children was such a brutal part of America’s past and speaks to the moral rot of racists whites, so why would we even bother to verify?

White people are gaining clout off their stories of catching other white people being racist. There’s also a cottage industry among healthcare workers right now, doctors and nurses, who are trying to become TikTok famous by sharing sensationalist stories. Before it was deleted, Dawn’s video was added to a YouTube compilation of TikTok deathbed confessions shared by nurses in 2021.  Did these stories provide Dawn with the inspiration for her video?

Toby Rollo, a political studies professor at Lakehead University whose research focuses on themes of childhood and race, says that the viral popularity of this video is a sign that white people want to believe in redemption and absolve whiteness of its serial crimes.

A crowd gathering to witness the killing of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two victims of lynch law in Marion, Indiana, 7th August 1930. This image was the inspiration for the poem ‘Strange Fruit’ by Abel Meeropol. (Photo Lawrence Beitler/by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“To me, there are two sides of the racist coin in which, on the one hand, white people make up stories about Black people attacking them to cover their own crimes and misdeeds. And, on the other hand, white people making up stories about catching other white people in the act of being racist – once again – probably to cover their own crimes and misdeeds,” Rollo said. He added, “Because if just one white person can be shown to be redeemable, then whiteness itself is redeemed. Now we have bad whites and good whites, instead of just whiteness. White people want to believe in redemption.”

Dawn’s video is less about describing the grisly details of a lynching than it is about denouncing the behavior of racist white person. By posting this story on social media, she did what too often passes for activism and solidarity among many liberal whites without any real obligation to dismantle racist systems. Denying the dying racist forgiveness in her conclusion. She thought this was the right thing to do and she wanted applause for putting a racist person in her place.

But that’s not enough, says Driskell. “There’s a family that lost someone they loved. A family that would like to know what happened. That requires a restorative justice mindset which tries to restore that which was lost. The next step would be to find the boy’s family and descendants and do something for the memory of the departed.”

I am not inclined to extend grace to Dawn for this video which feels like the latest addition to America’s archive of pornographic racial delights. What I see is a white woman’s horror story mixed with new age witchcraft while carrying crystals in her bra to show that white people are woke and trying to curry favor with Black folks while performatively sipping tea. Dawn appears to be signaling to Black folks that not all white people are bad. That’s she’s one of the good ones. That she knows our culture even if she can’t read dates and get basic facts straight. She wants us to know that she understands how we feel about retribution after death and how the ancestors will come for our oppressors as they cross over.

TikTok user, Dawn (@benzosandespresso) posts video retelling alleged nursing home confession of lynching. (Photo: TikTok)

“I think most videos where white people make Black death a spectacle are performative,” says Curry. “These confessions are about clicks and likes rather than the kind of reparative justice Black communities, and specifically Black men, deeply deserve.”

Maybe Dawn is telling the truth. Or maybe she has concocted a fantastical story — a congenital habit inherited from white women and girls of yore. Some Black folks will indeed applaud Dawn for her wokeness and invite her to the barbeque. Others may give her a pass for her sloppiness. But for this journalist and historian whose own family has been touched by lynching, I consider this kind of performative solidarity in the digital space as yet another example of how we can be seduced into Black trauma porn while emotionally investing in the illusion of white redemption that lies even while it tries to indict itself for its own crimes.

For those of us who study and write about racial violence as an enduring feature of American life, we must consider how we frame these traumatic stories in ways that restores justice to the victims, that centers their names in history, that humanizes and lays them to rest with care and love, and serves as a powerful indictment and mandate on white supremacy.

Stacey Patton, PhD is the author of Spare The Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America and the forthcoming book Strung Up: The Lynching of Black Children in Jim Crow America.

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