In Search of Awareness

or, The Ghost of Easters Past …

For those in search of Autism Awareness, I suggest you start by turning OFF your television.

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As a child, my experience of Easter was mixed. My early memories include the fun, the frivolous, and the unfortunate, the curious and the catastrophic, the “renewal” of spring and the crushing blows of “pragmatic” but uncomprehending nature, human and otherwise.

My lifelong agnosticism is not born of illiteracy regarding religious matters, as I was practically raised in the Presbyterian Church. I was as aware as any child of the significance of Easter in the Christian tradition. But like any child, my own perceptions were confined to the flow of my own experiences, whether pleasant or painful. My awareness of the commercialization, and the inevitable dilution of meaning that comes with it, came much later. And later still, other associations crept in…

Over the past few years, I have become more aware of certain events in local history, the various legacies of my hometown. And today, among the other memories and associations, the annual occurrence of Easter now carries a very different meaning for me than what most people would choose to express.

This year, Easter weekend came in late March. But of course, this is not always so. In the US, the determination of when Easter will take place for each year is complicated, and thus, Easter’s position on the calendar varies widely. In 1906, Easter Sunday fell on April 15th.

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102 years ago, today, the town of Springfield, Missouri, was still in the grip of a race riot which had culminated the night before in the public lynching of three black men in the town square. Fueled by rumors of a fictitious assault, started by a woman intent on covering the truth of her own marital indiscretions, a crowd of thousands had gathered in the town square, intent upon having their own brand of “justice.” After the customary frenzy of instigation and groupthink, the crowd of of white rioters moved to the nearby county jail, in pursuit of their quarry.

The first rays of the Easter morning sun — on that very day set aside to remember the resurrection of the Prince of Peace — could scarcely penetrate the lingering darkness of that night. By the breaking of that dawn, three men, Horace Duncan, Fred Coker and Will Allen, had been hung, burned and dismembered in the town square. By the time the Missouri governor called in the state militia to quell the unrest, the city’s black population had been lavishly brutalized, their property destroyed, many driven out of town and most others into hiding for fear that they would be the mob’s next victims.

Horace Duncan, Fred Coker and Will Allen would later be cleared of the allegations for which they had initially been jailed, and subsequently killed by a mob bent on misguided revenge. But you can’t resurrect a man after you’ve lynched him. Not even on Easter Sunday.

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Despite the local population’s enduring resistance to having this story told, the history of these events is very well documented. And as my mother is a well-respected Ozarks historian (though she has since moved on, both in terms of career and location), I have something of an inside track on such matters. I first learned of these events a short time after I became significantly “aware” of autism, after I had finally begun to become truly aware of how many of the “Asperger’s Disorder” patterns of development had shaped the course of my life — and more to the point, how mainstream social prejudice has defined my relationship to society at large. Thus, when I learned of the events of 1906, I was well primed, and I have been hoping for some time to retrace the steps of others, and write a proper article to tell the story yet again. This is not that article.

But this story needs to be retold. As history and heritage (like it or not), but above all, as wisdom and warning. All too often, what we call “optimism” is an “awareness” born of forgetting, and of revisionism. It is the “awareness” that sustains ignorance and leads again to the endless manifestations of bigotry that plague our history. “Forgive and forget” is an empty platitude. Forgiveness itself is of utmost importance, but it is a monumental, lifelong process, not to be trivialized. Forgetting, on the other hand, is the effortless return to the collective non-conscious, the suffocation of hard-won wisdom under the deceptively comforting blanket of the herd mentality. All the social pathogens of our history fester and kill under the dark safety of that blanket, and sunlight, as it were, is the only remotely effective disinfectant we have.

Even Tombstone, Arizona had its heroes. Any community, at any point in its history, might be hailed for the successes of its more genuinely ethical and humane citizens. But such citizens, I am sorry to say, have always been a minority of their own. And as one who has endured a full measure of the mindless bigotry that Springfield, Missouri, still has to offer, I can tell you: the events of Easter weekend, 1906, are very much a part of what Springfield is today, no matter how angrily most of its citizens would deny it.

“Those who cannot remember the past” — or honestly face its relevance and implications for our present, and our future — “are condemned to repeat it.”

But for some of us, be we part of the Black community, the Autistic community, or any other disempowered minority, the lessons of that past are burned into our flesh. It cannot be burned out. Not with drugs. Not with therapy. Not even with fire itself.

You say you want awareness. Good. Now you know where to look.

THIS is autism speaking — but who’s listening?

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A few related links; a few disputed facts:

1906 lynchings grew from tensions, racism; Thriving black community died

Panel discusses effects of 1906 lynchings

Questions about the 1906 lynchings

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6 Responses to In Search of Awareness

  1. alyric says:

    Are you writing freelance for the print media, and if not, why not?

  2. dkmnow says:

    Nope — because any day I can organize more than three words on a page must be counted like a “snow day,” i.e., I get only a few as a given each year, and if I exceed that number, I have to pay for it with extended periods of complete illiteracy. Or something like that.

    Ooops! There goes my summer!

    :-D

  3. Sharon says:

    Wow what an amazing post.

    Here’s hoping the number of snow days triples.

  4. Linda says:

    What a revelatory convergence of seemingly unrelated events and elements, David. You have created a powerful essay.

  5. dkmnow says:

    Thank you, Linda! :-)

  6. MeLani Solie Maysenhalder says:

    Brilliant! Thank you for sharing this historical event and the many implications for all of us today!
    Like many locales, we have much to accomplish in our quest for even basic human dignity/respect of all minority groups. This discussion should be at the forefront in our community.

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