Friday, June 19, 2020

The Murder of Mary Phagan

I don't remember my parents talking to me about race or racism. It's probable they did; I just don't have a memory of it.

What I do have a memory of is The Murder of Mary Phagan.* My mom watched a lot of miniseries when I was young, and this one was on NBC in 1988. It's the story of a Jewish man in Atlanta who gets wrongly accused of murdering a 13-year-old white girl in 1913. I don't know why that story stuck with me all these years, but I was 7 when I watched it. It was the first time I understood that people generally don't like "otherness." They also don't like unresolved stories.

I suppose that's what's at the heart of racism to me. At the heart of a lot of things, really. Uncertainty doesn't sit well with people, and there's a lot of uncertainty in life: an unresolved movie plot, a new day, an expansive future with countless paths to take, or an unknown person. When we encounter someone who doesn't look like us, we have no reference for behavior. What will this person -- this person unlike any other in my own community -- do? How does this person think? What does this person care about?

That's the essence of "The Murder of Mary Phagan." It's a story of a community that doesn't understand the ways of a Jewish man from New York. Rather than outright ask him, they simply let uncertainty take over their minds until it seductively says, Resolve me. Make me an answer. Imagine the worst, and let me run wild. And run wild it did. The townspeople weren't satisfied with a guilty verdict and life imprisonment; they wanted him dead. And so, in 1915, Leo Frank was kidnapped from prison by a group of armed men and lynched in Marietta, Georgia.

I never forgot that. I never forgot what uncertainty is capable of. Perhaps that's why I ask so many questions when I meet people. Perhaps that's why I know many of my friends much better than they know me.

I don't always get it right. I judge and make assumptions and work off of stereotypes. It's the way the human brain works, after all. Still, I remember that miniseries from time to time and think of Leo Frank, who was just unknown to the people around him.


*It's available to watch on Amazon.


Thing I'm thankful for: good conversation