By Tariq Meyers
Four walls. Four walls composed of sheet rock, plastered with two coats of paint, graced with plexiglass and topped off with fluorescent lighting beneath images of hate; images of suffering; images with no hope. They call this construction an exhibit. Grade school children and adults alike gaze upon disturbing images but find relief upon exit because the dark images are behind them—the tour goes on. It is convenient to isolate history of pain to a room, easy to believe that bigotry is a thing of the past—that the struggle is over. Museums and exhibits mystify history—presenting it in a way where one is led to believe that what is presented is over. So when one encounters a mob lynching, the death of four little girls, the bullet hole in the windshield of Viola Liuzzo, or the handsome hazel-eyed turned eyeless image of the murdered Emmett Till—one’s anxiety fades knowing the suffering is over; that the fear is isolated between images of hate and fluorescent lighting; beneath layers of paint and plexiglass; beneath sheet rock and concrete.
As I connected to the teary eyes of Ernest Rip Patton, I began to realize that our fifty-year sojourn (in the making), our difference in years, no longer mattered. The man who stood before me was 19-year-old Rip Patton, the courageous hero of 1961. Anxious and afraid, confused and connected as I was, the connection (young) Rip and I shared in the museum exhibit revealed the secret that hides behind museum walls. The secret is that history is very much in the present, that history is very much real. In that moment I came to understand that, though the pictures of the abused and the deceased were isolated on the walls, it did not mean the struggle was over; that the pain was gone—rather is very much underway. I stood there with Rip as we gazed upon the face of the beaten Freedom Rider. This may seem typical of museum activity, but understand why this was so significant: I was staring at the face of a beaten Freedom Rider alongside a Freedom Rider. Yes, together we gazed, (young) Rip and I, at the images isolated to plexiglass and fluorescent lights, beneath concrete and drywall—and it is there that I discovered that the mystified “ghosts” of pain and suffering were just images transplanted on paper with ink of different shades to give the illusion of looking aged and old. Yes, it was at that moment I realized that the secret that hides behind museum walls is a living history, that can’t be isolated to words on a page, ink on a paper. The (young) Rip and I will forever be connected.