Memory is a funny thing.
Whenever I think of the film, Rosewood, all I can see is a cavernous pit of red dirt. Speckled with jagged rocks and crushed grass, this pit houses a garden of meat. Slabs of dark flesh and blood-stained clothes pressed against one another. Disembodied limbs jut out against a sea of open chest cavities, ruptured by the malice of a bullet. Faces contorted into expressions of horror, attached to necks unnaturally angled by the fury of the noose. Glassy eyes stare up at a scorched horizon. The dirt shifts as another body is added to the heap while men laugh, hoot, and cheer. A drunken white farmer holds a shotgun in one hand and the trembling arm of his frightened son in the other; he pulls the boy forward, forces him to look into the pit and yells at the tears running down the boy’s face.
A mass grave, a hole in the world, black bodies and white hate…for me, this is the legacy of the film; it invaded my dreams for days following my viewing. Neither the performances of Ving Rhames and Jon Voight, nor the film’s central narrative, an embellished account of the Florida massacre of the late 1800s, stick out in my mind – just this scene, a scene that seemed to break loose from the confines of the film, freezing time in a moment of pure, repulsive excess. Though the scene unfolds in less than five minutes, it feels longer. As the camera pans over the open grave, the cinematic journey of how the viewer got here falls away, rising dramatic action is forgotten. Only the pit remains, sinking deeper than the bounds of memory and settling somewhere within my chest – stinging as it falls into place.
I’m unsure how old I was when I first watched Rosewood, old enough to recognize the this was wrong – these bodies were people. Desiring to look away and yet compelled to watch, I became trapped in the boy’s skin; his teary-eyed vision became my own. The nightmares that I can only imagine would haunt this boy into adulthood, became my own. Even as I grew older, returning once again to the film when I was in college, achieving any sense of objectivity becomes impossible once the digging starts. I revert once again to that scared little boy, staring into that pit. But now that I’m older, I understand what it was about that scene that truly horrified me – it wasn’t the mounds of bodies piled on top of each other, not exactly.
Growing up in the rural South with relatives that are quick to blame others for their misfortune, I realized even at this small age that the drunk, cheering at the number of black bodies falling into the ground could easily be someone that I knew, someone that I shared blood with … family. People who hate others based on their skin color: an aunt who swears that N******, (no I won’t say nor write the word) are the reason that country is going to hell; an uncle who blames negros and wetbacks for losing his job instead of blaming his own alcoholism; cousins who repeat the racial biases of their parents… hate is passed from hand to hand, from generation to generation.