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Black men dying by hanging — whether by suicide or murder — are a visceral reminder of America’s roots

A mock tombstone for Emmett Till, a 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family's grocery store stands at a symbolic cemetery in Minneapolis.
A mock tombstone for Emmett Till, a 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family's grocery store stands at a symbolic cemetery in Minneapolis.Jim Mone/Associated Press

Their bodies were found 50 miles and 10 days apart in Southern California. Hanging from trees.

Malcolm Harsch, 38, and Robert Fuller, 24, are two of at least four Black men and one Hispanic man who died by hanging this summer. And they all have been ruled suicides.

As Black people, when we hear “hanging,” when we see nooses like the one NASCAR found in Bubba Wallace’s garage, it’s nearly impossible not to think of lynchings, the torturous way supremacists killed Black people, peaking between between 1880 and 1940. The lynchings were famously sung about by Billie Holiday in “Strange Fruit.”

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Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Lynching wasn’t always by rope. In 1955, Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured, and shot in the head. His 14-year-old body was tied to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire and tossed in the Tallahatchie River. In 2020, it was a knee on the neck of George Floyd.

So in the cases of Harsch and Fuller, it was hard to believe two hangings could be coincidental tragedies. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, activists and family members demanded thorough investigations. By June 19, video surveillance proved to both the police and the family that Harsch had indeed died by suicide.

Last week, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department ruled Fuller’s death a suicide, too. The rope tied to the branches was consistent with rope Fuller purchased at a Dollar Tree on May 14.

I wish the stories stopped with these two men. I wish I could believe racism wasn’t even a minor factor.

Another Black man, Dominique Alexander, 27, was found hanging from a tree in New York’s Fort Tryon Park on June 9. Again, the death was ruled a suicide. But NYPD told Gothamist the investigation is ongoing.

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On June 16, a Black teenager was found dead by hanging in an elementary school parking lot in a suburb of Houston. The day before, a Hispanic man was found hanging from a tree in a Houston neighborhood — his family confirmed he was suicidal.

Amanuel “Amani” Kildea, 20, was found hanging Sunday, June 28, in Lewis Morris Park in New Jersey. His death is still under investigation, as he is known to have exposed at least 30 pedophiles in his community, and Black Lives Matter Morristown wants each one vetted. I want them to comb through every possibility.

Vigilance is a necessity in the investigation of every hanging. Recently, protesters called for an investigation of the death of Titi Gurley, also known as Tete, a 31-year-old Black transgender woman who was found hanging in Portland, Ore., on May 27, 2019. Her death was ruled a suicide.

There is evidence that suggests otherwise. We need answers, particularly when the American Medical Association declared violence against transgender people — which disproportionately affects Black trans women — as an epidemic.

I struggle to accept hurt this heavy, this often. The weight of it is crushing. And be it suicide or murder, I believe racism plays a part.

Overall, the suicide rate for Black people in America is 60 percent lower than white people. But it’s a fact: racism affects mental health. According to a recent report from the Census Bureau, anxiety and depression among Black people spiked after the footage of Floyd went viral.

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The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) released a call to action after Floyd’s killing.

“The effect of racism and racial trauma on mental health is real and cannot be ignored,” said NAMI CEO Daniel H. Gillison, Jr. “The disparity in access to mental health care in communities of color cannot be ignored. The inequality and lack of cultural competency in mental health treatment cannot be ignored.”

For Black youth, the suicide rates are rising. An American Academy of Pediatrics study found that Black children between the ages of 5 and 12 have a suicide rate twice as high as their white counterparts. In 2017, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Black people between the ages of 15 and 24 in America.

Mental illness is real. We know depression and post-traumatic stress disorder aren’t hard to find in communities with high poverty rates, displaced by economic injustice and racism. These societal ills wear on the spirit, the body, and the mind, compounding all other anxieties and sadness. Loving to live your life when the system is set up to kill you sometimes feels like a miracle of faith.

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When Kalief Browder, 22, hanged himself in 2015, after being wrongly incarcerated and brutalized in Rikers Island in New York, it was really a racist and capitalist system that killed him. That same year, when Sandra Bland’s body was found hanging in a Texas jail cell, it was racism that killed her, too. She shouldn’t have been arrested for failing to signal a lane change.

Black people are killed and hurt every day just for being Black. You think that reality doesn’t destroy us, even just a little?

Earlier this month, Vauhxx Booker wanted to catch a lunar eclipse on Fourth of July. But near Lake Monroe in Indiana, he was accused of being on private property and pinned against a tree surrounded by angry white men.

A video shows him being held against a tree as a group of white men surround him. Booker says they said “get a noose.”

It’s chaotic. Multiple bystanders yell, “Let him go!”

Booker, a member of the Monroe County Human Rights Commission in Bloomington, Ind., wrote on Facebook that he’s been diagnosed with a mild concussion and minor injuries. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources’s law enforcement division and the FBI are investigating.

Booker feared being lynched. In America, this is a fear Black people have every day.

And in Indiana, one summer 90 years ago, a lynching drew a crowd of thousands: In 1930, a white mob broke into a Marion jail and yanked two young Black men, Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp, out of their jail cells. They were brutalized with hammers and crowbars and hanged from a tree while thousands of white folk watched, laughed, and clapped.

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For hours and hours, their bloody bodies hung as a spectacle while white people and their children posed for photos, cut off pieces of their clothes, and took body parts as souvenirs.

They were suspected to have killed a white man and raped his date. She later recanted the assault claim. No one was convicted of the hangings.

But a Lawrence Beitler photograph of the lynchings became so infamous that it later inspired Abel Meeropol to write a poem, “Bitter Fruit.” The poem-turned-song, popularized by the great Billie Holiday, became a powerful protest anthem. And when later belted by the iconic Nina Simone, the tone is so haunting that it’s as if the spirits of the elders sound from her voice to tattoo the lyrics on your soul.

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

Racism is in America’s soil and in its roots. It’s killing us inside and out, no matter the cause of death. That is a truth.

Are you or someone you know in trouble? Or feeling alone? The Samaritans 24/7 crisis helpline can be reached by calling or texting 877-870-4673. People experiencing a crisis can call also the Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255, or the Crisis Text Line: Text CRISIS to 741741.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee