Onlookers with the Burned Body of Jesse Washington, 18-Year-Old African American, Waco, Texas, 1916

His mother at the edge of the crowd, blind with the impossible, standing
mute, agog, gone. And yet the smell of the smoke of her son's body
fills the air around her this May afternoon in Texas. The sun glitters
spectacular as is the custom on May afternoons in Texas and yet

comes through the years as a dull, smoky whiteness in the trees here
in the photograph I am tired of looking at. In which there is no woman
whatsoever, especially not the mother of Jesse Washington whose
charred body hangs from a chain in a chestnut tree in Waco Texas

in 1916. Instead, the front row of a crowd of white men all dressed
in suits and ties and fashionable hats stare into the camera. One laughs.
He is the youngest, with his sleeves rolled to the elbows. Another
smiles more slyly in the shadow of his hat and appears to be pulling

the slim chain that holds the body of Jesse Washington by the neck
up into the chestnut tree. Though it is probably silver-colored the chain
appears conveniently as the whitest element of the black-and-white.
After it wraps around his neck, it then drapes down the disfigured char

of Jesse Washington's back. Besides these onlookers standing
in the smoke in Texas in May in 1916, three facts are striking.
One is how the legs of Jesse Washington, as the chain pulls him
face-forward into the tree, how his legs bend at the knee and remain

so still burning and smoky where the muscles contract and pull
his feet upward so that if he had the freedom to lie on the ground
and burn he would. Instead it looks as if he is leaping a great
distance, his arms tucked into his chest by the same force that

turns a house to ash. The next fascinating fact of the photograph is
the faded blurry trees in the distance rising up over the crowd.
How filled they are with men. How crowded they are, how intent
they are on looking. As I am. For here in the perch of my second-

floor room of this house in Summit Point West Virginia I have sat
all evening staring at this photograph. I don't know why it interests me.
I know all these men. I was born in May and Texas hasn't changed.
Ask James Byrd Jr. who was so pulled by a truck with a chain.

Most white American men are the same color they were then.
Note the swift progression and the repetition of the true rhymes.
The divisive shift in the tone. If you feel the least bit attacked—
look at that—the final most fascinating fact of the photograph.


Steve Scafidi
from Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer

Other poems by Steve Scafidi posted at Against Oblivion:

"On the Death of Karla Faye Tucker"
"Prayer for a Marriage"
"The Sublime"
"The Egg Suckers"