Porscha Owens Wilkins and the Black Student Center have made a statement on the UMass Boston campus this month, educating Campus Center visitors about modern day lynchings through the Strange Fruit exhibit “Horror Stories of Lynching,” which provides narratives hung from tree branches.
“I work with a nonprofit organization on campus with students that had no idea what a modern day lynching is,” said Wilkins, a psychology major and Africana studies minor who is a member of the BSC. “I went to the Black Student Center and asked college students about modern day lynching and they were not sure about the answer. Modern day lynching is police brutality, the prison system, capitalism, anything that oppresses the oppressed.”
Inspired by the silent witness red cutouts University Health Services installs on the campus each October during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Wilkins went looking for her own symbol to tell stories of oppression from the reconstruction era through the present. She settled on branches, and hiked with her sisters to find them. Other BSC members brought them in too, which Wilkins then spray-painted gold.
“The gold branch represents the power and beauty we have when black people touch things even struggling to live,” Wilkins said. “I wanted to put branches all around campus. I wanted everyone to know that this is part of black history.”
Strange Fruit gets its name from an Abel Meeropol poem and Billie Holliday song about a lynching. “She took the art of degradation and reversed it into the art of indignation,” the opening panel reads.
Wilkins said crafting the exhibit was a challenge, in ways she might not have anticipated.
“One thing that was hard for us was researching the stories and trying to stay sane. Some people stopped helping because we knew of lynchings but the horrible details forced people into this depressing place,” Wilkins said. “I want people to understand that we are in the 21st century but minorities, colored, blacks are still hanging.”
The exhibit will be on the second floor of the Campus Center through Friday, March 24. Wilkins also hopes to reinstall it next year, and use it in a social justice workshop with her summer school students.
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