Road Through Midnight is meant to be a memorial that will prompt readers to understand more about these histories, in a deep and reflective way, as we are still far from answering the call….
ー Jessica Ingram
Road Through Midnight, by Jessica Ingram, is an important and challenging book. It is dense with information, innovative in its design and narrative, and a struggle to finish. It is full of trauma, pain, and violence of a magnitude few of us can understand or are forced to endure, and thus a book I found difficult to complete. With a degree in Political Science from New York University and an MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts, Ingram traveled back to the American South in effort to understand and document the cultural violence inflected on African American communities in the early 1960s, prior to changes wrought by the Civil Rights Movement. Shortlisted for the Aperture Foundation First Book Award, Road Through Midnight is intended as a monument, a memorial to cultural tragedies more profound than most of us can begin to fathom.
The white perpetrators were forgiven and empowered by their communities and justice systems, pointing to a history in which such atrocities against black bodies were not even considered crimes
The book is a forensic study composed of three basic elements. The project began as research through the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization founded to document and undermine racial violence and White Supremacist groups in the United States, recording both historical acts of violence and the development of new supremacist movements today. Working with SPLC, Ingram studied archived newspapers articles and FBI files documenting acts of horrific violence in the American South during the early 1960s. In each of these cases, leaders and activists in African American communities advocating for equal rights and greater awareness of racial injustice were targeted by different white power groups and subsequently murdered, each in a particularly cruel and horrifying manner. In most of these cases, the perpetrators remained unprosecuted and without conviction. The white perpetrators were forgiven and empowered by their communities and justice systems, pointing to a history in which such atrocities against black bodies were not even considered crimes – indeed, some were even encouraged or perpetrated by law enforcement officers and community leaders. Many of the original newspapers documenting the crimes – and in some cases the open FBI files – are reproduced in the book.
With this research, Ingram sought out living relatives of the victims. She interviewed those willing and reproduces transcripts of these discussions in the book, sometimes with handwritten notes provided by the subjects. Additionally, she returned to the original crime scenes – the quiet woods, burned homes, or empty street corners – and photographed them as they are today. These two components add incredible depth to the narrative, offering a glimpse into the lasting impact of the crimes. The interviews provide insight into the repercussions felt by the families and communities victimized, and the photographs suggest that traces of all this violence reside with us today, existing as phantoms haunting the landscapes and communities of the American South.
There are a couple of visual strategies used in the book that are worth pointing out. Each of the narratives describing the murders Ingram investigates is reproduced as a negative – white text on an inky black page. This provides a bold visual and tactile statement, rendered somber in complete darkness, each page heavy with the weight of the ink. Ingram’s photographs themselves are worth noting too. There is nothing unexpected or innovative in her pictures, and each of them is very simple in execution and composition. They feel as though they were intended as information or documentation, conceived in an investigative or forensic approach without any overtly aesthetic aims. The use of color, however, feels very evocative, muted to suggest the weight of the history investigated, and hazy with the humidity characteristic of the regions photographed.
To truly understand and heal the racial divisions still tearing at American culture, we must look honestly at the hatred, violence, and trauma inflicted on African Americans for close to two centuries.
The title of the book functions both literally and metaphorically. Midnight is a small town in Mississippi, and the location of the first case Ingram documents in the book: the death of sharecropper Rainey Pool. To start the book, one literally and deliberately starts at Midnight. The metaphor is obvious and requires no explanation, as Ingram’s book documents the darkest night of the soul, one is which murder and rampage run untethered.
Road Through Midnight is the result of 15 years’ work, all born of necessity. Ingram works from the notion that to heal the pain and divisions at the heart of race relations in the United States, we must first honestly and unflinchingly look at the trauma and violence inflicted on such a large part of our population. To truly understand and heal the racial divisions still tearing at American culture, we must look honestly at the hatred, violence, and trauma inflicted on African Americans for close to two centuries. I admire Road Through Midnight for many reasons. A project developed over such a long time undoubtedly takes remarkable tenacity, and to look at such violence – acts often guarded by further violence – also takes tremendous courage. Ultimately, however, what I admire most is the love behind it all. The commitment to manifest such a project says a great deal about Ingram, and it is clear from the thoughtfulness and care used in composing the book that her primary motivation is a real faith that Americans can be better than such a violent history indicates.