By Nicholas Bestor, William (Mickey) Cox and Charles Holmes
Published in book form in 2000, the musarium contains 71 photographs of lynching in the United States. Complied by James Allen, a collector of rare objects, for the purpose of memorializing and charting the visual legacy of American lynching.
· Photographs span 70 years (1880-1950).
· Geographically span the entirety of the United States, with a large number coming from Texas and other southern states.
The archive and its contents create a paradox: an archive created to memorialize the atrocities of racialized violence, comprised of photographs created to act as celebratory souvenirs.
· Many of the photographs were taken from postcards, sent from those who watched the lynching and wanted to share its image with similar others.
· Written messages on the back of photographs provide context.
· Extrajudicial nature of the killings meant informal reports were some of the only records of “crimes” committed.
Photography is the ideal medium for Without Sanctuary because of the visceral, visual nature of lynching. The act not only targets the body, but also relies on the sight of the “punished” body to serve as a warning to others. Circulation of the photographs and postcards upholds Foucault’s assertion that depictions of violent punishment become the representation of punishment as a whole; images of punished bodies do not represent law/justice/punishment, but the need for self-policing to avoid the assumed punishment.
Written by Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966), the play deals with the impact of lynching on the psyche of Black Americans. Powerful and stirring, the play paints a bleak picture of the reality of life at the time of its setting (1893) as well as the revealing the lack of change in experience since that time.
· Johnson was an anti-lynching advocate, but the NAACP refused to publish her plays because they lacked happy endings and created a feeling of hopelessness.
Jacqueline Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature
This week we discussed Jacqueline Golbsby’s A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). Goldsby states the her book is a product of her reading Gwendolyn Brooks’ lynching ballads. Reading these poems encouraged Goldsby to ask questions about literature as an archive, and how literature could reveal new histories not yet acknowledged by previous scholarship. She formulates her approach as “reading history out of literary texts instead of into them” (4, see also 21)). Goldsby argues that lynching as a social phenomenon developed and became widespread alongside other shifts in American society, signally its “emergence into modernity at the start of the twentieth century” (5). Emphasizing lynching’s “cultural logic,” her work shifts away from discussions which rely on notions of lynching’s irrationality or localized nature, and instead discusses it as a practice within a national system of violent oppression, asking questions about its emergence, persistence, and function during a period apparently marked by “American progress and abundance” (5). Importantly, Goldsby also argues that accounts that regionalize lynching as a Southern phenomenon, or explain it in terms of an eternal and unchanging racism “cede too much ground for substantive materialist analysis” and “imply the violence is largely resistant if not immune to historical change” (5). Lynching’s “cultural logic” conveys how it fit within broader developments in U.S. society.
Goldsby rejects the idea of lynching as an “extralegal” practice, showing how “the federal government effectively granted mobs a license to kill” African Americans post-Reconstruction (17). Lynching as a practice “functioned as a tool of domination” against “black people, depriving them of the political, economic, social, and cultural opportunities promised by emancipation” (18). As a cultural process, Goldsby notes how lynching was considered by contemporaries to other cultural phenomenon, and often considered lynching in a “national-global” context (22). Goldsby seeks to address the apparent paradox of lynching as it relates to modern technology and changes, while its relationship with the modern is often “disavowed” (26). Her work uses “narrative biography” in order to show “how, through the individual instance, personal circumstance meets the public sphere’s developments to reveal history in all its contradictions and complications” (7). For example, she discusses the life and work of Ida B. Wells, who used emerging and new forms of news writing and techniques to challenge empirical studies the sought to explain the phenomenon of lynching in the late nineteenth century. By using parody, Goldsby argues Wells was able to avoid falling into a position of complicity with the lynch mob.
The Spectacular Secret also discusses Robert Crane’s novella, The Monster, through the lynching of Robert Lewis in Port Jervis, New York, in 1892. Goldsby argues Crane’s novella draws on news accounts of the lynching, although the murder itself is absent from his text. For Goldsby, The Monster is “is a meditation on the violence that corporate-monopoly capitalism promotes” and represents “the politics of disavowal that realist fiction writing modeled as evidence of white Americans’ indifference to the mortal dangers under which African Americans lived” (139). Here, she argues that “lynching was culturally logical not because black people lacked value per se, but because they were regarded as surplus” (162).
Goldsby analyzes James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, highlighting how it reflect his experiences of being almost lynched in Florida in 1901. As Goldsby writes, “to be nearly lynched was not to be spared his life” (173). Goldsby contrasts Johnson’s near-lynching with another traumatic experience. In 1906, Johnson entered the consular corps, receiving appointments in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and was repeatedly denied transfers to French consulates. These two formative experiences exacted similar tolls on Johnson; both functioned to reaffirm the racial hierarchy. Like most representations of lynching, Goldsby feels that the politics of the novel are under-scrutinized: “Attributing to mass culture’s logic of production the significance of legitimating lynching’s persistence, the novel form … bravely issued what was then (and remains still) a stunning view of the ways in which racial violence made America modern” (213).
Goldsby situates lynching photography within modernist visual milieu of the era. She highlights “scopic aggression;” formal elements of photography further brutalize and dehumanize the dead, preventing sympathetic identification between viewer and subject. Lynching plays a central role in photographic and cinematographic technological developments of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Often times, the technology worked to strip away the historical and political contexts of these murders, spectacularizing them for mass consumption, which also making the imagery banal, familiar and unquestioned. Lynching photography might be best understood through the sublime. “Awed by the horrific and the degraded” (281), lynching captivates our visual attention, but the unspeakableness of the violence leads us to ignore its politics.
How do we account for the falling rate of lynchings? Goldsby reject the displacement-by-modernity thesis, pointing increased range of “way[s] to deny African Americans their rights as citizens” (289). The cultural logic of lynching never goes away. Goldsby closes the book on the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. In particular, Goldsby highlights the decision of Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, and the black press to publish the gruesome photo of Till’s body in his coffin. Goldsby discusses the importance of this decision in relation to “the logic of this ‘pictorial turn’—the strong emergence of visual media as a mode of cognition that contends equally with print literacy” (297).
As per our discussion in class, our reading of Goldsby happened to coincide with a large amount of media attention on the subject of lynching, due to the Equal Justice Initiative’s report “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” The EJI’s report was widely written about and discussed; any number of reactions to the report should be easily available with some searching. A few that we discussed in-class were the New York Times’ coverage, as well as a Democracy Now interview with EJI founder Bryan Stevenson.
The EJI report is not available online, although their website does offer a summary of their findings, which is worth a look
Goldsby’s book discusses the spectacle extensively, and she utilizes Guy Debord’s framework for this. If you are interested in exploring this further, Debord’s book The Society of the Spectacle is available online.