Wilmington, North Carolina. Atlanta, Georgia. Washington, DC. Boston, Chicago, Detroit, East St. Louis, Knoxville, Los Angeles, Montgomery, Nashville, Newark, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Springfield, Tulsa: some of the many cities that have been home to race riots in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the "Red Summer" of 1919, as it was coined by James Weldon Johnson, there were at least twenty-six documented race riots across the country. (1) Although often constructed as anomalies in an otherwise smooth march of racial progress, these violent eruptions have had long-lasting effects on individuals, communities, and the nation. They shape our national landscape much like a volcano shapes the surrounding land. The moment of violence may fade from--or be (intentionally) buried by--the national consciousness, but the effects linger.
In her 1992 novel Jazz, Toni Morrison reminds readers of the volatility of our national racial landscape. While attending a Harlem parade held in protest of the 1917 East St. Louis riot, Dorcas, the novel's young protagonist, remembers her parents' death in strikingly surreal detail:
Back in East St. Louis, as the little porch fell, wood chips--ignited and smoking--exploded in the air. One of them must have entered her stretched down mouth and traveled down her throat because it smoked and glowed there still. At first she thought if she spoke of it, it would leave her, or she would lose it through her mouth.... [W]hile they watched a long parade, the bright wood chip sank further and further down until it lodged comfortably somewhere below her navel. She watched the black unblinking men, and the drums assured her that the glow would never leave her, that it would be waiting for and with her whenever she wanted to be touched by it. And whenever she wanted to let it loose to leap into fire again, whatever happened would be quick. (61)
In typical Morrison fashion, this passage is layered with complex meanings that reverberate well outside the scope of the scene, setting, or story. A young girl hears the beating drums, sees black men march, and remembers the white violence that took her family and home. She cannot speak her pain, but the fire of love and retribution smolders, lurking deep inside and burning into her consciousness her "place" as a black girl in a white world. Within the immediate context of the novel, Dorcas's life--ever a search for what was lost that day when her parents burned--evinces the long-term effects mass interracial violence can have in the black community. She is orphaned and left homeless by the violence of the East St. Louis riot. And that loss shapes forever her sense of identity. For the remainder of her short life, she is unanchored, angry, and grieving, herself a force of destruction within the black community as she destroys the very things that she seeks to recover: love, family, safety.
But placed within its larger context, the passage enfolds other issues fundamental to a discussion of race riots in the United States. Not only does it highlight the historical victimization of African Americans in such riots, but, with its marching men, it also summons up the sense of black masculinity famously called for by Ida B. Wells in 1892. Morrison's language additionally demonstrates the readiness of women to jump into the fire, both metaphorically and literally, when their families, homes, and communities are threatened. Highlighting the community's pain, as well as Dorcas's individual loss, reminds readers of the lasting economic, psychological, and social scars of mass interracial violence. Finally, the passage addresses the silence women must overcome in order to tell their own stories about their place in mass interracial violence and, in a more general sense, American history. This collection of essays is an interdisciplinary effort to explore precisely such issues.
In an attempt to preface this effort, I must insert a word about terminology. Some people are wary of the term "race riot" in discussing mass public interracial conflicts. Because the term "race" itself is often associated solely with "people of color" (fallaciously leaving "whites" exempt from "race"), the term "race riot" might seem to lay the blame for eruptions of widespread violence, lawlessness, and looting on non-whites and, more specifically, the non-white poor, and thus might obscure the long history of white-on-non-white violence in America. (2) The term "riot" might further connote a sense of randomness, disorder, or anarchy. Consequently, many scholars use alternatives that may more clearly highlight the historical directionality and intent of racial violence: "terrorization," "massacre," "mass lynching," "race war," or "genocide." (3)
"Terrorization" is in some ways an apt alternative for "race riots," as any mob indiscriminately killing and ransacking a community definitely includes the goal of terror. However, terrorization might also effectively describe, on a larger scale, both the systems of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. In the other direction, terrorization works just as well to describe individual lynchings, as a mutilated, burned body left for public display certainly functions as a form of psychological terror. Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations all clearly operate through a tactic of terror. (4)
"Massacres" is useful because the term emphasizes the fact that African Americans have regularly suffered the most casualties and the most property loss in race riots. Blacks have been regularly victimized by whites who have had better access to weapons, political representation, and the law and who have often attacked blacks with impunity. In such a context, massacres would be understood as localized, concentrated explosions within a larger sustained and systemic attempt to decimate a people (that is, genocide). As a substitute for race riots, however, both massacres and genocide are imprecise because they fail to conjure the resilience of African American communities and of individuals within those communities.
"Mass lynchings" is problematic as well. Historically, there is a converse relationship between lynchings and race riots (the number of lynchings decreases as the number of race riots increases) (Gibson). (5) This converse relationship is, in part, the result of massive migrations to cities and to the North, especially after World War I. That is, riots have a distinct cultural geography: they tend to occur where larger numbers of people concentrate in smaller geographic urban areas. Furthermore, although multiple lynchings certainly can and have occurred in race riots, lynchings are more often enacted as singular and sometimes spectacular--in the sense of organized mass spectacle--events that have the veneer of retributive justice directed at specific individuals for specific (alleged) crimes. (6) Of course, lynch mobs might have multiple targets, which might include anyone who gets in the way. They might even substitute one conveniently present victim for an absent one. However, regardless of the number of victims at any one lynching, the lynching itself uses the display of death to intimidate a larger group. Graphic and horrifying though that violence is, it retains a general sense of direction or purpose that is usually accomplished without significant property damage.
Race riots, on the other hand, usually involve the destruction of individuals and property en masse. Although any cost of human lives is the greater loss, the destruction of property is also significant because amassing property allows people to compete in a capitalist market system; property largely equates not only with wealth, but also with political power. Thus, we see why in the 1921 Tulsa riot whites burned thirty-five blocks of Greenwood Avenue, known as the "Black Wall Street." In underprivileged, often minority communities, white-owned property is also frequently targeted in riot violence because it represents economic and social oppression.
Most significantly, while race riots certainly employ forms of terrorism, and the end result of a race riot can, in part, be a massacre or a mass lynching, the violence within a riot tends to be more dynamic. That is, as Gunner Myrdal suggests, fighting back through unified, widescale resistance--even if from a defensive position--is one of the primary characteristics differentiating a "race riot" from other moments of racial violence. He suggests that the term "riot" refers to moments of "mass violence in which Negroes fight as unreservedly as whites" (566). In short, we see race riots occurring when a large enough population of oppressed people--be they Asian American, Native American, or African American--fight back, usually within a concentrated geographic space. For instance, what began as an intended lynching in Tulsa became a race riot when the growing African American population refused to let one more black man be lynched and took a unified stand. The black residents of Tulsa lived out the words that Claude McKay had penned only two years earlier in the Red Summer of 1919:
If we must die, O let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; ... Like men, we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! (984) (7)
Presaging both the militant words of McKay's poem and the Tulsa riot, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in The Crisis magazine, October 1916, that lynchings would stop only when "the cowardly mob is faced with effective guns in the hands of the people determined to sell their souls dearly" (270-71). The determination to fight back--as Tulsa shows--can escalate a single …