Racial Violence and Representation: Performance Strategies in Lynching Dramas of the 1920s

By Stephens, Judith L. | African American Review, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Racial Violence and Representation: Performance Strategies in Lynching Dramas of the 1920s


Stephens, Judith L., African American Review


Plays representing the history of lynching in the United States are only beginning to be understood as a distinctly American theatrical genre, a type of drama that began to appear at least as early as 1905 and continues to evolve on the contemporary stage. As the first anthology to address how the horrors of lynching have been represented in American theatre, Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women, which Kathy A. Perkins and I edited in 1998, reveals the genre's historical continuity and speaks to its prior neglect in the areas of theatre history and dramatic criticism. Except for my studies and those by Perkins and Winona Fletcher, lynching drama, as a body of work, has remained unrecognized and unexamined. [1] For the purposes of this study, lynching means the racially motivated murder of black individuals (primarily black men) by white mobs with no repercussions for the perpetrators. Victims of lynchings were hung, beaten, burned, or stabbed to death; they were commonly tortured and/or castrate d before they were killed. This particular version of lynching developed during Reconstruction and became a systematic feature and official indicator of black-white race relations until the 1950s. [2]

As a form of racial violence, lynching was fostered by an ideology of white supremacy which developed and flourished in the United States after the abolition of slavery. [3] In the context of institutionalized white supremacy, black men and women, no longer valuable property as slaves, increasingly became the victims of lynchings, and lynching clearly became a manifestation of black-white race relations in the United States.

While racial theorists generally agree that no scientific proof exists as a basis for racial determination, contemporary critical thought has challenged the very concept of "race" as a useful category, arguing that "race," similar to categories such as gender, is a social construct. [4] According to Omi and Winant, for example, "race is indeed a pre-eminently sociohistorical concept. Racial categories and the meaning of race are given concrete expression by the specific social relations and historical context in which they are embedded" (60). Lynching dramas, then, provide insight into an understanding of "race" as a social construct in the United States since they reflect a distinctly American phenomenon shaped by the African American struggle for survival in a white-dominated culture, as well as the simultaneous existence of interracial conflict and cooperation that has characterized black-white race relations throughout American history. For nearly a century, lynching was a highly visible and concrete exp ression of institutionalized white supremacy and a symbol of the existing power relations between the black and white "races" in the United States; its legacy lives on in the numerous incidents of racial violence and hate crimes that continue to occur in American society today. [5]

Although the brutal public ritual which these plays address for the most part no longer occurs, the history of lynching, as well as the cultural legacy of lynching drama, continues to shape our understanding of race in America. In a 1996 article, Jaquelin Goldsby refers to lynching as "the image that compresses the horrific brutality of America's racial history with regard to African Americans into a single act" (246), and Nellie McKay has described lynching as "one of the most heinous atrocities that white America has ever perpetuated against black America. ... Perhaps no other outrage against blacks, except slavery, has ever elicited as uniform a consensus in its condemnation by black people from all walks of life ..." (141). As a growing body of work, lynching dramas function as a dynamic cultural text by both conserving the memory of this particular form of racial violence and continuing to evolve as an theatrical genre on the American stage. Thus, an examination of lynching drama provides a focus on a c ultural legacy based on a specific and uniquely American form of racial violence that continues to play a fundamental role in constructing an understanding of a national identity as well as black and white racial identities in the United States. …

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