Lynching's Legacy in American Culture

Article excerpt

IN THE SUMMER OF 1901 MARK TWAIN WROTE AN ESSAY RESPONDING TO AN outbreak of racial violence in Missouri, beginning with a lynching and ending with the expulsion of some thirty black families from their homes. It was not until 1923, however, long after Twain's death, that the essay was first published, after being considerably abridged and softened by Albert Bigelow Paine (Oggel 116). "The United States of Lyncherdom" evoked some of Twain's strongest statements on American racism and colonialism--and also some of his most pronounced hesitations about speaking publicly on the racial violence defining turn-of-the-century American culture. As Terry Oggel has noted, Twain even considered writing a multi-volume history of lynching in America, but the anticipation of a hostile white public reaction gave him pause, as it did when it came to publishing the original essay, which he finally decided to withhold from publishing altogether. When the essay appeared in print two decades later, its deletions and silences, largely imposed by Paine, reflected all too accurately white reluctance to engage issues of racial violence, and especially lynching, in print. As Jean M. Lutes argues in a recent American Literary History essay, "Print culture in the United States has a long tradition of suppressing the news of racial violence" (460). That suppression in turn has been responsible in part for many of the suffocating silences about lynching that have shaped the nation's public memory as it emerged throughout the course of the twentieth century.

In the past nine years, though, public interest in the topic of lynching has intensified to an unprecedented degree. In 2000, antique dealer James Allen released Without Sanctuary, an extraordinary collection of lynching photographs he had collected from flea markets and private sellers over the course of many years, to much media and popular attention. Over the next few years, exhibitions of the same collection in New York, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Chicago, and on line, drew hundreds of visitors. In 2005, the US Senate, with eighty senators in support, approved a resolution that apologized to lynching victims, survivors, and their descendants for its failure to pass any of the numerous anti-lynching bills put before it in the first hall of the twentieth century. Finally, a number of local organizations in towns and cities across the country have initiated efforts to construct public memorials or exhibitions to commemorate the victims of lynching in their communities, including Rosewood, Florida; Monroe, Georgia; Waco, Texas; and Duluth, Minnesota.

These public efforts to remember lynching have been paralleled in the academic community. Indeed, in this same period, scholarship on lynching has seen a remarkable recrudescence. In the thirty years following World War II, no major academic work on lynching appeared, even as many scholars were paying close attention at this time to the ways in which slavery and Jim Crow segregation had constructed and shaped American race relations. It was not until the early 1980s that scholars such as Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Trudier Harris, and Joel Williamson broke open the topic of lynching as its own field of study, marking it as essential to any understanding of American ideas about race, violence, sex, justice, and law. Although this work was followed by several significant studies in the 1990s, this output pales in comparison to the scholarly attention lynching has received in the past nine years. Since 2000, no fewer than twelve new books have appeared on the topic of lynching, as well as numerous articles and dissertations; several more books are due out in the next few years. In 2002, in conjunction with the exhibition of Without Sanctuary at the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, Emory University hosted a conference on lynching that brought together over three hundred scholars, a gathering that, as one noted historian has said, would have been "inconceivable" fifteen or twenty years earlier (Brundage, "Conclusion" 401). …