Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory

Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory

Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory

Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory


Between 1880 and 1930, thousands of African Americans were lynched in the United States. Beyond the horrific violence inflicted on these individuals, lynching terrorized whole communities and became a defining characteristic of Southern race relations in the Jim Crow era. As spectacle, lynching was intended to serve as a symbol of white supremacy. Yet, Jonathan Markovitz notes, the act's symbolic power has endured long after the practice of lynching has largely faded away.

Legacies of Lynching examines the evolution of lynching as a symbol of racial hatred and a metaphor for race relations in popular culture, art, literature, and political speech. Markovitz credits the efforts of the antilynching movement with helping to ensure that lynching would be understood not as a method of punishment for black rapists but as a terrorist practice that provided stark evidence of the brutality of Southern racism and as America's most vivid symbol of racial oppression. Cinematic representations of lynching, from Birth of a Nation to Do the Right Thing, he contends, further transform the ways that American audiences remember and understand lynching, as have disturbing recent cases in which alleged or actual acts of racial violence reconfigured stereotypes of black criminality. Markovitz further reveals how lynching imagery has been politicized in contemporary society with the example of Clarence Thomas, who condemned the Senate's investigation into allegations of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings as a "high-tech lynching."

Even today, as revealed by the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, and the national soul-searching it precipitated, lynchingcontinues to pervade America's collective memory. Markovitz concludes with an analysis of debates about a recent exhibition of photographs of lynchings, suggesting again how lynching as metaphor remains always in the background o


“There's only one more question I need to ask you…. the man with you appeared to be not entirely in his pants at the time of impact. Can you tell me what happened just before you went off the road?”

“Well, he became [whispers] Motherfucker this, motherfucker that.”

“Like in the movies?”

“Exactly. and um…the next thing I knew…I only remember bits and pieces of it, but he, uh, the gist of it was he was going to uh…impale me with his…big…”


—The Last Seduction, John Dahl, 1993

“I ain't never been with a black man in my life…. [Pause, some thought] Oh bloody hell. Oh Jesus Christ. Oh my. [Breaks down into tears] I'm sorry, sweetie. I'm so ashamed…I can't look at you. I didn't know, sweetheart. Honest, I didn't know you was black.”

“Who was he?”

“You don't want to know, darling…. Listen, I want to be honest with you, but I can't tell you that, sweetheart. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.”

—Secrets and Lies, Mike Leigh, 1996

These two scenes from recent, highly successful independent films give some indication of the variety of ways in which figures from traditional lynch narratives have been invoked in recent cinema. the first exchange occurs after Linda Fiorentino's supremely manipulative Wendy Crow has foiled a black private eye's kidnapping attempt by tricking him into lowering his pants while she drives her car into a tree. While Crow is recovering in the hospital, a policeman questions her about what happened. Her answers take full advantage of the racism that is prevalent in her area of rural New York State (the town's population is almost completely white, and Crow had noticed earlier that any black people were immediately seen as suspect), as she is completely confident that her charge of attempted rape will be believed. the officer's reference to the movies suggests that the community's belief in the myth of the black rapist is based, at least in part, on cinematic representations of black men.

The second exchange is between Marianne Jean-Baptiste's Hortense and Brenda Blethyn's Cynthia. Hortense is a black woman who was put up for adoption at birth and who has gone on a quest in which she has . . .

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