Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940

Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940

Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940

Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940

Synopsis

Lynch mobs in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America often exacted horrifying public torture and mutilation on their victims. In Lynching and Spectacle, Amy Wood explains what it meant for white Americans to perform and witness these sadistic spectacles and what they derived from them. Lynching, Wood argues, overlapped with a wide range of cultural practices and performances, both traditional and modern, including public executions, religious rituals, photography, and cinema. The connections between lynching and these practices encouraged the horrific violence committed and gave it social acceptability.

Wood expounds on the critical role lynching spectacles played in establishing and affirming white supremacy at the turn of the century, particularly in towns and cities experiencing great social instability and change. She also shows how the national dissemination of lynching images fueled the momentum of the antilynching movement and ultimately led to the decline of lynching. By examining lynching spectacles alongside both traditional and modern practices and within both local and national contexts, Wood reconfigures our understanding of lynching's relationship to modern life.

Excerpt

Compared to other forms of terror and intimidation that African Americans were subject to under Jim Crow, lynching was an infrequent and extraordinary occurrence. Black men and women were much more likely to become victims of personal assault, murder, or rape than lynching, and, as Richard Wright explained, they withstood all sorts of injuries and insults on a daily basis. But the news of a lynching shook Wright to his core. Despite, or even because of, its relative rarity, lynching held a singular psychological force, generating a level of fear and horror that overwhelmed all other forms of violence. Even one lynching reverberated, traveling with sinister force, down city streets and through rural farms, across roads and rivers. As Jean Toomer described it, one mob’s yell could sound “like a hundred mobs yelling,” and the specter of the violence continued to smolder long after it was over, “soft showering the homes of folks” like the ominous full moon in his story. All the everyday humiliations and hostilities that black southerners endured under Jim Crow could, in fact, be distilled into the experience of lynching, so that it came to stand as the primary representation of racial injustice and oppression as a whole. To be black in this time, according to Wright, was to be “the victim to a thousand lynchings.”

Lynching assumed this tremendous symbolic power precisely because it was extraordinary and, by its very nature, public and visually sensational. Those lynchings that hundreds, sometimes thousands, of white spectators gathered and watched as their fellow citizens tortured, mutilated, and hanged or burned their victims in full view were, for obvious reasons, the most potently haunting. the sheer brutality of these mobs, as well as their flagrant disregard for legal order and authority, shocked and terrified because they struck against common notions of what civilized people could or should be capable of. But even less obtrusive lynchings, in which mobs . . .

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