Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Archiving Hate: Lynching Postcards at the Limit of Social Circulation

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Archiving Hate: Lynching Postcards at the Limit of Social Circulation

Article excerpt

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it 'the way it ready was.' It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.

Benjamin, "These on the Philosophy of History"

Subjects of photography, seized by the camera, we are mortified: objectified, thingified,imaged.

Cadava, "Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History"

FREDERICK DOUGLASS BEGINS HIS 1892 ESSAY "Lynch Law in the South" by placing lynching's practice within an international frame:

   The frequent and increasing resort to lynch law in our Southern
   States, in dealing with alleged offenses by negroes, marked as it
   is by features of cruelty which might well shock the sensibility
   of the most benighted savages, will not fail to attract the
   attention and animadversion of visitors to the World's Columbian
   Exposition. (221)

The strategy is brilliant: thus understood, lynch law--the preferred name, since at least the antebellum era, for a concatenation of practices widely held to be distressingly, exceptionally American--constitutes a global scandal inextricable from its regional outrage. Where the organizers of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition strove to promote the event as a sign of u.s. progress, not just the index but the glittering proof of national civilization, in this passage Douglass anticipates the irony, and the crisis, entailed for such an endeavor by lynch law's horror. Predicting lynching's repellant attraction for a fully international community of fairgoers, Douglass limns a key clement of the ritual's cruel power: its spectacle. The Chicago fair, structured around spectacular displays, will be haunted by the spectacle--lynching--it must fail, in excluding, to exclude. Intimately bound to the ideology of progress in the postbellum U.S., lynching for Douglass constitutes the catastrophic supplement to the national and international celebration of Columbian history. (1)

Even more than Douglass--though in collaboration with him--Ida B. Wells worked to broadcast such supplementarity at Chicago's White City. The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition, the pamphlet she edited and in large part wrote, managed to document for a global audience the crippling contradictions at issue in the fair's appeal to American civilization. (2) Over six chapters and 81 pages, Wells, Douglass, I. Garland Penn, and Ferdinand L. Barnett relentlessly exposed and indicted the regional and national, legal and extralegal forms of racism that together conspired to oppress African-Americans. Tae authors's analyses turn on a devastating irony: whereas the tremendous accomplishments of black folk since Emancipation should epitomize the meaning and substance of "progress" in the U.S. instance, their exclusion from the Chicago fair--like the violence they face on a daily basis--can only mark the barbarity, not civilization, of American whites. The key sign of such barbarity is, of course, lynching. (3)

"Lynch Law," the pamphlet's fourth chapter and conceptual centrepiece, anatomizes the full obscenity of the practice for an international readership. Wells's argument here features the strategy, already prominent in her 1892 polemic, Southern Horrors, that would underpin her subsequent antilynching writings: the repetition and recirculation of lynching's outrages as drawn from reports in Southern newspapers. In so doing, the "Lynch Law" chapter of he Reason Why substantiates her activist axiom: "Out of their own mouths shall the murderers be condemned" (quoted in Schechter 294). While denouncing lynch law, though, the pamphlet by no means isolates lynching's practice; instead, it insists on the inextricability of such extralegal violence from what Wells calls "class legislation" (Chapter 2) and "the convict lease system" (Chapter 3), state-sanctioned forms of discrimination that exemplify the systemic quality of race-hatred in the United States. …

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