Academic journal article African American Review

Dunbar and the Science of Lynching

Academic journal article African American Review

Dunbar and the Science of Lynching

Article excerpt

"That black--" --Paul Laurence Dunbar, "The Lynching of Jube Benson" 236

Enthroned upon the mighty truth Within the confines of the laws, True Justice seeth not the man, But only hears his cause.

Unconscious of his creed or race, She cannot see, but only weighs; For Justice with unbandaged eyes Would be oppression in disguise. --Paul Laurence Dunbar, "Justice"

On December 6, 1898, Richard Coleman's mother came to gather his ashes in Maysville, Kentucky, from beneath a sapling that had been chosen as his execution site weeks before. Surrounded by more than 2,000 persons, this "trusted employee of Farmer James Lashbrook" was whipped, stabbed, dragged, and finally bound to a tree. His eyes were doused with acid, and then peppered, while his body was repeatedly pushed into the blazing flames surrounding him ("Negro Burned" 1). Indicted for allegedly killing his female employer, Coleman, the murdered man, stands among the countless lynched African Americans. Their deaths would be enumerated within the daily lists posted on the front pages of the Richmond Planet, and precipitate a more than 50-year anti-lynching movement that would end without federal prohibitions against mob violence, without substantive reparations for victim's families, and without jurisdictional changes that might yield impartial trials in the federal court system.

Published in the year lynching reached its peak claiming over 200 lives, Ida B. Wells's Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases (1892) and Frances E. W. Harper's "Duty to Dependent Races" (1892) joined numerous black protests against lynching. Black social, religious, labor, and political organizations such as the Western Union Baptist Association passed resolutions challenging the US government not simply to protect black life, but to protect citizens who "were being burned, lynched, mobbed, and denied every right as men and citizens.., without regard to law or justice, without a word of condemnation, advice, or exhortation from the Chief Magistrate of this Nation" ("Negroes Ask Protection" 1). Nine months after Coleman's death in Kentucky, Paul Laurence Dunbar's native state of Ohio suffered a blow to its own legislative sanctions against lynching. The Ohio State Supreme court struck down the Smith law, an anti-lynching bill, in a case brought against the assailants of "Click" Mitchell ("Ohio Anti-Lynching" 5). (1) By the following year, Ohioans would read of North Carolina black Congressional representative George H. White's attempts to pass a bill placing lynching under the jurisdiction of the federal court system ("Trial of Lynchers" 2). (2) And without state or federal recourse, Ohioans like Dunbar would read in 1904 of a child lynching attempted by three white children against a black boy. Their assault came days after a public lynching that led to the burning of black residential and business sections and to militia occupation, and that threatened to incite martial law and "race war" ("Boys" 1).3 Among literally scores of similar black murders, Coleman's death is tragically characteristic. His murder calibrates the syntax of injury within US society, a syntax lodged within law and science whose exhaustive graphic force can and does produce death.

Dunbar's short story, "The Lynching of Jube Benson," underscores what has remained under-read within the historiography and literature on lynching, namely the relationships between scientific technologies, sociomedical discourses, and legal constructions of evidence in the production of black criminality. Dunbar's writings demonstrate how the effects of this collaboration of law and science not only enhanced and further legitimated an exhaustive repertoire on black pathology--sociologic, physiologic, and psychologic--but also made these representations of black crime contingent on an assumed white and implicitly female victimization. These two categories of law and science are intimately connected to the historical questions of political, social, and economic access that made lynchings possible. …

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