Academic journal article African American Review

Romance and Riot: Charles Chesnutt, the Romantic South, and the Conventions of Extralegal Violence

Academic journal article African American Review

Romance and Riot: Charles Chesnutt, the Romantic South, and the Conventions of Extralegal Violence

Article excerpt

In a chapter cynically titled "How Not to Stop a Lynching," William Miller, the African American paragon of civic virtue in Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition, runs through a number of options to stop the impending lynching of a black man: "go to the sheriff ... telegraph the governor to call out the militia ... call on the general government." Predictably, none of these options offer solutions. The sheriff has a "white" liver, the "whole machinery of the state is in the hands of white men," and the federal government can only intervene under certain "conditions" (192). Based on the 1898 race riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, the novel accurately registers the government's historic failure to intervene in extralegal racial violence. Carefully planned by a group of wealthy white citizens, the 1898 riot overthrew a democratically elected and racially mixed city government. Government authorities never intervened. Nor did they subsequently punish its organizers or reinstate the displaced local officials.

Despite the novel's historically grounded cynicism, African American characters repeatedly respond to extralegal violence with the hope that "De gov'ner er de President is gwine ter sen' soldiers ter stop dese gwines-on" (300). By inserting the regulative expectation that the government should intervene, the novel supplements the question of how to stop a lynching with a more fundamental one about why such extralegal violence is permitted in the first place. The state should, after all, maintain a monopoly over the legitimate forms of violence within its territory. (1) Lynching is not only illegitimate violence, but it also threatens the very legitimacy of the state. As one turn-of-the-century commentator noted, "Lynch law is actual and concrete anarchy; the one complete form in which anarchism appears in our midst. The United States cannot afford to tolerate it within the national domain if the power of prevention exists" (Pillsbury 707). So why do the soldiers fail to arrive? More pointedly, does this novel reveal a cultural logic that allows the state to abandon African Americans? (2)

One answer to these questions is simply that the "power of prevention" doesn't exist. By pointing out that the "the whole machinery of the state is in the hands of white men," the novel initially blames the weakness of a state corrupted by racism. The state does not permit mob violence; it just cannot prevent it. While this version of the weak state thesis was often forwarded to explain lynching, the novel quickly complicates it by introducing a quasi-legal justification of mob violence that was in wide circulation during the period. Responding to a group of African Americans seeking government intervention, Judge Everton "admitted that lynching was, as a rule, unjustifiable, but maintained that there were exceptions to all rules,--that laws were made, after all, to express the will of the people in regard to the ordinary administration of justice, but that in an emergency the sovereign people might assert itself and take the law into its own hands,--the creature was not greater than the creator" (193).

Positing a form of popular sovereignty, Everton refers simultaneously to "the ordinary administration of justice" and to the exceptional power to suspend ordinary law in "an emergency." While Everton conceives of sovereignty according to its common definition as a supreme power ("the creature was not greater than the creator"), he also conveys something akin to Carl Schmitt's "state of exception," wherein the "[s]overeign is he who decides on the exception" (5). Everton's "sovereign people" are not so simply because they are the supreme power, but because they decide when the ordinary legal order can be suspended. Lynching, for Everton, is not a transgression of the law that the state is too weak to repress; it is instead a suspension of the law that paradoxically makes the legal order possible. As Giorgio Agamben explains in his reading of Schmitt: "Through the state of exception the sovereign 'creates and guarantees the situation' that the law needs for its own validity" (Homo Sacer 17). …

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