Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

New Directions in Lynching Studies

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

New Directions in Lynching Studies

Article excerpt

New Directions in Lynching Studies Dray, Philip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. New York: Random House, 2002. 544 pp. Cloth: $35.00/paper:$14.95 ISBN:0375503242. Illustrated with 8 pages of plates. Includes bibliographic references and index.

Metress, Christopher, ed. The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002. 384 pp. Cloth: $59.50/paper: 18.95. ISBN:081392121X. Includes index.

Waldrep, Christopher. The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America. New York: Palgrave, 2002. 288 pp. Cloth:$55.00/paper:$24.95. ISBN: 0312293992. Illustrated with 12 pages of plates and map. Includes bibliographic references and index.

For a large portion of the 20th century, lynching has been a historic footnote that most people would prefer not to read. The story it tells reveals the worst aspects of human nature, speaking in particular to the violence and injustice that is as much a part of the American experience as struggles for equality and freedom. From its origins in the late 18th century, lynching was characterized by mob mentality rather than due process. Communities who believed that the courts moved too slowly or did not extend to their spot in the hinterlands took matters into their own hands-seizing an accused criminal, giving him a speedy trial or none at all, and after reaching a guilty verdict, hanging him-all in the name of justice. This type of vigilante violence was relatively common throughout American history, but until the late 1900s only rarely did it have the racial overtones with which it is associated today. During what is known as the "lynching era," the practice took a decidedly gruesome and racist turn. Statistics compiled at Tuskegee University document that between 1882 and 1968, 4,743 people were lynched, nearly three-quarters of them African American, most (but not all of them) male, and most in the South. Lynchings of African Americans sometimes involved far more than just hanging: victims were shot, burned, and mutilated in front of large crowds whose members posed for pictures and took home body parts as souvenirs.

The study of lynching has been sporadic over the years, for reasons that may be obvious considering the subject matter. Journalist Ida B. Wells began speaking out against racist violence in the early 1890s, but it took nearly three decades for books devoted exclusively to the topic to emerge. The NAACP's Walter White produced a pioneering work in 1929, Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch. Four years later, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation's Arthur Raper followed with The Tragedy of Lynching. The next fifty years produced little in the way of extensive analysis, until books such as Jacquelyn Dowd Hall's Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign Against Lynching (1979) and Trudier Harris's Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (1984) began a trickle of scholarship that has slowly become a wave. The 1990s saw publication of Fitzhugh Brundage's Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930; Stuart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck's A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930; and Kathy A. Perkins and Judith L. Stephens' Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women-all significant contributions to the study of what happened, why, and how lynching has been understood as a cultural phenomenon. The past three years have seen another half-dozen books appear in print, and at least another half-dozen are currently in the works. This exponential increase in scholarship includes recent books by Philip Dray, Christopher Metress, and Christopher Waldrep, each very different in scope but together providing a clear indication of the direction that this new wave of lynching studies will take.

Dray's At the Hands of Persons Unknown is a useful starting point for the general reader. …

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