Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity

Overview

On a winter day in 1892, in the broad daylight of downtown Memphis, Tennessee, a middleclass woman named Alice Mitchell slashed the throat of her lover, Freda Ward, killing her instantly. Local, national, and international newspapers, medical and scientific publications, and popular fiction writers all clamored to cover the ensuing "girl lovers" murder trial. Lisa Duggan locates in this sensationalized event the emergence of the lesbian in U.S. mass culture and shows how newly "modern" notions of normality and ...
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Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity

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Overview

On a winter day in 1892, in the broad daylight of downtown Memphis, Tennessee, a middleclass woman named Alice Mitchell slashed the throat of her lover, Freda Ward, killing her instantly. Local, national, and international newspapers, medical and scientific publications, and popular fiction writers all clamored to cover the ensuing "girl lovers" murder trial. Lisa Duggan locates in this sensationalized event the emergence of the lesbian in U.S. mass culture and shows how newly "modern" notions of normality and morality that arose from such cases still haunt and distort lesbian and gay politics to the present day.
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Editorial Reviews

Washington Blade
“Duggan . . . analyzes the narratives of ‘Lesbian love murder’ for what they reveal about ongoing stereotypes of the homicidal butch and her femme victim. . . . Contemporary press coverage and letters between Ward and Mitchell are particularly compelling.”
Elizabeth Pincus
“An engrossing and meticulous study. . . .[Sapphic Slashers] exhumes and ponders a full arena of late-19th-century concerns, including racial injustice, boomtown commerce, suffragism, medical mores, expectations of middle class white femininity, and the impact of an emerging national press. This kitchen-sink approach is breathtaking. . . . Duggan nails the interconnections. . . . ”
—Elizabeth Pincus, Voice Literary Supplement
Nan Alamilla Boyd
“Lisa Duggan’s wonderful new book charts a departure from the genre of US lesbian and gay social history. . . . [Her] emphasis on cultural analysis ushers lesbian and gay studies onto fertile new ground.”
—Nan Alamilla Boyd, Women’s Review of Books
Perre Magness
“In placing the story in a larger context, Duggan asks important questions. . . . [S]he has included part of the local press coverage and letters between Alice and Freda as valuable appendices.”
—Perre Magness, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis)
Library Journal
Duggan (Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture) presents an extensive study of the 1892 murder in Memphis, TN, of Freda Ward by her former lover Alice Mitchell. The author makes extensive use of newspaper accounts of the crime and trial, providing the reader with a wonderful window into the public's perception of these women, their relationship, and the crime. After analyzing the trial, Duggan discusses its broader implications. She explores how the story of Mitchell and Ward, stories of other lesbian couples, and the growing field of sexology created a cultural narrative that marginalized women who challenged the normative, heterosexual, male-dominated household and presented them as dangerous and unbalanced. A compelling read, this book presents a tremendous amount of primary-source material that will make it interesting to students of journalism, as well as those in gay and lesbian studies. Recommended for academic libraries.--Debra Moore, Loyola Marymount Univ., Los Angeles Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
Marshall McLuhan said it and Duggan confirms it: the medium is the message. Harkening back to the late nineteenth century, Duggan traces the development of the national press. She analyzes the way wide-circulation newspapers created a common ethos by teaching monied, white Americans an allegedly natural pecking order: caucasians over people of color, men over women, heterosexuals over homosexuals, and Christians over Buddhists, Muslims and Jews.

"As networked publishers selected local stories to circulate as bearers of national significance, cultural narratives of the nation emerged to define the boundaries, preoccupations, and exclusions of Americanness at the turn of the century," Duggan writes. To prove her point, she takes two seemingly disparate stories-the lynching of "black rapists" and the emergence of the "homicidal lesbian"-and demonstrates the way news coverage of both influenced public opinion. The near-constant portrayal of black men as predators intent on the sexual violation of white women, she reports, rationalized lynching and legitimized the stark inequalities governing a century of race relations. Likewise, the tale of the lesbian love turned violent served to hammer home the need for a paternalistic domestic order.

Duggan hones in on particular cases-the mistreatment of African-American journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, the killing of dozens of African-American men accused of rape and the knifing of eighteen-year-old Freda Ward by her teenaged lover, Alice Mitchell. Although the Mitchell-Ward case gets the lion's share of the writer's attention, Duggan's gaze never veers from what she calls the creation of "American modernity." How the case was used to demonstrate the perceived insanity of a "mannish" woman wishing to play "husband" to her girlfriend / "wife," makes for fascinating reading.

Journalists, Duggan concludes, were unable to fathom the defiance of gender norms; similarly, the press made it appear unthinkable for white women to freely choose black men as lovers or partners. In a world shaped by media, lesbians had to be crazy and black men had to be rapists since neither miscegenation nor homosexuality were acceptable options.

Sapphic Slashers-albeit academic and somewhat dense-is an insightful look at the politics of social construction. Reading it opens up the world and puts the creation of mass culture in historical perspective. (January)

Bethany Schneider
This eminently readable and bloodily compelling book examines early 20th-century stories and theories of lesbian killers alongside simultaneously circulating stories of lynching and claims that pathologized stories of sexual violence form the foundations of American modernity.
Out
Eleanor J. Bader
An insightful look at the politics of social construction. Reading Sapphic Slashers opens up the world and puts the creation of mass culture in historical perspective.
Foreword
Lauren Dockett
Duggan has an admirable command of the multiple discourses which contexture reality. . . . With a helpful sense of irony [she] warns about the power of mass media and the narratives we construct for our tragedies today.
Girlfriends
From the Publisher

“A book to die for! Theoretically sophisticated, yet written with clarity and elegance, Sapphic Slashers opens whole new worlds of understanding about sexuality, gender norms, racial injustice, violence, and the complex ways they are connected. Full of passion and intelligence, it made me think in fresh new ways about issues of great importance. Duggan’s is an amazing intellect.”—John D’Emilio, coauthor of Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America

“Duggan seamlessly combines cultural theory with analyses of material conditions and demonstrates a breathtaking command of American cultural institutions—the mass press, the judicial systems, the medical literature. The book is not only smart about the interconnections between gender, sex, race, class, and nation, but is also lucid, making a good read.”—Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, author of Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community

“In this stunningly coherent and compelling account of the development of ‘American modernity,’ Duggan captures our interest with the sensational tale of lesbian love murder but then insists that we read this tale through turn-of-the-century debates over racial violence and against the backdrop of the medicalization of homosexuality. Sapphic Slashers has ‘classic’ written all over it.”—Judith Halberstam, author of Female Masculinity

“What Duggan does in this original and moving book is take a murder case from 1890’s Memphis and make of it a prism through which to illuminate American modernity. Her method depends less on an account of the murder or of the judicial procedure that followed it than on an analysis of the many narratives—of lesbian love and sex and madness—that the case occasioned. Juxtaposing these narratives to narratives of lynching, Duggan produces a tour-de-force of historical understanding.”—Henry Abelove, Wesleyan University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822326175
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/2001
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 6.16 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Lisa Duggan is Associate Professor of American Studies and History at New York University. She is coauthor of Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture and coeditor of Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and National Interest.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


GIRL SLAYS GIRL


Homicide is, no matter what else it may be, a
social relationship. It might even be called the most
definitive of social relationships. Like all other
human social relationships, it must take place in
terms of culture.
                      Paul Bohannon, ed., African Homicide and Suicide


Monday, January 25, 1892

At 3:00 P.M., nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell stopped at the home of her friend Lillie Johnson. Alice was driving her family's horse-drawn buggy, as she often did to fill up the afternoons since completing her course of instruction at the all-white Higbee School for Girls the previous year. Alice and Lillie usually rode together, but snow and ice—unusual for Memphis, Tennessee, even in the dead of winter—had prevented their outings for two weeks. So when Alice drove up to her door, Lillie agreed to join her, and even bundled up her little nephew to take along for the fresh air.

    Alice guided the buggy with its three passengers toward Hernando Street, where her estranged friend Freda Ward was staying at the home of the widow Mrs. Kimbrough. Freda and her sister Jo had been visiting there for the past month, and Alice had often driven down Hernando Street in the weeks before the snowy weather interrupted her, hoping to catch a glimpse of Freda in the window. On January 25 the Ward sisters planned to take the evening boat back to Golddust, Tennessee, more than fiftymiles up the river where they lived with their married sister, Mrs. Ada Volkmar. Alice lingered in her buggy in sight of the widow's door until she saw Freda and Jo leave the house with their friend Christina Purnell, on their way to the boat, the Ora Lee.

    Slowly, trailing at a distance, Alice followed the trio toward the river. On Front Street, just north of the customhouse, the Ward sisters and their friend headed down a slippery walkway toward the levee to board the boat. Alice stopped the buggy, suggesting to Lillie that they go into the nearby post office to check for mail. Alice and Lillie climbed out with the little nephew in tow and walked toward the post office. But when Freda Ward passed them, Alice turned to Lillie to say she wanted to follow Freda instead, to say good-bye. Lillie declined her friend's invitation to go along and stepped back into the buggy to keep watch on the horse and her nephew.

    Alice inched her way down the icy walk toward Freda. About half of the way down the slope she caught up to her and reached around her neck. Christina Purnell thought Alice was reaching to kiss Freda—until she saw blood. Then Jo saw the blood as well and, realizing that Alice had cut her sister's face, swung her umbrella at Alice and shrieked, "Leave my sister alone. You dirty dog, you'll hung for this." Alice shouted back, "I don't care, I want to die anyhow" while slashing at Jo with the razor she still held in her hand. Meanwhile Freda was running down the walk toward the boat, bleeding. Alice turned and headed down after her, overtaking her at the railroad tracks and cutting her deeply across the throat.

    It was just after 4:00 P.M. Seventeen-year-old Freda lay dying on the railroad tracks as Alice ran back up the slope to the buggy. Bystanders lifted Freda into a delivery wagon to take her first to the nearest doctor's office, then on to Stanley & Hinton's undertaking establishment, where a coroner's inquest was convened within hours. Alice drove her buggy hurriedly toward home, telling first Lillie in the buggy, then her mother in the house at 215 Union Street, that she had cut Freda Ward's throat.


    This local tragedy, involving the daughters of several middling to prosperous white Memphis-area families, was obvious grist for the mill of sensational news reporting. The next day's headlines proclaimed, with characteristic hyperbole, that Alice Mitchell had committed "The Most Singular and Shocking Murder Ever Done in Memphis." That a young girl from a respectable family had committed a gruesome murder was enough by itself to provoke such headlines, but this story presented an added twist. Newspaper headlines announced that this was "A Very Unnatural Crime"—the murderess claimed to have loved and wanted to marry her victim. She killed her rather than live estranged from her. Such facts provoked headline writers to herald the murder as "A Tragedy Equal to the Most Morbid Imaginings of Modern French Romances."


Wednesday, March 9, 1892

    Early in the morning, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart were taken from jail in Memphis, Tennessee, and brutally murdered by a mob of white men. McDowell's body was found with his fingers shot to pieces and his eyes gouged out. Just before death, Moss was alleged to have said, "Tell my people to go West; there is no justice for them here."

    The three African American victims of this lynching had been joint operators of the People's Grocery Company, a cooperative store located in a densely populated black neighborhood just outside the city, known as the Curve. When the cooperative opened, it offered competition to another grocery store owned by W. H. Barrett, a white man. A series of disputes between Barrett and his competitors led to a white invasion of the People's Grocery, and the subsequent jailing of over one hundred African American men who were believed to have "conspired" in armed defense of their store.

    In the days following the lynching of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart, the arms and ammunition of the African American guard, the Tennessee Rifles, were confiscated, and the criminal court judge ordered the sheriff to take one hundred men out to the Curve and "shoot down any Negro who appears to be making trouble" Rumors circulated that members of Memphis's white business and professional elite were among the lynch mob, including the criminal court judge himself, Julius DuBose. No one was ever arrested for the murders.


    Tom Moss had a job on the side while the People's Grocery was struggling to establish itself—he delivered mail. At the offices of the African American newspaper, the Free Speech, he made a friend of editor and writer Ida B. Wells. After Moss was murdered, an outraged Wells decided to investigate the causes of the wave of lynchings spreading throughout the region. She was surprised to find that the frequent justification—retaliation for rape (which she had been inclined to believe)—was a deceptive excuse. In the Free Speech she began to argue that most lynchings were for other reasons entirely, and to suggest that when sexual relations existed between a black man and white woman, they were often initiated by the woman. In a May 1892 editorial she wrote:


Eight Negroes lynched since last issue of the Free Speech. Three were charged with killing white men and five with raping white women. Nobody in this section believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men assault white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will over-reach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.


This editorial provoked heated denunciations in the white newspapers. The Memphis Evening Scimitar, assuming the editorial writer to be a man, urged retaliation:


Patience under such circumstances is not a virtue. If the negroes themselves do not apply the remedy without delay it will be the duty of those whom he has attacked to tie the wretch who utters these calumnies to a stake at the intersection of Main and Madison Sts., brand him in the forehead with a hot iron and perform upon him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor's shears.


A white mob later destroyed the Free Speech presses while Wells was out of town. She was warned that she would be lynched if she returned, so she traveled to New York to launch an international campaign against lynching.

    In taking it upon herself to expose the naked power behind the claims of white men that they were protecting white women when they lynched black men, twenty-nine-year-old Ida B. Wells developed a widely compelling analysis of race, gender, economic control, and sexual power relations. In 1892, she gained international notoriety. She was the second young Memphis woman to do so that year. The first, Alice Mitchell, had not earned her notoriety as had Wells, through outspoken defiance. Mitchell earned hers though desperation and tragedy.


The stories of the 1892 lynching in Memphis, and of Ida B. Wells's reaction and subsequent political activism, are well known and widely circulated in histories of the South, of African American politics, and of race and gender at the turn of the century. The stories of Alice Mitchell's crime, her trials and their publicity, are confined to histories of the nineteenth-century emergence of lesbian identity and are much less well known. The tellings of the stories of these two women don't overlap in our historical texts and memories; they belong to wholly different analytic and historical worlds. And indeed, there is on one level no comparison between Ida B. Wells, one of the most notable and creative political activists in United States history, and Alice Mitchell, a disturbed and destructive young woman responsible for a sensational, ignoble crime. Yet for all their differences, their separation in historical accounts obscures our vision of the history that shapes twentieth-century U.S. modernity. Their lives and stories overlapped, after all, in time and place as well as social and institutional contexts. These overlappings are not coincidental. Understanding them allows us to see crucial parts of the inner workings of change at a formative historical moment.

    Alice Mitchell and Ida B. Wells both lived in Memphis in 1892, but they occupied social worlds that were increasingly racially segregated. Though they both belonged to economically prosperous Memphis communities and lived within a few miles of each other, they traveled to different schools, churches, and parties. This spatial separation was a work-in-progress, designed and enforced primarily by the white Memphis commercial elite, concerned to condense a wide range of potentially mixed racial and ethnic identities into a rigid binary, stabilized as a clear hierarchy of white over black. In 1892, this project of condensing and spatializing racial hierarchy was incomplete in Memphis, as it was throughout the South. The scattered experiments in racial democracy that characterized the Reconstruction period had not been wholly extinguished; more racially integrated or egalitarian forms of public life coexisted uneasily with the newly emerging contours of racial apartheid. Force, resistance, and contest formed and re-formed along shifting racial lines.

    Yet for all this separation (a separation that in part configures our own historical memories), Alice Mitchell and Ida B. Wells traveled the same streets—the offices of Wells's newspaper, the Free Speech, were on Hernando Street, where Mitchell rode hoping to catch a glimpse of Freda Ward. The same mass-circulation newspapers, new to the American urban scene in the 1890s, chronicled the lynching and the murder over an overlapping series of months in 1892, then traced the subsequent fates of Ida B. Wells and Alice Mitchell. The same criminal court judge, Julius DuBose, ordered police actions surrounding the lynching (where he may have been present) and presided over the courtroom where the murder was adjudicated. Not only did the two young women share a very specific time and place, but the same concrete institutions and processes ultimately mobilized forces that banished both from Memphis. All this quotidian sameness, inspected from various angles of vision, reflects large, deeply intertwined historical forces and relations of power at work in Memphis in 1892.

    The immediate context in which Alice Mitchell and Ida B. Wells were joined was local, but from this local site their stories produced and circulated national meanings. The 1890s were a crucial decade for such national meanings, as a newly continental United States joined its formerly warring parts to its recently closed frontier. During the 1890s, U.S. modernity, misnamed as "Americanness," was founded upon new narratives of nationhood for the next century. These narratives were the product of local labor, but they were forged of materials of transnational origin; they collectively produced a globally dominant American modernity. Through the institutions, practices, and ideologies of an emerging "corporate liberalism," these narratives scavenged and appropriated multiple alternative modernities, both within the United States and around the world. Thus, though local institutions and processes defined the meaning of "Americanness," they did so in an increasingly interconnected world of shifting global populations, resources, and communications. In other words, the nation was built locally of transnationally gathered materials, to do its work within a global context.

    In concrete terms, 1890s U.S. nationality was organized around a master discourse of national race as whiteness—a whiteness that worked to join the regions torn asunder during the Civil War and to unite both to the recently closed continental frontier. The national whiteness of the 1890s, more fragmented and contested than the republican whiteness of a century earlier, was assembled across a landscape of wide variation in ethnic and racial categories. Different regions of the United States produced different variants of the white/nonwhite binary, sometimes in relation to Chinese, Mexican, or Native American rather than, or in addition to, African American populations. And the racial sameness asserted by the legal and social identity "white" was disrupted by the sharp class and ethnic distinctions among waves of European immigrants from the 1840s to the 1920s, when whiteness was again more clearly defined and stabilized?

    The American whiteness emerging at the turn of the century was linked through its uneven conglomeration of ethnicities to Anglo-Europe, and to the shared project of imperial domination of "inferior" races, both domestic and foreign. Whiteness united Americans upon an imaginary binary division of race, constitutively thematizing but also predominantly subsuming other racial and ethnic differences, as well as divisions of class, gender, and region. Whiteness joined Americans to Anglo-Europeans and rationalized U.S. imperial domination of racialized peoples. Though neither whiteness nor imperialism was new in the 1890s, the version of whiteness underwriting twentieth-century American modernity was forged then, in the wake of the demise of slavery and Reconstruction, out of the materials of a broad range of social conflicts, economic changes, and cultural wars.

    Producing whiteness required substantial labor, discursive and institutional, legal and political, local, regional, national, and global. Such labor required that complex conflicts be condensed into a discourse of binary race—an ideological project of long-term duration and continual instability. After all, the 1890s witnessed multiple upheavals in economics and politics, involving shattering social conflicts of class, gender, economic sector, ethnicity and nativity, and partisan loyalty. The entrenchment of newly nationalizing forms of financial and industrial capitalism met with fierce opposition: agrarian radicalism was at a high tide with the 1892 founding of the People's Party in St. Louis, and class conflict in the manufacturing sector rocked urban centers from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Racial and ethnic differences in excess of the black/white binary energized widespread, often violent struggle—Native American resistance to U.S. territorial expansion was obliterated with the 1890 slaughter of the Sioux at Wounded Knee, while Chinese immigration to the West Coast inspired employer exploitation, labor competition, and political attack. At the same time, labor disputes in the agricultural Southwest drew on complex, overlapping class and racial conflicts between Mexican, black, and poor white laborers and wealthy white landowners. Such intertwined struggles across race and class hierarchies were also deeply marked by gender. The expansion of women's wage labor and the spread of new practices of consumption undermined domestic ideologies of gender, producing new opportunities for public visibility and political organization.

    How and why were these and other major changes and conflicts subordinated, however contingently, to the discourse of American whiteness? One method for illuminating answers to this question is to look closely at the local sites of production for various strands in the tapestry of American race consciousness and examine the narrative components along with the material means of their circulation to a nationalized audience. We can analyze the labor process and relations of production underlying the construction of American modernity upon a foundation of national whiteness during the 1890s.

    Memphis was a crucial location for such labor during 1892. A major urban center in the New South, filled with mobile New Women and prosperous New Negroes, Memphis functioned as a local laboratory for new social relations and their institutional and discursive elaboration during the 1890s. In 1892, Memphis became a significant site in the conflicted developmental histories of two significant components of the overarching narrative of national whiteness—the lynching narrative and the narrative of the lesbian love murder. These narratives seem to cover widely disparate territories, but they had a similar active life span—from the 1880s to the 1930s (with extensive cultural afterlives). They thematized the elements of race and gender, subsuming and obscuring the nevertheless organizing category of economic class. They both centrally deployed the narrative technologies of sexuality and violence. And in 1892 they shared a locale as well as centrally powerful players and scenes—the judge, the jail, and the courts; the reporters and the newspapers; a mass mobilization amid the shock and rejection of "the best white people."

    In this broad context, the actions of Ida B. Wells and Alice Mitchell acquired meanings, national and transnational as well as local. Both of their lives were shaped by the confluence of historical conditions in Memphis, as their actions in turn intervened dramatically in those very conditions. Their lives and actions became significant elements in the narrative construction of a modern discourse of American whiteness, and in the emerging resistances to it as well.


Ida B. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, one of eight children. Her father, Jim Wells, was a skilled carpenter, a leader in the local community, and a trustee of Rust College (called Shaw University before 1890), where Ida was enrolled in the primary school section from age two to fifteen. During her early years, Ida Wells saw enormous racial progress followed by backlash and retrenchment. She saw her father cast his first vote, African Americans being elected to state and local offices, and the passage of a federal civil rights law in 1875. But by the mid-eighties, she had begun to witness the progressive erosion of these gains.

    In 1878 both of her parents and her youngest sibling died in a yellow fever epidemic. As the eldest daughter, Ida (aged sixteen) took over responsibility for the surviving siblings, two more of whom died before she moved to Memphis to become a teacher in 1882. In May 1884 on her way to teach school in Woodstock, Tennessee, a conductor on the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad tried to force her to ride in a smoking car with all other black passengers, even though she had paid a first-class fare. The law required equal public accommodations, so Wells got off at the next stop, returned to Memphis, and sued the railroad. In December 1884, the local court decided in her favor and awarded her five hundred dollars in damages, but in April 1887 the Supreme Court of Tennessee (following the increasingly conservative turn in court decisions throughout the United States) overturned the decision.

    In 1887 Wells began her writing career with an article on her railroad suit for a church paper. Her career then took off as she wrote for many church papers, then for some of the African American weeklies. She was offered an interest and editorship with the Memphis Free Speech, published by Rev. Taylor Nightingale, pastor of the Beale Street Baptist Church. Wells was active in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, but she became responsible for the social message of the Free Speech. In 1889 she was elected secretary of the National Afro-American Press convention and began to use her editorship to criticize the inferior conditions in Memphis's segregated African American schools, as well as to argue for equal voting rights. In 1891 she was fired by the Memphis school system for her views and began to devote herself full time to the newspaper business.

    A journalist engaged with social issues, Wells joined other dissident African American leaders, including T. Thomas Fortune, to become a member of the Afro-American Council (established in 1889). Wells, Fortune, and their associates argued for social agitation in resisting segregation and disfranchisement and urged African Americans to make use of the economic boycott and emigration in resisting the increasingly hostile racial climate in the South. These leaders diverged from some other black leaders, who by the 1890s were urging accommodation along with "racial uplift" in hopes that increased respectability might improve the situation of African Americans. Though Wells had been deeply immersed in prosperous black Memphis's society rituals, and had briefly subscribed to some very restricted ideas about proper deportment herself, she continued to argue for agitation and resistance throughout her life.

    Thus Ida B. Wells encountered and addressed a variety of worsening social conditions during her years in Memphis. She protested disfranchisement and opposed segregation, in schools and on the railroad. But it was after her flight from Memphis in 1892 that Wells made her most spectacularly effective intervention into deteriorating racial relations in the South. She began to speak about, organize against, and publish her research findings on the escalating practice of lynching.

    The peak year for lynchings of black men by white mobs in the South was 1892. Beginning in 1889, such lynchings had increased dramatically, up to a high of approximately two hundred per year. Throughout the 1890s, African American men remained the overwhelming majority of lynch victims (about 75 percent). As the total number of lynchings then declined during the early 1900s, the racial character of the practice actually intensified (from 1900 to 1909, 90 percent of the victims were black men). Black women were lynched as well—a total of at least seventy-six during the period from 1882 to 1927. But overall, the practice of lynching was defined at the intersection of gender and race by illegal though unpunished violence against black men (there were twice as many lynchings as legal executions in the United States in 1892; lynchers were rarely jailed) deployed to maintain white men's privileged access to political power, economic independence, and domestic spaces where their authority was protected from outer intrusion and inner subversion.

    The historical conditions surrounding this campaign of violence were multiple and complex. Intensified local, state, and national party politics, economic competition, jockeying for access to public space, new theories of "natural" racial hierarchy, changing and contested conceptions of domesticity—all shaped the racial and gendered violence of the 1890s. But the most heated points of conflict centered on three symbolically central sites — votes and elections, representing the political power bestowed upon black men during Reconstruction; property and wages, representing the path of access to middle-class status for black families; and private homes and neighborhoods, representing the bodily integrity, and domestic autonomy and authority that underwrote claims to citizenship throughout the nineteenth century. Black men's claims to votes, property, and domestic privacy constituted the attack on white dominance that was thematized as "rape" and that motivated murders—vengeful murders designed to restore political, economic, and domestic order.

    Other campaigns of violence also coexisted with lynching: westward expansion crescendoed in violence against Native Americans in 1890, as U.S. imperial aspirations beyond the continent consolidated in preparation for the Spanish—Cuban—Filipino—American wars of 1898—1902. This violence was justified with what Sandra Gunning has called a "coalesced rhetoric" of nationalism, eugenics, domestic protection, white racial superiority, and legitimate racial dominance. Justifications for lynching drew on all these themes but rested centrally on the claim to a privileged whiteness—a whiteness constructed partly in and through a culturally powerful narrative. Savage black men, it was claimed, violated white domestic sanctity by raping white women. White men restored order and deterred chaos by lynching the culprits.

    The lynching narrative was not the only narrative of racialized sexual danger and depravity circulating in the United States during the 1890s, but it accrued extraordinary cultural authority during that decade and remained influential well into the next century. Like other narratives of sexuality and violence, this one reverberated in newspapers and courtrooms, "scientific" and professional meetings and publications, political and economic institutions, fiction and polemical speaking and writing. It joined political ideology to cultural fantasy, yet worked to reorder the material conditions of everyday life as effectively as any army or piece of legislation.

    The lynching narrative of the 1890s was structured through race and gender and operated to reconfigure the boundaries of domestic and public spheres, as well as of political and economic institutions. Thematically, it overlapped with other influential narratives of chivalric rescue, such as those found in popular historical romances and in news accounts of imperial adventure: white manhood intervenes against infantilized or demonized racial others to save the day, rewarded by virtuous and grateful women. Such narratives' deployment of a common superior whiteness countered arguments for equality and justice, whether those of Cuba Libre partisans or of Reconstruction radicals, with melodramatic stories of gendered and racial difference.

    During the nineteenth century, most claims to political equality were made in the name of manhood rights, of masculine sameness. All men, according to nineteenth-century appropriations of American revolutionary and other natural rights rhetoric, were created equal. This discourse of gender located difference and naturalized inequality at the male/female divide, working in some instances as a form of political resistance to divisions of race and class among men. The chivalric rescue narratives countered this claim by asserting racial difference in gendered terms. In the lynching narrative specifically, African American men were figured completely outside of domestic and kinship relations as hypermasculine marauders of womanhood. They were represented as bereft of humanizing family lives, as failed and aberrant men, so that they might be legitimately deprived of political rights. Having abdicated the proper excercise of manly domestic authority, for the protection of virtuous women, they could not safely exercise civic authority. And having been revealed as corporeal, sexual, and violent, black men could not deploy the disembodied abstract disinterest required for citizenship—or so the logic of the narrative worked.

    The lynching narrative operated through multiple reversals, displacements, and exclusions. Interracial desire, sexual coercion, and violence were attributed to black men, a reversal of the common practice of white male sexual attacks against black women. White male fears of disfranchisement, dispossession, and emasculation through the reorganizations of Reconstruction were displaced as these experiences were imposed on black men. And the experience of African American women, both disfranchised and subject to unpunished sexual attacks, was entirely excluded?

    The lynching narrative converted political, economic, and social conflict into melodrama through the narrative's mobilizing technologies of sexuality and violence. The story line reflected race and gender relations in a kind of Alice in Wonderland mirror world where everything appeared upside down and backward. The guilty were innocent and the innocent punished for the crimes against them. Race and gender in this mirror world were aligned through the device of the sexual triangle, with the white woman positioned as the passive object of desire. The male rivals were morally polarized, the black villain versus the white hero, with ambivalent desire circulating through all points of the triangle. Set into the melodramatic plot, the triangle connected bodies to identities, through which power and legitimate authority were then established. The sexualized violence of this triangle permeated post-Reconstruction politics in the South and influenced opinion in the North and internationally. The sexual politics of the lynching narrative was always also a politics of citizenship. The sexual rivalry structured by the lynching triangle epitomized a deadly competition over the right to vote, to exercise economic independence, and to protect an autonomous domesticity. The circulation of the narrative through social networks conditioned and justified the outcome of the competition, as U.S. racial apartheid replaced the utopian hopes of radical Reconstruction and settled into place for more than half a century.

    Ida B. Wells, in company with many others, rewrote the lynching narrative and circulated a resistant version internationally through speaking, organizing, and publishing. After leaving Memphis in May 1892, she took her research to black women's clubs and northern newspapers. Relying on information drawn from the mainstream white-owned press, she demonstrated that less than one-third of black men lynched were even accused of rape, and that most of those were not guilty. She published the first of a series of exposé pamphlets, Southern Horrors, in 1892. In it, and in subsequent essays, she reversed the moral terms of lynching's melodrama, arguing that white men were uncivilized, lawless brutes who murdered innocent black men in order to deprive their race of meaningful equality. She suggested that white female "victims" were often the initiators of consensual relations with black men and that they cried rape (or were forced to make rape charges) to save themselves when caught. She placed black men within a violated domestic world, embedded in an endangered black family. She represented white men as the despoilers of innocents and included accounts of lynchings of African American women and children.

    In rewriting the lynching narrative Wells adhered to a gendered structure, but she revised the meanings of gender in constructing what Gail Bederman has called "an alternative discourse of race and manhood." She argued for citizenship rights for black men as "manhood rights," but she reversed the linking of manliness and whiteness to portray white men as unmanly cowards and black men as the manly protectors of African American families. Her most provocative move, however, was her mobilization of a core term of the lynching narrative's erotic triangle—the suppressed agency of the white woman, her passivity and victimization, was refigured in Wells's version as the white woman's choice to engage in consensual sex with a black man. The narrative and the practice of lynching itself were produced to deny this possibility of choice, Wells argued. Such choice so destabilized the white domestic scene and white male authority that it had to be obliterated. In this reversal, Wells converted the alleged consent of supposedly promiscuous black women to white male sexual predation (the white racist belief that black women could not be raped) into the consent of white women to alleged black male ravishment (thus countering the belief that white women having sex with black men could only be raped). It was this reversal, in particular, that galvanized Memphis's "best white people" to drive Wells out of the state and destroy her newspaper.

    Notions of gender constrained Wells's efforts in another way as well. As a particularly vulnerable orphan and single woman, without the protection of father or husband, she confronted attacks against a woman speaking on such sensitive topics in public, and against her personal "virtue" and character. She repeatedly turned to Frederick Douglass and other male supporters in these situations. But she also met these tactics with responses that cleverly turned her gender against her attackers. She delivered the speech that became Southern Horrors in tears and filled it with references to "home" and "friends" to continually reference her place in a protective black domestic world. When the Memphis Commercial countered the success of her speaking tour of England in 1893-94 by circulating accusations of sexual liaisons with male associates at the Free Speech, she shamed them for assailing the character of a lady.

    The efforts of Wells and other antilynching activists did not end lynching, but they did put the practice's defenders on the defensive and made it increasingly difficult for northern liberals to accept the lynching narrative and remain silent. Wells's tour of England also shrewdly placed the Anglo-European links established by the discourse of American whiteness at risk by questioning the "civilization" of white men in the U.S. South particularly and enlisting British condemnations of them. Her success consisted, not in simply denouncing the narrative and the gender and racial categories that structured it but in reworking the characterizations and the plot to mobilize a different melodrama, one that called for heroic action against villainous lynchers. She confronted the poisonous politics of race with an ingenious and extraordinarily effective politics of (counter)narrative.

(Continues...)

The Man Who Stayed Behind


By Sidney Rittenberg, Sr. and Amanda Bennett

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2001 Duke University Press. All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction 1
Part I Murder in Memphis
1 Girl Slays Girl 9
2 A Feast of Sensation 32
3 Habeas Corpus 61
4 Inquisition of Lunacy 87
Part II Making Meanings
5 Violent Passions 123
6 Doctors of Desire 156
7 A Thousand Stories 180
More Than Love: An Epilogue 193
Appendix A Hypothetical Case 201
Appendix B Letters 213
Notes 233
Bibliography 281
Index 299
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2001

    Required Reading

    Lisa Duggan's new book about a turn-of-the century 'Lesbian sex murder' and its contingency to Ida B. Wells' pioneering crusade against lynching is must reading for anyone interested in the intersection of race, class, gender, and economic circumstance in the US. The scholarship is superb, the issues compelling, and the writing lucid. Please don't be detered by the quantity of footnotes--they are a mark of careful research and they can be one's guide to an in-depth exploration of many important areas and sources. This is a book for scholars; this is a book for anyone curious about how race and gender are constructed.

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