Living with Lynching: Afrincan American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890-1930

Living with Lynching: Afrincan American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890-1930

by Koritha Mitchell

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252036491
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 10/04/2011
Series: New Black Studies Series Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Koritha Mitchell is an associate professor of English at The Ohio State University.

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Living with Lynching

African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890–1930


Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03649-1


Whose Evidence? Which Account?

When we hear the word "lynching," most of us think of a hanging body, what Billie Holiday famously called "strange fruit." This image has recently become even more powerful as the pictures produced by mobs have reentered circulation, usually as part of an effort to educate the public about an often-ignored chapter in U.S. history. In these photographs, a crowd typically surrounds the "criminal" it has subdued, and the corpse is often still hanging from a tree, telephone pole, or bridge. Yet during the same decades in which these pictures were originally created and distributed, African Americans wrote plays about mob violence that tell stories strikingly different from those suggested by lynching photography.

Living with Lynching considers the difference between the depictions of racial violence favored by mobs and those valued by targeted communities. These groups were invested in recording and preserving different sorts of evidence about the events that shaped their time. While the mob's efforts centered on black death, African American dramatists helped their communities to live, even while lynching remained a reality that would not magically disappear. In the process, these playwrights created the unique genre of lynching drama.

Lynching plays survive in the archive to enhance our understanding of the United States at the turn into the twentieth century; the genre was developed by African Americans aware of their communities' strategies for living with lynching—strategies that required a keen understanding of U.S. culture. Generally, studies of African Americans who lived during the decades between 1890 and 1930 are overrun with explanations for antiblack violence. Some have found that the more than four thousand African Americans killed by mobs were victims of whites who could not adjust to their own economic hardships. Others have focused on the sexual anxieties that prompted the violence. Studying the period, I have constantly wondered: How did blacks survive this era? How did they think of themselves at a time when public discourse cast them as brutes who deserved to be butchered? How did they maintain a dignified sense of self when photographs of mutilated lynch victims entered their homes along with the news? When the mob was a palpable threat to their own bodies, families, and communities, how did they manage "to keep on keeping on"? And how did they continue to believe in their status as U.S. citizens?

I contend that lynching plays served as mechanisms through which African Americans survived the height of mob violence—and its photographic representation—still believing in their right to full citizenship. By definition, lynching plays address mob violence, but as this study reveals, the genre's foundational scripts do not represent, or even describe, the brutalized black body. As theater historians Kathy Perkins and Judith Stephens assert in their anthology of representative scripts, "A lynching drama is a play in which the threat or occurrence of a lynching, past or present, has major impact on the dramatic action." Though American writers had always addressed racial violence, the mode developed, Perkins and Stephens maintain, "when playwrights moved beyond brief references and focused on a specific lynching incident" (4). Four remarkable women laid the foundation for lynching drama: Angelina Weld Grimké, who penned Rachel in 1914; Alice Dunbar-Nelson, who wrote Mine Eyes Have Seen in 1918; Mary Burrill, who published Aftermath in 1919; and Georgia Douglas Johnson, who was the most prolific, with A Sunday Morning in the South (1925), Blue Blood (1926), Safe (1929), and Blue-Eyed Black Boy (c. 1930). In this study, I examine these plays, as well as another by a black woman and two by black men: Myrtle Smith Livingston's For Unborn Children (1926), G. D. Lipscomb's Frances (1925), and Joseph Mitchell's Son-Boy (1928).

In contrast to mainstream photographers, dramatists who lived and wrote in the midst of lynching often refused to feature physical violence; their scripts spotlight instead the black home and the impact that the mob's outdoor activities have on the family. Indeed, the dramas most commonly depict exactly what mainstream discourse denied existed: loving black homes. According to dominant assumptions, mobs targeted African Americans because they represented an evil that would destroy society: black men were supposedly rapists who cared nothing for stable domesticity, and black women were said to be whores incapable of creating it anyway. Meanwhile, the dramatists offered their communities scripts that preserve the truth these myths disregarded. They portray black characters leading ordinary lives in domestic interiors where they affectionately sustain each other.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson's 1918 lynching play Mine Eyes Have Seen exemplifies the genre's focus on the black home and the effect of racial violence on it. This one-act script appeared in Crisis magazine, the official organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The father of the featured characters was lynched years earlier, and his death frames the current action. The main characters are identified primarily in terms of their familial bonds: Lucy is "The Sister," Chris is "The Younger Brother," and the eldest sibling Dan is announced as "The Cripple." Placing the black family center stage, the play dramatizes the extent to which mobs mutilated black households, not just black bodies. Long after the father's corpse has deteriorated, pain reverberates among those left behind.

By focusing on the survivors of mob violence, Dunbar-Nelson's script offers access to the conversations that African Americans may have had at the turn of the century, and her characters contend that black success attracts the mob. Their discussion highlights the fact that whites made a display of their impatience with black prosperity. Dan recalls that there were "notices posted on the fence" for them to leave town "because niggers had no business having such a decent home." Soon, the house was set on fire. In an attempt to stop the vandals, the father went outdoors, where he was "shot down like a dog." Chris later wonders, "And for what? Because we were living like Christians." Dunbar-Nelson's characters articulate an understanding of the mob's practices that has not shaped the historical record to the extent that lynching drama suggests it should. The genre insists that when blacks affirm themselves, obtaining hard-earned success by minding their own business, whites respond.

Dunbar-Nelson's script and the black-authored archive of which it is a part suggest that African Americans interpreted lynching as master/piece theater. That is, when real-life lynchings became theatrical, whites literally used pieces of black bodies as props to perform their master status. In other words, African Americans viewed lynching as a theater of mastery in which whites seeking (not assuming) racial supremacy used the black body as muse, antagonist, and stage prop. The vengeance with which some whites performed their supposedly superior status is quite revealing. As cultural theorists have long contended, hegemony is never complete; it must continually reassert itself. Thus, if white supremacists denied black humanity, black familial ties, and achievement, African Americans must have been convincingly establishing it.

Dunbar-Nelson suggests exactly that, and she does so in a text that is itself a way of establishing the black achievement that whites sought to erase. Her play reminds African American readers that they are not hunted because they are a race of criminals; indeed, the text and the periodical in which it appears, Crisis magazine, certify the existence of the kinds of people who belong to these communities: authors, editors, and readers, to name a few. In other words, Dunbar-Nelson produces the kind of cultural self-affirmation that may very well beckon the mob. The drama certainly acknowledges that racial violence is a threat, but it insists that the threat is to those successes that the race has already established and actively continues to augment. If mob violence was a response to already-existent black achievement and black-authored beauty (Lucy remembers the garden they used to have, for instance), then Dunbar-Nelson's text is yet another example of those accomplishments and aesthetic contributions.

Why, then, do so many insist upon placing the label "protest art" on creative works by African Americans that address lynching? Why do scholarly analyses so frequently end with explanations of the extent to which such art responds to white supremacy? Is it possible that black art about lynching is a continuation of African Americans' self-affirmation? Might such art simply be the kind of community-centered success to which white mobs responded?

Recently, additional hindrances have arisen to slow recognition of the insights presented by black-authored texts. Namely, photographs of lynch victims have come to dominate understandings of mob violence. In January 2000, nearly one hundred photographs of mob victims reentered circulation via gallery installations and a book of photography called Without Sanctuary. The African American bodies depicted are often bullet-ridden, burned, or both. The images commanded enough interest to take the $60 book of photography into six editions during its first six years of existence. The photographs also helped to sustain academic conferences and journal issues on racial violence as well as major museum exhibitions around the country and a virtual installation on the World Wide Web. Perhaps most remarkably, the pictures led the U.S. Senate to issue in June 2005 a formal apology for having never passed antilynching legislation.

Taken from a privileged position of safety at lynchings, the pictures rarely represent the perspectives of African Americans; still, the message boards on the Without Sanctuary website document what seems to be the collection's perspective-changing power. In chorus with site visitors, many of my students have said that the photographs made them realize how often—and how brutally—the United States has contradicted its claim to being a color-blind democracy. They say, for example, that they now appreciate why African Americans seem to be more suspicious of the legal system than whites. Knowing that the police "let such atrocities happen" opened their eyes.

My students and the senators believe that the pictures reveal a deep truth about racial violence, and their confidence arises from much more than the authority that modern society has always granted to photography as a conduit to "the real." After all, few can claim not to have heard these lyrics: "Southern trees bear strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves, blood at the root/ Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees." Billie Holiday made these words famous with her 1939 recording of Lewis Allan's ballad, and since then several generations have heard its haunting message. Versions of the song have come from artists ranging from Nina Simone to Sting, from Dwayne Wiggins to British reggae band UB40. If the "Strange Fruit" lyrics made us imagine the hanging body, the photographs challenged us to face it, and many have risen to this challenge because we were already convinced that the hanging body is the most "natural" and most logical way to represent mob destruction.

The embodied practice of singing that song or reciting those lines has lent credibility to mainstream photographs as an archive to be valued for what it can tell us about mob violence. By embodied practice, I mean any bodily act that conveys meaning. The term is deliberately broad, building on Performance Studies, which emphasizes the centrality of performance in how human beings make culture and live their lives. Embodied practices can include speaking or singing, grimacing or gesturing, hugging or hitting, reading a script dramatically or performing in full costume. In emphasizing embodied practice, I acknowledge, following Diana Taylor, that "embodied and performed acts generate, record, and transmit knowledge" (21). However, their importance can be diminished by a tendency to look to documents, including photographs, for establishing "truth." Yet knowledge can reside in the flesh, so to speak, even when one does not seek to reproduce it. As Joseph Roach has suggested, expressive movements can be "mnemonic reserves" whereby patterns are "remembered by bodies" (26). Likewise, cultural memory is "embodied and sensual, ... conjured through the senses" (Taylor 82). So, the many people who have recited the "Strange Fruit" lines or hummed its tune may not deliberately convey certain messages—such as "corpses best represent mob destruction"—but embodied acts "reconstitute themselves, transmitting communal memories, histories, and values from one group/generation to the next" (Taylor 21). This study therefore understands "embodied practice as an episteme and a praxis, a way of knowing as well as a way of storing and transmitting cultural knowledge and identity" (Taylor 278). As well, knowledges and identities are preserved and generated as much through the mundane practices of everyday life as through formal theater.

Without question, then, embodied practices help account for why lynching photographs have become so influential. Even as historians privilege the supposed objectivity and stability of the archive, knowledge has been shaped by singing (the artists' and our own). Scholars prioritize documents because they seem simply to record facts and remain immune to the corruption and ephemerality of performance, but, in truth, our familiarity with renditions of that famous song has helped to determine the value placed on lynching photographs.

Living with Lynching therefore takes seriously questions of how archives come into existence and why they have been preserved. After all, there are many ways to access lynching history, but only the pictures in Without Sanctuary inspired the Senate's apology. When we pause to ask why, we find that the nation has again allowed the archives left by perpetrators to eclipse all others.

Decades of antilynching activism and testimony from victimized black families did not move the nation's leaders at the last turn of the century, and today they are not the inspiration for the Senate's historic gesture or for the majority of lynching scholarship. Instead, white-authored photographs have become the evidence that simply cannot be ignored. Granted, this is partly out of the spirit of letting the murderers condemn themselves. As art historian Dora Apel argues, "the loss to historical understanding incurred by refusing to see [these pictures] would only serve to whitewash the crimes of white supremacy" (6). But this reasoning does not change the fact that when we treat images of mutilated bodies as the ultimate evidence of lynching destruction, we reaffirm the authority of the mob. Ultimately, it is because they come from white perpetrators themselves that we have allowed the images to continue to trump testimony from victimized communities. By treating the pictures as records, we pretend that they offer an objective view, that they are less biased than the testimonies of those targeted by this terror. But the pictures are anything but objective. They represent a particular perspective, and they helped the mob to accomplish its work, during and long after the victim's murder. The photographs did not simply document violence; they very much perform(ed) it.

In fact, the Without Sanctuary collection exists because mobs incorporated photography into their rituals. Black success and beauty may have attracted white violence, but whites insisted upon the beauty of their vengeance: there was an art to the mob's deed. Between 1890 and 1930, lynchings were frequently theatrical productions, so newspapers often announced the time and location so that crowds could gather. Spectators knew that they would see familiar characters (so called black "rapists" and white "avengers") and that these characters would perform a predictable script of forced confession and mutilation. Souvenir hunting would complete the drama with audience participation, but because the most coveted keepsakes (such as the victim's bones and burnt flesh)13 were in limited supply, pictures became souvenirs. Because photographs served as mementos, they survive today to verify lynching's theatrical qualities and the variety of stages that mobs claimed, for bodies dangle not just from trees, but also light posts, telephone poles, and bridges.


Excerpted from Living with Lynching by KORITHA MITCHELL Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois . Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Whose Evidence? Which Account?....................1
1. Scenes and Scenarios: Reading Aright....................23
2. Redefining "Black Theater"....................43
3. The Black Soldier: Elevating Community Conversation....................81
4. The Black Lawyer: Preserving Testimony....................115
5. The Black Mother/Wife: Negotiating Trauma....................147
6. The Pimp and Coward: Offering Gendered Revisions....................175
Key Considerations....................193
Works Cited....................231

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