Memories of Strange Fruit
Susan Donaldson and her colleagues examine the cultural legacy of lynching from Jim Crow to The Twilight Zone.
"The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." - Faulkner| November 11, 2009
Images of the racial lynching in U.S. history are directly connected with those circulated from Abu Ghraib prison in Susan Donaldson's courses on Southern literature and culture at the College of William and Mary. The latter represent “disturbing echoes” of the former that her students find “unnerving,” Donaldson said.
Donaldson, the NEH Professor of English and American Studies at the College of William and Mary, served as co-editor with Amy Wood (Illinois State University) of a special issue of the Mississippi Quarterly devoted to lynching’s place in American culture. The issue joins the emerging scholarship on this once-hidden American phenomenon by probing it in terms of memory-making. In that sense, the lynching photographs and the interrogation photographs find their parallel.
Donaldson credits publication of James Allen’s Without Sanctuary (2000), a work featuring photographs and postcards of victims of lynching, with catapulting scholarship forward. “Lynching photographs were taken by the perpetrators of the spectacle and, quite often, mailed around the country,” Donaldson said. “In many respects, those photographs pictured not just lynching victims but the mobs, who looked directly at the camera as if to underscore not only their complicity with the event but their sense of bonding with the audiences of those photographs.”
The Abu Ghraib photographs were treated the same way, said Donaldson. Synthesizing an argument made by Katherine Henninger (Louisiana State University) in the journal, Donaldson explained, “they were circulated on the Internet and connected to this whole notion of establishing a boundary line between Americans, on the one hand, and Iraqis, on the other.”
Coming to meaning
Between 1888 and 1945, nearly 4,000 men, women and children were victims, according to estimates contained in the journal. Although there were exceptions, lynching was an act predominantly committed in Southern states by white men against black victims. It was a vehicle for reinforcing “white supremacy” and “bonds of whiteness,” Donaldson explained. In the special issue of the Mississippi Quarterly, Donaldson and the journal’s contributing authors explore the thorny issues involved with attempts to excavate and interrogate the old narratives of lynching after decades of neglect.
The first two essays consider ways in which the violence of lynching held symbolic power for whites and blacks, alike. Donald G. Mathews (UNC-CH) in “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice” posits lynching as a “blood sacrifice” in the context of the widespread evangelical theology that assumed the supremacy of the white race. In that sense, lynching represented a cleansing ritual through which “sin” and “impurity” could be expiated from the dominant society, Matthews argues. The second essay, “Out on a Limb: The Spatial Politics of Lynching Photography,” examines the dispossession represented by the photographs of lynching published in Without Sanctuary in 2000.
Subsequent essays deal with attempts by artists and activists to challenge some of the conventional understanding of lynching as a phenomenon of the Reconstruction-era South, directed against men. Julie Armstrong (USF) considers Mary Turner, a pregnant lynching victim in Georgia in 1918. “Because it disrupted the conventional lynching narrative, artists and writers found it particularly difficult to shape and make meaning from her story … that lay beyond language, beyond sense,” the editors wrote. Christopher Metress (Samford University) looks at Rod Serling’s attempts to represent the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till on his television show The Twilight Zone. Till was murdered after being accused of whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. According to the editors, Serling’s treatment was censored, stymied “at every turn” by executives and sponsors who feared that Southern audiences would be alienated. In another essay, Dora Apel (Wayne State University) addresses the experience of citizens in Duluth, Minnesota, who commissioned the nation’s first lynching memorial, a Memorial Wall in remembrance of three African American men who were hanged in the center of the city in 1920. In order to meet objectives of being a public voice for African American citizens and creating a narrative that white citizens could embrace, the memorial had to present victims in “heroic proportions” while “eclipsing lynching’s horrifying context of white supremacy and black subjugation,” the editors contend.
Of particular interest to Donaldson is an essay submitted by Edwin Arnold (Appalachian State University). It addresses the 1899 lynching of Sam Hose in Newnan, Georgia. The event generated contradictory accounts by local white newspapers, by a white New York newspaper and by an investigator hired by black activists. Arnold’s essay deals with attempts within the community to resolve the conflicting narrative today.
“The Sam Hose lynching haunts Newnan until this day, as well as my own hometown, Griffin, which is about 25 miles away,” Donaldson said. “It was in Griffin that Sam Hose was taken off a train by a mob and taken over to Newnan, where he was lynched in a spectacularly public and gruesome manner.” Donaldson’s great-grandfather was a sheriff in Griffin during the early years of the 20th Century. “He might well have been a spectator,” she added.
Resisting the redemptive narrative
As a scholar whose interest is in the politics of storytelling, Donaldson has several concerns involving what she refers to as the “politics of interpreting atrocities of the past.” One of them involves what she called the time-lag problem.
“Because of the way we construct memory as a society, we sometimes tend to ignore the fact that those memories can be constructed by certain pools of forgetting,” Donaldson said, alluding to the case of Mary Turner. “It has to leave out certain stories that might contradict just what the memory represents.”
Donaldson also recognizes the potential social consequences that are involved in storytelling, including those based on research currently being advanced by trauma theorists. “Scholars have argued that certain events and violence are so disruptive, so painful, so wounding that they cannot be assimilated into either personal or cultural narratives, and that they emerge in other forms. They may emerge in flashbacks, in violence, in forms of hysteria,” she said.
Perhaps chief among Donaldson’s concerns is the ethical danger of generating what she calls “redemptive narratives.” Often, attempts to reconcile violence fail to recognize its extent and impact, she suggested.
“It is all too easy to try to slip these events of violence into narratives that suggest reconciliation or closure or redemption through the suffering of others,” she said. “There is that danger of being complicit in the violence wreaked upon lynching victims by objectifying them, by distancing ourselves, of refusing to acknowledge our complicity simply through the act of looking.”
As a participant in the storytelling, Donaldson balances the conflicting objectives both in her scholarship and in her classrooms, where students arrive with little knowledge of the roles lynching played in the American past.
“What happens if you pay too much attention to the perpetrators, to the white mobs?” she asks. “Does that become a way of silencing the victims? Does that become a way of representing the victims as merely passive? Does it ignore their resistance? Does it ignore their subjectivity? Does it become a way of reinforcing the dehumanization that these rituals were designed to impose?”
She said some of the questions can be applied to events of our own time, such as Clarence Thomas’ reference to his confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate as a “high-tech lynching,” or to TIME magazine’s deliberate darkening of O.J. Simpson’s mug shot on its cover. Her concern extends through the Abu Ghraib photographs and into discussion involving America’s supposed entry into a “post-racial” society.
Race remains an issue that is uncomfortable to many Americans, Donaldson said. Although advocates of America’s post-racial status point to the election of President Barack Obama as evidence, she remains skeptical.
“Here again, that tends to be a form of resolution,” Donaldson said. “It becomes a form of redemption that may be more illusion than a confrontation with the uglier reality of how these issues, how these definitions of race continue to define how we act collectively.”