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Donaldson: Lynching and American culture

Images of the racial lynching in the United States 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 & Mary. The latter represent "disturbing echoes" of the former that her students find "unnerving," Donaldson said.

Donaldson, a professor of English and American studies at the College of William and Mary, served as co-editor with Amy Wood (Illinois State University) of "The Mississippi Quarterly's Special Issue on Lynching and 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.

"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."

Acts of lynching seemed almost commonplace during the late 19th century and early 20th century. 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," she and the journal's contributing authors explore the thorny issues involved with attempts to excavate and interrogate the old narrative of lynching after decades of neglect.

Of particular interest to Donaldson is an essay submitted by Edwin Arnold (Appalachian State University). It addresses the 1899 lynching of Sam Hose in Newman, Georgia. "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 said.

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." Perhaps chief among them 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.

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 re-enforcing the dehumanization that these rituals were designed to impose?"

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 of 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."