Saturday, December 29, 2012

Just Finished Reading

I don't often come across works of history that make me cringe. When reading about difficult subjects, whether it be combat, slavery or some other unpleasant topic, I usually try to understand the context of that era and tell myself that it is important to know about these things and why they happened.

The subject of lynching is one such topic. It is difficult for us today to understand how these episodes could happen, but author Amy Louise Wood in Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940, handles the subject intelligently and provides explanations for why this type of terrorism was implemented and its publicity fortunately and ultimately proved to beckon its demise.

Lynching, although more common in the Southern United States than elsewhere in America, happened in locations across the nation. And, not only African American were the victims. Immigrants and others of non-Protestant religions also felt the wrath of mob vigilante actions. Wood concentrates her research, however, on towns and cities of mainly three Southern states; Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.

The focus of Wood's work is how lynchings became a form of visual interest. The South, after the Civil War, became less homogeneous with each passing year. Northerners came to the Southern states for a variety of reasons, and after slavery ended, immigrants no longer spurned the South as they had when the "peculiar institution" was the system of labor. Due to this lack of homogeneity white supremacy, according to Wood, had to be "constructed and established and that required constant replenishing and constant reenvisioning. That is, they needed to be performed and witnessed." And lynching often fit that bill.

Wood starts with a look at how public criminal executions were experienced and how they evolved from being open public events to being more restricted private occasions. She also covers how religion often figured into the the white supremacy mentality of lynching. Wood contends that "lynch mobs and their advocates had to impose the familiar Protestant notions of sin and retribution onto what were, in many ways, new forms of racial violence and new conceptions of white supremacy."

Of special interest to me was Wood's coverage of how photography, especially postcards, were used to spread the "spectacle" of lynching to those that had not attended the event. "Photographing a lynching marked the occasion as special, worthy of the camera's view, but it also made what was an extraordinary event somewhat familiar, especially because white southerners would have posed for and interpreted these images through their experiences with other, more typical photographic forms and practices, such as portraiture and hunting photographs."  Wood's comparison of lynching images and those of animal hunting parties, what with dogs and men and guns, and both with their hanged prey displayed is especially disturbing  but significant.

Turning the tables, Wood shows how individual and group anti-lynching advocates, such as Ida Wells Barnett and the NAACP skillfully used the same photographic images to attack lynching that spectators used to promoted the act. Lynching images were provided to show the grisly, inhumane, and unlawful realty of vigilante justice. These were printed in advocacy newspapers and magazines and made available to state and especially national lawmakers in the hope of changing public opinion and spurring legislative measures against lynching.

Also discussed at length was how early moving pictures such as Birth of a Nation and others were viewed by many African Americans as promoting lynching, and finally how Hollywood used movies like Fury and They Won't Forget to "indict" lynching.

While it was indeed disturbing to see the images of lynching parties and read about the results of their acts, what I learned from Lynching and Spectacle was certainly important. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.5.

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