Freedom Found in Death

I feel a short of breath and tears begin to blur my eyes as I read about the dark period of American history where over 2,500 African Americans were unlawfully and brutally lynched. Lynching increased after the Civil War as slavery ended and continued well into the 1930s, particularly in the American South. The murdering of African Americans by white mobs was used as a means of social control. Now that African Americans were no longer owned by white slave owners, the white community ruled freed blacks with the noose rather than the whip. With the threat of lynching thick in the Southern air, white people were able to continue ascribing ownership over the black body.

The threat of lynching was a constant in the lives of African Americans during this time. It was as constant as the rising and setting of the sun. It was part of the African American identity. African American authors such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, both dominating the literary scene in the 1920s and 1930s, address the ever present fear of lynching and its physical and psychological effects on the African American. After reading several novellas presented in Wright’s Uncle Toms Children and Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks, I happened upon a common theme threaded through the ostensible framework of Fearful African American vs. Angry White Lynch Mob.

While these stories depict the all too real story of the chase leading up to a lynching attack, the authors allow us an inside look into the characters’ minds. We read of their fears, their frustrations, and for many-their pride. It is through this pride the reader learns of many of the characters’ desires to take their own life before the white mob reaches them. Through this act, the character is able to claim ownership of their life through death. As the African American characters take their own lives, they are no longer under the rule of white society. Autonomy is reclaimed by the African American. Through death, the freedman is truly free.

One of the clearest examples of this literary theme is found in Hughes’ short story, Father and Son in The Ways of White Folks. The protagonist, Bert Norwood, is being chased by an angry lynch mob after choking his father to death. After shooting and killing several of his pursuers, he saves the last bullet for himself. Though Bert is able to remove his soul from the physical world, the mob still ravages his body. Unsatisfied with the fact that Bert took his own life first, the mob goes after his brother, killing and lynching him as well. In this tragic ending the ideology of white society at the time is evident. The reader is left with the chilling reality that white society continued to fuel on the ashes of African Americans, believing they had the authority to take their lives.

3 thoughts on “Freedom Found in Death

  1. I feel the same way as you, Cara, reading these tales of horrific and tragic violence, and I think you’ve tapped into strong theme among many of the stories, the ownership of life through death. The range of emotions you describe fits the mental insight given of Bert, Mann, and Silas quite well. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying here, but I see each situation dominated by one in particular: pride for Bert, fear for Mann, and frustration for Silas. What strikes me in each instance is the inevitability of the confrontation with the white power structure. The hope of escape lingers briefly for Bert and Mann, but ultimately we sense the end is near. If we don’t necessarily anticipate the decision to die on one’s own terms, rather than those of the white mob, we can feel the tension mounting and the conflict coming to a head. As Sarah puts it in “Long Black Song”: “The killing of white men by black men and the killing of black men by white men went on in spite of the hope of white bright days and the desire of dark black nights…And when the killing started in went on, like a river flowing.”

  2. I’m not sure I agree with your idea that the lynch victims found freedom in death, although it is provocative. I think that the victims deprived the lynchers of their “fun” and in doing so gained some measure of dignity. The two exhibitions that we discussed in class are included in an article in American Art that includes many images from the two shows:

    Two Antilynching Art Exhibitions: Politicized Viewpoints, Racial Perspectives, Gendered Constraints
    Helen Langa
    American Art, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1999), pp. 11-39

  3. I know we already discussed this in class, but I can see what Cara means by “freedom in death,” even for lynching victims. Those who took their own lives definitely took the “fun” out of it for lynchers but, as we see in Father and Son, it only perpetuated the violence as the mob moved on to lynch Bert’s brother after he shot and killed himself. I’m not sure what that really says, though. Was it selfish for Bert to do that? I don’t mean selfish in that he “took away the fun” for the lynch mob, but do you think he had any idea that they would move on to kill someone else when he took that power away from them? Also, if his brother hadn’t been lynched and continued in his role as the “good nigger,” would he be safe? Or would he ultimately reach the same fate for another crime he didn’t commit?

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