This Is Our History: Exploring the Reality of Lynching through Creative Stories.

A true understanding of racism in the United States cannot overlook the mental and physical violence perpetrated towards blacks during the Jim Crow era.  Creative works like Langston Hughes’ “Home” and “Father and Son,” W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Of the Coming of John,” or stories from Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children serve to illustrate the extent of racial violence during the Jim Crow era.  The protagonists of these stories are lynched for attempting to raise their social status merely because they are black.  Even something as simple as forgetting to address a white man as “sir,” could be seen as a form of disrespect that could elicit white violence. [1]  The intense intimidation and violence perpetrated during this era is an inseparable part of our racial history.

Stories about the brutality of racism in the Jim Crow era helped to bring the issue to wider public consciousness

 Even black youth were not safe from intense racial violence.  Richard Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home” demonstrates the way that ideas about race and gender often lead to lynching.  The story centers around the violence perpetrated towards four African American youth in the Jim Crow South.  Big Boy and three of his friends decide to go swimming, even though they know the local property owner might attack them for being in his lake.  The story takes a dramatic turn when a white woman comes to the lakeside where the boys are swimming.  The boys, fearing that they could get caught, get out of the water and try to retrieve their clothes, which were left near the position of the woman.  This woman screams for her fiancée, who proceeds to shoot two of the boys.  Big Boy grabs the man’s gun in an attempt to save his third friend, Bobo, and is forced to kill the man in self-defense.  Both boys run home, and Big Boy’s family devises a way for him to escape to the North.  At the end Big Boy is able to escape the white lynch mob, but Bobo is tarred and burned. [2]

The story highlights some major issues pertaining to race relations in the Jim Crow South. The boys may have trespassed on land they should not have, but their actions were merely mischievous, not ill-intentioned.   It is likely that a group of white boys would not have been punished for swimming in the same lake, or would have just been scolded.  However, the crux of the story’s conflict is the boys’ well-intentioned attempt to retrieve their clothes, which was misinterpreted by the woman as being a sexual assault.  This illustrates the pervasive fear that white women were not safe around black men, which is similarly demonstrated in “Home,” when the protagonist is lynched for an innocent interaction with a white woman. [3] On the other hand, “Of the Coming of John” shows the hypocrisy of such racial violence.  The protagonist, John, is chased and killed after attempting to protect his sister from being harassed by a white man.  [4 ]  Jim Crow era racial ideology punished any perceived threat to white women, while ignoring many actual threats perpetrated by white men.

All these creative stories highlight the real racism experienced in the Jim Crow era South.  But they should not be dismissed as unrepresentative of real violence because they are fiction.  Each story contains characteristics similar to the case of Emmett Louis Till.  In August 1955, Emmet left Chicago to visit his extended family in Money, Mississippi.  While in town Emmett whistled at a white woman in a store, an act that was far from criminal in Chicago.  His action spread, and within three days he was found by two white men, beaten, and shot in the head.  The men were arrested for murder, but they were eventually acquitted of the crime. [5]

Photo of Emmett Till in 1854, taken by his mother
The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 sparked nation wide discussion about the problem of racial violence.

The lynching of Emmett Till bears a chilling resemblance to the events depicted in “Home” and “Big Boy Leaves Home,” stories which were written decades before in the 1930s.  This demonstrates the lingering permanence of Jim Crow racial ideology. African Americans in the South were expected to maintain a servile position, which was enforced by the constant threat of violence.  Education and a lack of respect could be viewed as resistance to white privilege, and the protection of white women similarly became a mob rallying call.  True stories of violence were often overlooked during this period, but creative stories provide a glimpse of the severity of Jim Crow racism.

[1] Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children, (Harper Perennial, 2004):  1-15.

[2] Ibid., 17-61.

[3] Langston Hughes, The Ways of White Folks, (Vintage, 1990): 45-49.

[4] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (Dover, 1994): 530-535.

[5] “Reopened Investigation into the 1955 kidnapping and murder of Emmet Till”  http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2004/june/till060104

17 thoughts on “This Is Our History: Exploring the Reality of Lynching through Creative Stories.

  1. Thanks for your post, Keith. In the readings, I was struck by the ways in which the victims’ lives were described. Each of them was, you could say, successful. One had gone to school, another had played music in Europe, and another had a close group of friends, and was loved and cared about in the community. Then everything takes a drastic, tragic turn. Each story follows a similar path. I think, though, that you’re right in your conclusion that this literary device highlights the hypocrisy, the violence, and the cognitive dissonance involved in lynching, whether real or fictional.

    I have to wonder, as others have posted on different threads, how an exhibit can capture these emotions. Is it even sensitive to try to do?

    1. You bring up a very interesting question in terms of exhibiting this. I think a more realistic question may be is it even possible to portray these intense emotions? Although while reading Hughes and the other authors I felt intense emotions, I can truthfully say I will never fully understand how it feels to be an African American at this time. I can definitely empathize with the characters in the stories but to truly understand the hatred and in most cases, helplessness, of these characters is something I doubt I will ever fully grasp. So how can an exhibition roll capture these emotions? It cannot. The exhibit would simply serve to educate the public on how it felt, on the most superficial level, to be black during this period.

      1. Great point, Michelle. We can never fully know what it was like to live through Jim Crow or any another man-made atrocity. I know it’s a lofty goal, but I often wonder if an exhibition can be the catalyst for real and lasting social change, even though we cannot realistically know what it felt like to be the victim of such hatred. So maybe the better question is: how can an exhibit best represent the past, and also help to prevent discrimination from happening in the future?

      2. That’s something I’ve discussed with fellow Social Studies educators. You really have to think about what you want the goals of your lesson, or in this case, your exhibit to be? Can you teach people to be empathetic? Or can you only strive to recreate the intense and strong emotions of the situation to make your point and let your audience go from there? It’s something I’ve discussed in a lot of education classes. I think sometimes the success of things like that also ties to individuals’ backgrounds and personal experiences. I think personal connections play a large role in how people will relate or understand a lesson or exhibit.

      3. As I read these, I keep coming back to Jillian’s comment connecting lynching to the Holocaust. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum deals with some of these same issues: attempting to address atrocities with sensitivity, but also eliciting an emotional response from visitors. Another aspect of the museum is that it has is intended to serve a dual purpose, as a memorial as well as a museum: to remember the victims and inform the public. I wonder what other people think about this connection, if the Holocaust Memorial Museum provides a model for how to (or how not to?) remember victims and deal with the current repercussions of mass murder.

      4. I feel that an exhibit wouldn’t have struck me with as much power as the readings for this week have. I could read about a person’s helplessness on an exhibition wall, but that lacks the immersion of the stories we read. With this week’s readings I became the character and suffered with them. Museums have tried to do this, like the Titanic museum and the Holocaust museum, but when I went to the Holocaust museum I didn’t feel the narrative of the person I followed on a slip of paper. They read like facts which I could distance myself from.

      5. I felt the same way while reading these stories, Stephenie. Reading a short story or book is so immersive and personal that would be very difficult to not experience empathy in some way. I think your raise an interesting question in regards to the challenge history museums have in presenting these really difficult subjects. We present scholarship. And while it would seem cold, harrowing facts would be enough to perhaps force some sort of empathy and understanding that is not always the case. I think incorporating literature like Wright and Hughes that is so incredibly poignant is something that can be done more. If not in an exhibit, possibly from programming and outreach. I know in my high school I never read Richard Wright, W.E.B. Dubois, and a limited amount of Langston Hughes, certainly nothing like what we read for class today. I’m sure that had something to do with time and testing but I also wonder if my teachers or school board would be comfortable with teaching these works. Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps this is an opportunity for museums to expose literature like this to those adults who did not have that experience in grade school or to present it to public school students in informal educational settings.

  2. I think you have pulled a very important point out of the readings, Keith, that the hatred that causes each of the depicted lynchings in someway stems from fear. The white men in the stories saw each African American male character as a threat in someway to their power, whether it be to their women or their status. I think while it is important that we convey how terrible and horrifying these acts of lynching were, as Drew and Michelle have pointed out, this can be problematic. Perhaps a starting place would be to sort out where this hatred came from, though obviously we will never truly understand.

    1. Absolutely. Constantly pointing out the shocking nature of our country’s sins can make things worse. It riles up some people so much that they cannot engage in dialogues with others. I attended a school district where we faced what happened in our past in a very direct manner. It made some students militant about modern civil rights issues. A few years later, I spent a summer in an isolated, homogenous place where people are still extremely ignorant of racial matters, and are apt to say or do things that can be perceived as bigoted but actually have more to do with their ignorance regarding other races. This was not an easy distinction to draw. I imagine that if you took someone from my old school district and put them in a dialogue with someone from the isolated area, things could break down very quickly. The sad irony of this is that the isolated individual is then likely to resent multicultural efforts, since their experience with this is that it opened them up to attacks for things they didn’t do or didn’t mean to do. Now you may have a new racist.

  3. Thanks for the post, Keith. I think you did a good job of point out the fear related to these incidents of lynching. That fear was felt on both sides. African Americans had to behave in a certain way and even a perceived slight could escalate rapidly into a mob of angry white people calling for your life. These reactions were so extreme because of white fears about the given social hierarchy. If African Americans started to challenge that, what would happen to their white privilege? Keith, you made a good point as well about the hypocrisy of sexual assault. Often, racial inequalities were justified as necessary to protect innocent white women from lusty black men who would prey on them if they had the chance. This theme is common and recurring throughout American history. Yet, white men would take advantage of black women with no recourse, and black men could do nothing to help the situation for fear of violence and lynching. I can only imagine how stressful that would have been on family and romantic relationships within the black community. How hard it must have been to know that somebody was being sexually abused and lacking the power to do something about it.

    1. You bring up a good point Emily, it is interesting that white men would be willing to protect white women from lusty black men, you called it, but black women had no way in protecting themselves. I wonder why that is. Did people back then, think that black women would be subservient enough to succumb to the rape?

      1. I wonder if black women were also thought of as being equally interested in sex as black men and that how white men (and society) rationalized the sexual violence.

  4. In reading and thinking about lynchings during the Jim Crow era, I can’t help but wonder about the alleged “crimes” that led to the lynchings, and how many of them didn’t actually happen, or were misinterpreted, or were blown out of proportion, or were committed by someone else, or were in self-defense (like in “Big Boy Leaves Home”) or in response to a previous crime (like in “Of the Coming of John”). It calls into question the justice system in America at this time (and perhaps today as well), and how corrupt it must have been to allow such violence to happen for so long.

    1. We definitely have similar problems in America today, and African Americans are still targeted as potential criminals. Take, for instance, the “Stop and Frisk” law in New York City. As part of the anti-terrorism legislation after 9/11, the NYPD were given the right to stop and frisk anyone suspect of criminal activity. Very soon this law became a way to intimidate and harass African Americans in the city. I experienced this with my friend Dwight this summer. Since moving to NYC last May, he has been stopped 3 or 4 times and frisked by police. Once it happened when we were together, and the police did not even question or look at me. It was a very bizarre experience, one that left Dwight angry and embarrassed. Then take the murder of Trayvon Martin, and George Zimmerman’s acquittal. Zimmerman killed Trayvon because of the perceived threat that Trayvon symbolized to him–a young black male in a hoodie walking alone in a suburban neighborhood. In the end, the jury decided that the perceived threat gave Zimmerman the right to shoot Trayvon.

      1. Yes Jill! Great point, problems like this are still very prominent today. Florida has been on a roll lately with these types of injustices. Recently, a 47-year-old white man, Michael Dunn shot and killed a 17-year-old African American male, Jordan Davis, because he claims the young man was suspicious. What made him suspicious was him being in an SUV with his three friends, playing loud “thug music.” He also claims that he saw the young men with a gun in their car- Police found no gun at the scene AND witnesses say the young men never had one. Dunn, under Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground Law, is pleading self-defense. Sound familiar? This case, similar to Zimmerman’s, is completely absurd and is evidence of prominent race relations that still exist today. Apparently, young African American men cannot sit in a car and play music without someone seeing them as a threat.

        You all can read more here: http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/13/justice/florida-loud-music-trial/

  5. As I’ve been reading through this discussion, it’s been clear that we are trying to interpret this aspect of lynching through a modern perspective of sexual harassment and assault. Going back to Jeannette’s response, it’s important to define what rape really was during this time period (we still haven’t fully defined it today either). For Big Boy and his friends, just being in the presence of a white woman was essentially rape, given her husband’s reaction. Some of the idea comes back to the Bible in Matthew 5:28: “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (KJV). Adultery already happened in the mind, and white men could use this idea to justify their actions, although not when these thoughts applied to African American women.

  6. Keith, even though Emmett Till’s murder occurred years after Du Bois, Hughes, and Wright wrote their essays, I really like how you wove that into your post. If you’re interested, I highly recommend checking out Maurice Berger’s book, For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights. I reference this because there is a great examination of the way Emmett Till’s mother wanted newspapers to publish the horrific photographs of her son’s corpse. There’s also an online exhibition that complements Berger’s book. I’ve provided a link of the section that deals with the Emmett Till photograph (http://www.umbc.edu/cadvc/foralltheworld/section3/index.php), but check out the whole exhibition if you’ve got a chance.

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