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The Discourse of Violence: Transatlantic Narratives of Lynching during High Imperialism
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The Discourse of Violence:
Transatlantic Narratives of Lynching during High Imperialism

Occurring in the wake of emancipation and coinciding with a period of high imperialism, lynching in the late nineteenth century American South was one example of how violence denied participation in white-led society to colonial peoples. In the United States and throughout Great Britain and her colonies, supporters of white domination drew on lynching and its supporting arguments to create powerful narratives of exclusion. Lynching - beyond providing a platform for apologists to circumscribe the promises of emancipation — also prompted reformers to create a counter-narrative that not only relied on older strategies of religiosity-infused protest but that also addressed the political implications of emancipation. This paper uses the highly publicized 1893 lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas as a portal to explore the transatlantic discourse of race and gender that highlighted the larger debate about the meaning of rights in a post-emancipated, imperial world.1

After the Emancipation Act of 1833, all peoples, both in the metropole and the colony were British subjects.2 This status required a fealty to the British crown and, in return, guaranteed basic protections. British legal code did not specifically define citizenship and just who was a citizen and what this status implied was highly contested terrain throughout the nineteenth century.3 In the last half of the nineteenth century, citizenship became paramount in both discussions of self-government in the Empire and of reform movements in the metropole, and correlated, most simply, with the right to vote. The vote meant much more than the permission of the ballot and, in fact, symbolized the political, social, and cultural rights of active citizenry.4

The grand experiment in citizenship for black peoples in the British Empire occurred in Jamaica where, by the 1840s, black men had limited voting rights and a small representation in the House of Assembly. Whatever inclusive promise these rights portended soon slipped amidst the declining economic fortunes of free-labor sugar production, the fear caused by the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the violence of the Morant Bay rebellion and reprisals of 1865, and the general disbelief that black populations had advanced out of their “half-civilized” status.5 In March of 1866, Parliament declared Jamaica a Crown Colony, with a significantly more restricted electorate - which excluded all of the island’s black population - selecting only half of the governing Legislative Council.6 As the United States began its experiment with black citizenship in July of the same year with the 14th amendment, Great Britain had differentiated its colonial populations away from the political, social, and cultural empowerment of citizenship.

Following the hopes and failings of Reconstruction, moreover, the inclusive promise of the abolitionist slogan “Am I not a man and a brother?” gave way to transatlantic hesitancy concerning just how “prepared” black people were for the responsibility of citizenship.7 Aided by the hardening contours of scientific racism, late nineteenth century white society shied away from the inclusionary tenets that the anti-slavery movement implied and, instead, gravitated toward exclusionary positions that designated black people as different.8 This exclusionary marking helped underwrite the militarism and violence of the post-Scramble imperial surge, which produced consistent brutality toward colonial peoples. The transgressions in the Belgian Congo, the proliferation of lynching in the American South, and the wars against native populations in Rhodesia are some examples of how white domination and its supporting language of racial difference perpetuated violence in the late nineteenth century.

While the Belgian Congo and Southern Rhodesia are traditionally recognized as colonial areas, this paper accepts the argument of W. E. B. Du Bois, which accurately contextualizes the late nineteenth century American South as a colonial space. In a time of overt white expansion, the position of African-Americans in the late nineteenth century American South fit Du Bois’ definition of colonial peoples: “[they are] poverty-stricken, with the lowest standards of living; they are for the most part illiterate and unacquainted with the systematized knowledge of modern science; and they have little or no voice in their own government, with a consequent lack of freedom of development.”9 To Du...