Lynching is both spectacle and specter. Amy Louise Wood and Koritha Mitchell’s recent studies reconceptualize the framework with which we have come to understand spectacle, performance, and racial violence. In Amy Wood’s Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890–1940, and Koritha Mitchell’s Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890–1930, theatre and performance studies emerge as critical sites of inquiry that reveal the full weight of lynching’s cultural significance. These works also reveal a persistent imbalance in our understanding of how spectacles of racial violence affect the communities they target and how that effect is theorized.
Wood submits that the cultural impact of lynching and white supremacy arose from its “spectacle: the crowds, the rituals and performances, and their sensational representations in narratives, photographs, and films” (3). Lynching’s photographic and filmic iterations eventually played conflicting roles, initially bolstering white supremacy but gradually fueling the anti-lynching movement. Wood describes the ways in which public lynchings, beginning in the 10th century, were rooted in “the traditional social performance of public executions” (24). And yet, “When lynch mobs staged rituals of public executions, [...] they did so in exaggerated and distorted forms, with a degree of sadism that far exceeded the most boisterous hanging-day crowd” (24). Wood also adumbrates connections between lynching spectacles and religiosity, describing the way Christian tropes and rituals became hallmarks of public lynchings. Wood’s treatise ends with the claim that due to the work antilynching movements did to separate lynching images “from local practices and transforming them into icons of oppression” (269), lynching now exists mainly as a spectacle and has lost much of its potency for contemporary viewers.
To make this argument, Wood uses a variety of photographic evidence. Evocative images of lynching scenes are juxtaposed with photographs of white hunters and their animal trophies, and alleged white victims of black crime. Wood also introduces photographs of fake, “staged” lynchings. Images of mock executions were part of a cultural conversation in which white supremacy offered absolution and normalized extreme racial violence. Staging executions could be a family pastime. This strategic use of lynching photographs connects Wood’s work to a scholarly tradition that includes Without Sanctuary, edited by James Allen (2000), and Lynching Photographs, by Dora Apel and Shawn M. Smith (2008). And yet, Wood desires not only to awaken us to the existence of lynching’s visual history, or to catalog it, but to begin to theorize the functions of such horror within mainstream white visual arenas and how they became, for some, sources of delight. [End Page 182]
Wood’s examination of the relationship of the visual realm to racial violence and constructions of whiteness points to the ways lynching both created “a symbolic representation of white supremacy as a spectacle of demonic and wicked black men against a united and pure white community” (67) and was “a spectacle of virtuous and sanctified white supremacy and brought individual whites together in a communal devotion to it” (61). Wood attempts to outline the ways in which lynching ceremonies became an opportunity for Southern whites to define and bolster a sense of whiteness. Readers are repeatedly reminded that lynching emerged in the Southern United States as a response to a modernity in which blacks could not always easily be relegated to objecthood and the meaning of white masculinity was in flux. Lynching and Spectacle traces the ways the performative and visual elements of public lynchings during the early 20th century brutally inducted white Americans into ways of being and knowing that rendered them absolutely separate from African Americans and reinforced white supremacy.
While far-reaching, Wood’s treatise lacks an investigation of the role of black spectators and viewers, those anomalous figures who often appear...