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A Southern Sublimation: Lynching Film and the Reconstruction of American Memory

From: The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 40, Number 2, Spring 2008
pp. 102-120 | 10.1353/slj.0.0013

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History, Genre, Projection

"As I am finishing this book," National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) executive secretary Walter White writes in How Far the Promised Land? (1955), "something seems to have been left out. It would have been impossible a quarter century ago, or, for that matter, a decade ago, to write a book on the status of the American Negro without devoting at least one voluminous chapter to lynching" (229). Seemingly ubiquitous in American culture during the early decades of the twentieth century, lynching was on the wane by the 1950s. This was cause for relief, of course, but it also gave White pause to remember the need to remember. Even though lynching practices, whether in spectacles that attracted thousands and generated carnival settings or in isolated night-riding episodes with only a few participants, had been an open secret in American life for decades, they were sparsely documented in official records and public discourse. The number of lynchings between 1880 and 1930, a period in which lynching became popular in the American South and overwhelmingly targeted black men, has never been known with accuracy. The local white press in places where lynchings occurred was notoriously vague and unreliable on the subject. Criminal prosecution was nonexistent. Federal anti-lynching legislation, proposed regularly since 1919, was invariably filibustered to death. Amid this vacuum of leadership it had fallen to the much smaller black press and to civil rights organizations like the NAACP to attempt any sort of record-keeping, as White did in his earlier book-length treatment of the subject, Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch (1929). "There have been lynched in the United States 4951 persons in the forty-six years between 1882 and extending through 1927," begins his sobering, statistics-laden appendix, a rare sort of document for its time (227).

By 1955, though, at the end of Walter White's life and career, with the incendiary presence and imagery of lynching largely disappeared from the immediate experience of so many Americans, black and white alike, lynching had begun a new phase of contestation in the realm of memory. The death of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago lynched while visiting relatives in Mississippi, powerfully initiated this phase. Helpless to prevent her son's death or the acquittal of his killers, Till's mother launched a campaign for the mass memorialization of her son's lynching. Her decisions to display his mutilated and swollen body (found several days after the killing in the Tallahatchie River) in an open casket, and to publish photographs of his body in Jet magazine, contributed to Till's becoming perhaps the most famous lynching victim in an American history more notable for the anonymity and invisibility of those victims. The episode as a whole came soon before the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and served as one of the key events in the nascent civil rights movement.

Because the official record was so indifferent to lynching's presence and influence, mass culture became an increasingly important site where lynching was represented and contested, often in innovative and surprising ways. Consequently, much of the recent scholarship that has revisited lynching in an effort to understand its historical and psychological impact has benefited from the wide-ranging, if uneven, documentation of the phenomenon in mass cultural artifacts and representations.1 James Allen's haunting photography exhibit and book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000), for example, is composed largely of lithographic and photographic postcards of the dead, whose photographers, in Allen's words, "compulsively composed silvery tableaux (natures mortes) positioning and lighting corpses as if they were game birds on the wing." Allen accounts not just for the motives of the makers of these images, but also for those of their disseminators and collectors. "Lust propelled the commercial reproduction and distribution of the images, facilitating the endless replay of anguish. Even dead, the victims were without sanctuary" (204–205). Yet even as Allen impugns the crass and deadly impulses that created and kept such images alive, his work suggests that obeying such impulses on a mass scale made today's discernment of the contours...