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  • Under Lynching’s Shadow:Grimké’s Call for Domestic Reconfiguration in Rachel
  • Anne Mai Yee Jansen (bio)

The violent act of lynching, despite its myriad effects on African American life in the early twentieth century, was rarely the focal point of lynching plays during this era. These plays, most of which were written by black women playwrights, typically focus on the looming or lingering threats of lynching and the repercussions of these threats within the domestic space. In her book Living with Lynching, Koritha Mitchell points out that “lynching plays emphasize the lasting damage that mob violence did to households, not just bodies, and to communities, not just individuals” (9). She also argues that “[n]ot all victims were shot or burned or hanged, but all of their families were diminished. To tell the truth about lynching, the dramatists focus on the home, not the body” (“Antilynching” 222). Focusing on the home allowed African American dramatists to create affirming portrayals of black families that challenged the dehumanizing images that proliferated with modern photography. Angelina Weld Grimké was among the “African American women writers [who] responded to this new, modern form of racial-domestic violence [lynching] by stretching literary form to—and beyond—its limits in order to enact their protests against it and against a modernity that permitted it” (English 119). In the following examination of the “racial-domestic” terror of lynching and its impact on the home space of the families that were “diminished” by it I discuss insights into the various realities the threat of lynching brought into being.

Since the authors of lynching plays were not typically interested in portraying the violence of the lynching act itself, many of them used theater to illustrate the ways in which lynching’s after-effects intruded on every aspect of the lives of African Americans. According to Judith Stephens, “Lynching plays by women challenged at the deepest level the hierarchical power relationships based on gender and race. The strength of their indictment lay in their representation of how these structures of domination were played out in everyday life” (8). It is specifically the “hierarchical power relationships based on gender” in which I am most interested here. Because the “structures of domination” infiltrated everyday life in the home, I explore how lynching drama questions the effectiveness in black families of adhering to traditional roles, offering a critique of respectability and wondering aloud at the efficacy of black propriety.

Yet these plays call other roles into question as well: those shaped by stereotypes. Many early African American playwrights “were writing against the stereotypical portrayals of blacks on stage by white playwrights. Commonly for black men, the stereotypical images were those of the comic buffoon, the lazy shiftless Negro, the Uncle Tom, and the savage Negro brute, while for black women there were the sexless domineering mammy types, the loose trollops, and the tragic mulattoes” (Hester 249). These stereotypical roles were often the only ones made available to African Americans in mainstream theater. The proliferation of these roles—especially the “savage Negro brute” and the “loose trollop”—is inherently tied to the real-life drama of lynching, since these images of African American men and women often laid the foundation for justifying such murders. It is no surprise, then, that many lynching plays demonstrated significant interest in “the political parameters of gender, race, and patriarchal authority and were constantly engaged with these issues” (Carby 332). [End Page 391] Those who wrote lynching plays used the genre to counteract mainstream images of African Americans, especially as they portrayed black families, and to rethink popular representations of black men and women.

Lynching plays emerged from the antilynching movements of the early twentieth century, and as such are important texts that document not only the effects of lynching on black families but also the work that African Americans were doing to ensure that lynching did not succeed in destroying African American culture, history, or citizenship. In A Spectacular Secret, Jacqueline Goldsby approaches the literature of lynching not by reading history into these works, but by reading history “out of them to discern how American writers understood the meanings of lynching and its effects as a tactic...


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pp. 391-402
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