- Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890–1930 by Koritha Mitchell
We are currently at a juncture where, in no uncertain terms, African American humanity must be underscored. The disruptions known to African American families and communities are all too common and point to a historical legacy of upending household building. As African American families are often left without recourse or a means to reassert the value of their lives, some communities devise alternative means for rebuilding and reaffirmation.
Koritha Mitchell’s Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890–1930, provides readers with a historical legacy and context that reignites the urgency of the present’s collective self-love conversation. Lynching plays are dramas in which lynching, or the threat of lynching, has a major impact on the plot and its actors. Mitchell details African American lynching dramatists’ resistance to state violence and the community project that allowed citizens living in terror to mourn their loved ones, reassert the truth of African American home life and stability, and author a narrative that was authentic and respected by African American consumers. There are resounding parallels between Mitchell’s research and the current #BlackLivesMatter social movement, for instance. Though it is disappointing that an analysis of the impact of lynching dramas could still be relevant to today’s social justice agenda, the stories do provide frameworks for coping with contemporary state violence and reestablishing African American worth and remembrance through community effort.
Mitchell’s thesis begins with an exploration of the innovative means by which African Americans shared their collective biographical truths. Not only did [End Page 101] lynching plays bring an “embodied” memory and practice to life, but also provided a collective literacy authored by the protagonists themselves that challenged the dominant rhetoric casting African Americans as inferior. Lynching playwrights intentionally identified largely African American audiences and created a favored forum where they could engage in the politics of representation on their own terms efficiently and in safe, communal spaces such as living rooms, churches, and barber shops.
This new African American theater laid a foundation for curating community wisdom and highlighted the worth and richness of African American family building. These plays created a parallel public space in which African Americans could both safely disseminate their truths and also cultivate a collective embodied practice marked by both a mourning and a celebration of Black lives. The circulating postcards, artifacts, and effigies that were prized by lynch mobs and their supporters could not be permitted to serve as the only record of their loved ones’ existence.
The book concludes with a gendered analysis of how lynching African American men served to undermine household building and affected a lasting emasculation. First, the trauma felt by women—wives, sisters, and mothers who bore witness—cannot be overstated and it is no coincidence that both the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the drafting of lynching dramas are labors led by African American women. Hence, lynching dramatists underscored African American women’s love for their partners, brothers, fathers, and their own children, and the connection between women’s vulnerability and self-empowerment and men’s emasculation is profound. Second, the notion that African American men were unable to protect their families disrupted heteronormative patriarchal norms that European American society had propagated and perpetuated African Americans’ inability to fully participate in those conventions. These lynching dramas provided a counternarrative to the myths of African American irresponsibility and sought to reaffirm efforts to build whole and stable households.
Mitchell’s Living with Lynching is thoroughly researched and exquisitely written. It is timely and a necessary read for anyone committed to repurposing historical African American strife for reconstruction and celebration. Too often scholars may cast African American art as serving to alter dominant European American attitudes instead of seeing this work as reserved for African American consumption and as a platform through which communities might recognize and applaud our own excellence. African Americans must remember and celebrate that excellence...