- Troubling the "Beat Inevitable":Brooks, Ellison, and the Cultural Logic of Lynching
"It's the cameras that are new," Ta-Nehisi Coates told an audience at the Union Baptist Church in Baltimore. "It's not the violence that's new" ("Ta-Nehisi").1 Our anxious times—police shootings, Facebook feeds teeming with bloody videos, post-election hate crimes, refugee and immigrant bans, "alt-right" attacks on anti-racist activists—represent something recent and something with deep roots in this country. "The evil of slavery wasn't involuntary servitude," argues Equal Justice Initiative director Bryan Stevenson. "It was this narrative of racial difference, this ideology of white supremacy." While slavery technically ended, that narrative and its underlying ideology persisted, in black codes, convict leasing, Jim Crow, and lynching. Often widely publicized spectacles, lynchings were also followed by silencing and denial, lasting into the present. Civil-rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill argues for truth-telling and community dialogue in her 2007 book, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century. "For truth-telling to have reconciliatory benefits," Ifill writes, people of different races need to talk with each other and imagine each other's perspectives. She acknowledges that "race talk can be a messy business, at least initially. The outcomes may seem uncertain. But what is the alternative?" (136). Such "race talk" often takes place in the literature classroom; ideally, we find ways to conduct this "messy business" as productively as possible, with vibrant texts as points of departure, ground rules for class discussion, and at least some shared understanding of what is at stake in these conversations. Teaching the literature of lynching can help us confront contemporary legacies of lynching, justifications of violence, and strategies for resistance.
When instructors of multi-ethnic literature teach representations of violence, we can explore point of view as both literary device and political strategy to engender dialogue about community accountability and systemic violence. Point of view is a narrative tool and a real question that goes to the heart of identity, empathy, dehumanization, and violence. Such analysis allows students to discuss not only who tells the story but also the access and limitations embedded in that viewpoint. My students can recite point-of-view categories learned in high school: first-person, third-person, omniscient, objective, limited, involved, unreliable. [End Page 113] I try to move us from recitation to contending with what it means to see something from one angle and not another. A literary work forces the reader inside the narrator's eyes, and that experience can be instructive about how we are otherwise forced into particular vantage points, depending on our subject positions. The extreme violence of lynching requires white participants and bystanders to remain locked within the dominant point of view, to internalize white supremacist narratives of black criminality, and to refuse to see the fellow human beings they murder and terrorize. This is not to suggest that racial violence is merely the result of a failure of perspective. Limited point of view—rendering invisible the machinery of stereotype and privilege—is a requirement of racism, not its root cause. I examine complex point of view as a potent literary tool that can challenge this narrow perspective. Complex point of view can mean several things, including the use of multiple perspectives, a tension between author and narrator, or a narrative point of view that sees nuance and intricacy even if the character in question does not. I will analyze point of view in two literary explorations of lynching told from the perspective of white bystander-participants: Gwendolyn Brooks's "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon" (1960) and Ralph Ellison's posthumous story, "A Party Down at the Square." Brooks and Ellison each tell a chilling story of lynching through a complex (and deeply unsettling) narration that enters the consciousness of a white participant who is not the direct killer but rather an uneasy member of a racist society who is individually culpable and part of a larger system.
Both Brooks and Ellison craft a visceral telling of interpersonal violence while also unveiling the structure of racialized violence as...