Here's two (incomplete) sections from my (incomplete) draft of the opening chapter of an unsold (and therefore unpublished) book on the interaction of blacks and whites in the creation of American musical forms – and expansion of my longish article, Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues. The first section is a rather graphic and grim piece about lynchings. If you thought that lynchings were mostly carried out in the middle of the night by a few drunken good ol' boys, well think again. Some of them were like that, but then some were also elaborate public spectacles. They even had photographers there who took photos and put them on postcards (you can find images of some by conducting a google search).
You might just want to skip over that section and go straight to the second, which is about the psychology of lynching. Not so graphic. But just as important.
Paris Burns: The Immolation of Henry Smith
In one of the songs most closely identified with her, “Strange Fruit,” Billy Holiday sings of “black bodies swinging from the cottonwood trees.” With over three-thousand black (and seven-hundred white) victims, lynchings plagued this country for a fifty-year period straddling the turn of the 20th century and are a telling example and symbol of racist violence. One doesn’t have to examine them too closely to suspect more than we are even yet prepared to acknowledge about the cultural psychodynamics of racism.
We must be quite clear on this point: as horrible as the beating of Rodney King was, the lynchings were much worse. The national outrage which followed the broadcast of that beating is a sign of how far we have advanced in the last sixty or seventy years. One way to appreciate that advance is to confront the enormous pain, horror, and evil of those lynchings.
Consider the case of Henry Smith as described by Joel Williamson in The Crucible of Race. In 1893 Smith was alleged to have raped and murdered three-and-a-half year old Myrtle Vance in Paris, Texas. As there was no trial, kangaroo or otherwise; there was no legal judgment of guilt, but Williamson says nothing to suggest that Smith was innocent of the crime.
While two-thousand men spent four days hunting their prey, special trains brought people to Paris so they could take part in the grand ritual. Smith was finally tracked down and brought back to Paris. Thousands cheered as he was taken from the train, tied to a chair on the bed of a large wagon designed to haul cotton, paraded through town, and then taken to a ten-foot platform where 10,000 people, men, women, and children, had gathered to witness final retribution. Smith was tied to a stake thrust up through the platform and then tortured by the girl’s father and male relatives. A photographer took pictures and it has been said that someone made a gramophone recording of Smith’s cries. At the end, Smith, stake, and platform were piled with fuel, soaked with oil, and burned. When the ashes had cooled a day later, people raked through them looking for teeth, bones, and buttons, not exactly pieces of the true cross, but relics of a similar ritual.
The torture and death of Henry Smith was a very grisly business, but not wildly atypical. Torture was common and so were mass mobs, though this one was unusually large. As in the case of Henry Smith, most of the lynching victims were black men and many were accused of some sexual offense against a white woman; in some cases the offense was real, in many it was not. Many lynchings were elaborate public exhibitions, having about them the extravagance of the Inquisition’s autos-de-fé (acts of faith) where penitents would confess their sins, profess their faith, and be immolated to purify their bodies; or one of those old Roman entertainments involving Christians and lions or; a bit closer to home, a New England witch burning.
In a detailed study of lynchings occurring between 1880 and 1930 in Georgia, representing the deep South, and Virginia, representing the borderline South, W. Fitzhugh Brundage shows that lynchings were committed by several types of group, the terrorist mob, the private mob, the posse, and the mass mob (Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930). Terrorist mobs were relatively small, generally less than fifty people, and consisted of members of groups organized to maintain white supremacy through intimidation and violence; the Ku Klux Klan is the best-known of these groups. Private mobs were also relatively small, but were convened only to avenge or punish specific alleged offenses, and then dispersed. Posses were quasi-legal bodies constituted to capture criminals. However, they frequently overstepped their charge and lynched the criminal.
Mass mobs, such as the one that executed Henry Smith, were responsible for the largest number of lynchings, 34% in Georgia and 40% in Virginia. These were also the most spectacular lynchings and involved hundreds or even thousands of people from all strata of Southern society, from top to bottom. These were the most highly ritualized lynchings, a matter emphasized by both Brundage and Williamson, who talk as though these mobs did their work according to written standards and practices.
When the victim had been captured, he (or, in some cases, she) would be given an opportunity to confess and to pray. Then he was hung, sometimes with a drop so as to break the neck, other times there was no drop and the victim just strangled, or died from gunshots. For particularly heinous offenses the victim was tortured prior to hanging—something mass mobs were more likely to do than posses, terrorist mobs, or private mobs. Once the victim was hung, tradition often dictated that all present should shoot a bullet into the dead or dying body. All those shooting, in effect, took responsibility for the death, thereby making the community responsible, not just a few individuals. In some cases the firing was done with military precision, with rank upon rank firing in turn. Thus a hundred, two hundred, or more men would have the opportunity to register their anger and hatred, disguised as justice, on the bodies of black men. It is as though these bullets had some cleansing magic, transferring mental pain from angry whites to the bodies of helpless blacks.
When the victim was well and thoroughly dead, and perhaps mutilated as well, a sign might be hung on the body—Brundage notes a sign that requested “Please do not wake him.” The body often remained on display for hours or even days and people would often take relics, pieces of rope and chain, or even fragments of the victim’s body. Finally, a coronor’s jury would be convened to determine the cause of death, often set down to death by “unknown parties.” In fact, nothing was unknown. Everyone in the community knew who did what, and there were often photographs to prove it. According to Brundage:
What is paradoxical is that coroners’ juries would adhere to the process of the law when they carried out bogus investigations of violence which, however much it violated the rule of law with impunity, they had no intention of condemning. In reports typically written out in crude longhand on any convenient piece of paper the most horrifying details of mass lynchings were recorded. The juries had little difficulty in finding witnesses who could describe events in detail. But even when the witnesses mentioned specific names, juries, which in many instances included men who had participated in the lynching, either exonerated the community of all involvement in the lynching or else openly applauded the mob violence. . . However token the process, in the eyes of white southerners the investigations by coroners’ juries and grand juries were testimonials to the rule of law.
And that, presumably, was the function of the coronor’s jury in these cases—to exonerate the community of any wrong-doing. Mass mob lynchings didn’t represent violations of community standards. Rather, they expressed those standards.
However savage the violence in a mass mob lynching, the ritualized nature of that violence means that the lynchings were not simply wild outpourings of anger and hatred. Rather, they represent culturally sanctioned and rehearsed expressions of attitudes. This ritualized violence is one way that people were able to affirm their communal life.
Many lynchings were occasioned, if not by rape, then by allegations of rape, but not the majority of lynchings. According to Brundage, murder was the offense alleged in 46 % of Georgia lynchings and 44% of Virginia lynchings while sexual offenses were alleged in 28% of Georgia lynchings and 46% of Virginia lynchings. The remaining lynchings, 25% in Georgia and 10% in Virginia, were for a variety of offenses, such as theft, arson, or insulting a white person in any of the numerous ways whites perceived insults from blacks. In contradiction of these facts, the general perception of lynchings in the South was that they were occasioned by rape. Sex is what was on people’s minds.
Why Lynching? Why Racism?
Why, we would like to know, did reign of extralegal violence straddling the turn of the twentieth century? John Dollard addressed this question in his classic 1937 study, Caste and Class in a Southern Town, which “redirected the study of southern race relations in general and lynching in particular” by asking a simple question: Why do people need racism? The question implies that mistaken beliefs about others are symptoms of racism, not its cause. Racism has some useful function in the individual or collective lives of racists. What function could that be? Dollard’s answer was, in effect: to keep the peace.
Given the practices standard to lynchings one could imagine a lynched man bedecked with a sign saying that “He’s at peace.” But that man’s friends and family were certainly not at peace. On the contrary, they were likely both grief-stricken and terrified. But, one can imagine that the community of racists was, for awhile, unusually united and more conflict-free than normal — though I don’t know of any studies which have attempted to verify this. That’s the peace Dollard had in mind, the peace of a community righteously united against a common enemy.
As Dollard observed, social life is often frustrating, generating aggressive impulses which cannot be always be satisfied. In Dollard’s view this leads to
a generalized or “free-floating” aggression . . . [that] can be thought of as a tendency to kick, hit, scorn or derogate someone or something if one could only find out what. A second necessity is that of a permissive social pattern. This must exist in order to lift the in-group taboos on hostility. The permissive pattern isolates a group within the society which may be disliked. Usually it is a defenseless group. . . The third essential in race prejudice is that the object must be uniformly identifiable. [pp. 445-446]
In other words, white racists are using blacks as scapegoats for the accumulated frustrations they experience in daily life. Aggressive impulses are being displaced from their real objects, which are appropriate targets, to substitute objects, toward whom one can act aggressively.
The idea has certain attractions. It is fairly simply and straightforward and seems applicable in other cases as well. Racism and ethnic scapegoating are certainly not uniquely American. Between the Japanese and the Koreans, the Hindus and Muslims of India, the English and the Irish, the Gypsies and half the world, the Jews and half the world, ethnic scapegoating is common. It almost seems that wherever you have three people, two will get together and blame their troubles on the third. With groups that think of themselves as a people, whether the Serbs or the Hutus or the Germans, it is easy to find other groups to blame and to hate.
In his study of nineteenth century European aggression, The Cultivation of Hatred, Peter Gay notes that “Ethnic pride and ethnic anxiety were, in many, indistinguishable” and suggests that ethnic scapegoating was the obverse side of the coin of nationalism. The identity a people creates for itself is, in part, the fact that we are most emphatically not them, who are primitive and inferior. He suggests that World War I was a tremendous release for a frustrated and repressed Europe for “the war released aggressive impulses of which people had been unconscious in calmer times.”
In an essay published shortly after the end of World War II on “Certain Primary Sources of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World” Talcott Parsons argued that Western child-rearing practices generate a great deal of insecurity and anxiety at the core of personality structure—recall Watson’s admonition only to shake hands with your child in the morning. This creates an adult who has a great deal of trouble dealing with aggression and is prone to scapegoating— “I’m not the angry one, he is and he’s going to pay for it.” This problem is exacerbated by an occupational system which places a great deal of emphasis on achievement, but has relatively few prizes available. Only a few can win in the corporate race, the rest have to be content with merely having run. And yet those who will not win must cooperate with one another, and with the winners. Inevitably, there are lots of aggressive impulses which cannot be followed out. They must be repressed. Ethnic scapegoating is one way to relieve the pressure of this repressed aggression. That, Parsons argued, is why the Western world is flush with nationalistic and ethnic antipathy.
Yet, whatever its attractions, this line of thinking does have some problems. The most obvious one is that it doesn’t address the sexual overtones of racism. As Cornell West, a noted scholar and preacher, has observed, the lived experience of racism is hot and bothered in a way that is untouched by the frustration-aggression hypothesis. He tells how when, as an eleven year-old boy, he stepped into a swimming pool.
and these white folk just started running away as if something was happening. I didn’t know what was going on. But I had impurified the pool, you see. So the question became, where this notion of purity comes from.
Clifford Yancy, “a prudent grandfather in his later fifties” according to John Gwaltney, the anthropologist who interviewed him, tells a familiar tale on a similar theme:
There's a young black boy on my job and those white cats have made him tell them so many lies about what they call his love life that he can't tell whether he's coming or going. They want to believe that we screw like dogs or cats—you know, just go out there and get you a piece, just like they might scratch their backs or get a glass of water. [Drylongso]
Impurity and lust, these are the overt concerns of the racist. Why? In particular, why, as Brundage has pointed out [p. 58], did so many people, in the north as well as in the south, ignore the actual statistics of lynchings and assert that they were retribution for rape?
This question takes us into psychoanalytic territory. Consider the argument Erik Erikson makes in the final chapter of his 1968 study, Identity: Youth and Crisis. He is concerned with the relationship between black and white identity in America and argues the general point that no culture has been able to adapt the full biological range of human desire and feeling to its patterns. Each culture cultivates some characteristics at the expense of others. The characteristics a culture neglects may then coalesce into a negative identity which members of that culture will often project onto members of some other society or culture. Thus the characteristics racists have attributed to blacks, the emotionality and sexual license, are simply the repressed contents of their own hearts and minds which they have projected onto African Americans.
At the very center of this standard psychoanalytic territory we have sexual repression, the standard psychological sin of the modern Western culture, at least as it existed prior to the twentieth century. Consider what happened to Shakespeare’s plays after he had died. In a word, they got bowdlerized. The word itself derives from the last name of Thomas Bowdler, an eighteenth-century editor who published a edition of Shakespeare's plays in which sexual references and allusions were removed—out of sight and ear, out of mind. But that is not all that editors and directors did to Shakespeare. For example, in 1681 one Nahum Tate introduced a version of King Lear that reigned on the stage until the mid-nineteenth century. Tate rewrote King Lear so considerably that it actually had a happy ending. It was no longer a tragedy. The general effect of such meddling and muddling as done by Bowdler, Tate, and others is to reduce the emotional range of Shakespeare's plays. You feel less, and that less deeply, when you see one of these edited versions than when you see the play as Shakespeare wrote it. This repressive editing was done, presumably, to accommodate the sensibilities of an audience under more severe emotional restraints than the Elizabethan audience for whom Shakespeare wrote and performed.
In his account of Victorian-era emotional life, Peter Gay tells of respectable middle-class women reaching the marriage bed with little, or no, knowledge about the physical facts of sexual intercourse. It is hard to imagine that, in this situation, ignorance would lead to bliss. And it generally did not. However, we need to look beyond the shock, pain, and disgust these women felt when their earnest and eager young bridegrooms (who may have had some sexual experience with prostitutes or with lower-class women) did their conjugal duty. If they did not know about sexual intercourse, then how did they interpret the hormonally-driven urges that began with adolescence? Whatever they thought, it was wrong. They misunderstood their bodies and their minds as well. They could deal with a bowdlerized Shakespeare, but the original would, no doubt, have presented problems.
Thus, it would see, we have a way of augmenting Dollard’s account to remedy a major defect. In addition to displacing aggressive impulses onto the racial Other, the racist is also projecting his or her own sexual desires onto that Other.
And yet not all is well. Unfortunately these accounts rely on a mode of thinking that is no longer as plausible as it once seemed. These accounts presuppose a kind of mental hydraulics where psychic energy—known as “libido” in psychoanalytic theorizing—can be dammed up, redirected, and released in the way that water can. Contemporary neuroscience hasn’t found any neural process that functions in this way. While I suspect that we may well find appropriate neuroscientific models for both displacement and projection, we haven’t found them yet.
Addendum: Nov. 18, 2014: I just found the following paragraph in David Barish, "The Targets of Aggression," in The Chronicle of Higher Education (which, unfortunately, is gated):
Addendum: Nov. 18, 2014: I just found the following paragraph in David Barish, "The Targets of Aggression," in The Chronicle of Higher Education (which, unfortunately, is gated):
In a now-classic study, the psychologists Carl Hovland and Robert Sears found that they could predict the number of Southern lynchings occurring during any given year between 1882 and 1930 simply by knowing the price of cotton. When cotton went down, the frequency of lynchings went up. Not that white Southern racists literally blamed African-Americans every time cotton prices declined; rather, a bad economy led to an outpouring of anger, resentment, and frustration, which was then turned against a conspicuous and powerless minority. The economic and social pain of poor whites was passed on to blacks, without any conscious awareness of the scapegoating involved. The situation was clearly cultural, the process all too "natural."