Annette Rodríguez, Assistant Professor of American Studies
+ Seth Kotch, Associate Professor of American Studies + Director, SOHP
The image at the top of the page, a billboard installation by Ken Gonzales-Day, is courtesy of the artist: “Ken Gonzales-Day is a Los Angeles-based artist whose interdisciplinary practice considers the historical construction of race and the limits of representational systems ranging from lynching photographs to museum displays. He is a professor of art at Scripps College in Claremont, CA where he has taught since 1995. Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynching series features photos of lynching postcards where he removes, or ‘erases,’ the victims in order to focus on the white crowds gathered to witness the murders. He argues that this digital intervention ‘allows the viewer to see, for the first time, the social dynamics of the lynching itself’ … and helps us to ‘recognize the dynamics of whiteness within the complex history of racialized violence in America.’ –From the Artist’s Website.
In this episode, Annette Rodríguez points to the creative resilience of Black women in the rural South, reading an excerpt from the Southern Cultures essay, “Makeshifting,” by Kimber Thomas.
“Since 1973, the Southern Oral History Program has worked to preserve the voices of the southern past. We have collected 6,000 interviews with people from all walks of life—from mill workers to civil rights leaders to future presidents of the United States. Made available through UNC’s renowned Southern Historical Collection online, these interviews capture the vivid personalities, poignant personal stories, and behind-the-scenes decision-making that bring history to life.”
“A Red Record documents lynchings in the American South, starting with North Carolina. The title, A Red Record, is drawn from Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s work by the same name and is intended, in a small way, to recognize Wells-Barnett’s remarkable courage and commitment to justice. Our research also corroborates Wells-Barnett’s core argument: that lynching was much more than just a response to crime. It was part of a narrative of white supremacy that sought to write out Black success, Black families, and Black personhood.”
Excerpt from discussion:
Melody: This is Southern Futures, and I’m your host, Melody Hunter-Pillion with the Center for the Study of the American South. Today’s podcast topic is not an easy one to discuss: lynching. So why do we need to talk about something so violent and ugly in our nation’s past? We have 2 guests on our podcast to tell us why the history of lynching has ramifications today for all of us. Annette Rodríguez is an assistant professor in the American Studies Department. She looks at the visual culture as an important piece of understanding what is at work. Seth Kotch is the director of the Southern Oral History Program in our Center for the Study of the American South, and an associate professor in the American Studies Department. Seth uses digital tools to examine lynching in North Carolina. We’re going to talk about his student driven digital project, “A Red Record.”
As a student of public history, I would say lynching is the most unsettling topic and the most visually disturbing practice that I’ve seen in my studies. How do you approach this topic in class?
Annette: One of the things that’s really important for me when I talk to students about lynching is that I look at archival documents, so we really take the time to think about the testimonies often of women, widows, and survivors. So we look at their testimonies and we think about the incredible courage they have. They present at a consulate, the Mexican or American consulate or a judges house or a sheriff’s office, and they are presenting to ask for justice on behalf of their loved one who have been tortured or murdered. So we start there with students, so they understand that this is a community terror, that there may be a single victim of lynching, but it’s meant to have a terroristic effect on a community. When I study this with students I make sure we think about the community.
Seth: The focus on the community is so important and so difficult. It’s much easier to focus on the victim and the story of how they were killed. There’s a really troubling tradition of scholars being really prurient. They’re watching along with the mob. And that’s a problem. So what we try to do is to situate our students in understanding where these incidents took place, the context in which they took place. And like Dr. Rodríguez said, understanding that this is about trauma and terror. So what I try to do in my class is draw my students into being intentional about not participating in the same kind of “enjoyments” that the mob participated in. So we don’t actually look at photos of the victims of lynching. Because those photos were used as weapons of terror. We do read the messages on the backs of post cards that were sent with lynching images, so people can understand what the mindset is of some of the people in attendance. But by trying to turn students away from those visual elements, it’s not to lessen their revulsion. It’s to help them understand that lynchings have a resonance today and they can choose to take a position in how they look and talk about them.
Melody: You don’t look at the visuals of the victims, but do you look at visuals of the spectators?
Seth: We do, we absolutely do. And those images, which are in wide circulation, are hugely troubling in how familiar the faces can be, and the fact that the crowds are intragenerational. There are children there, there are elders. There are not just groups of middle-aged, angry men. There are people dressed up as if they are out for a night on the town. There are people whose faces are illuminated by electric lights. Looking at them, helps us understand how modern and communal lynchings were, or could be.
Melody: I think for me, I’ve seen some of those photographs, one of the most frightening things to see is the glee or joy you could see on the faces of spectators, almost as if they were at a spectacle. So I think studying this topic takes a lot of fortitude. Why does this topic hold interest for you, why do you think it’s important to study, and how did you become interested in this?
Annette: For me it was an interesting through-way, which sometimes happens with scholarship, which is I was studying migration and immigration, and I bumped into this footnote in Carey McWilliam’s “North From Mexico” where he says something like, ‘as many Mexican people were lynched as African Americans in the South.” He doesn’t give you where that comes from–it’s a citation without a cite. So I started off with this idea of recovery, and thinking about, ‘could I prove this number? Could I examine the lynchings of Mexicans and see if they were that wide in scope?’ My project changed because it turns out, that this was a ubiquitous public practice, particularly at the turn of the 20th century at what we now call the Southwest and Texas. What changed about my project was that, rather than collecting a catalogue and index of victims, I started thinking about, ‘what’s the function of this violence?’ And this helps me understand, and helps my students understand, the relevance of public violence today. Which is to say, when we were talking about the photographs and postcards, these are public performances that are meant to be seen. They’re not hidden. And they are meant to be seen because they have that terroristic effect. And so when I’m thinking about public violence that’s meant to be seen, I can think about how public violence functions. It helps us think through things like contemporary hate crimes. It helps us think through things like police violence. It helps me understand the violence against children in INS detention that has been photographed–and not photographed by journalists who have snuck in, but photographed by border patrol and the INS that have been circulated because they want that same effect: “You’re not welcome here. Don’t come here.” That’s why studying public violence, like lynching, has real public resonance.
Melody: Annette’s book project, “Inventing the Mexican: The Visual Culture of Lynching at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” is showing us the connections today, but also revealing the nature of public violence. Seth’s book, “Lethal State: A History of the Death Penalty in North Carolina” connects the state’s death penalty history and lynching.
Seth: The book itself is a history of lynching in NC between the end of the Civil War and the 1970s. One of the more important parts of it, is that lynching and the death penalty are much more closely related than people acknowledge; in fact, they are part of the same system. We should not be turning ourselves in circles trying to figure out language that differentiates the death penalty from lynching, with an adequate degree of sophistication. We should be figuring out how closely intertwined they are. Like Dr. Rodríguez was just saying, lynching is a system of enforcement–a racial caste system. Lynching exists on a spectrum, that the death penalty is also on. It’s important to point out that people who were a part of these mobs understood what they were doing was an argument for the place of violence against non-white people in modern society. They were saying, “we insist on violence against non-white people as a part of our modern society.” In the South we’re often talking about African Americans, in the Southwest and the West against Latinx and others, against migrants, against immigrants, against Jews. They were saying, “we insist on violence against these people as a part of our political system, our social system, our culture, our legal system.” It’s hard to understand why lynchings as we knew them in the past seemed to dwindle in the 1940s, but I think it’s arguable they began to dwindle because the mob understood that American governments were exceeding their requests. The government said increasingly, “we will not tolerate you committing this violence in this spectacular and public way that you want to, but we will integrate that violence in more subtle ways in the governments that we’re building.” Sometimes that violence was a death penalty that was almost exclusively used against African American people with white victims, but perhaps more often, it was about allowing white people to police the behavior of Black people in ways that don’t show up in newspapers, of neglecting the public health of non-white communities, of poor communities, of excluding non-white people from owning homes in certain neighborhoods, of educating non-white children poorly, of incarcerating non-white people at disproportionate rates. It’s all part of a much bigger system.
Annette: Another interesting thing about lynching, that becomes important as we do this kind of work, is that there’s no agreed upon definition. This is why, as I was doing the work, I really started thinking about, “what’s the choreography of the public act?” As Dr. Kotch is saying, we have these moments where people gather, where there’s an accusation, where there’s photography or filming–so there’s a sort of choreography that happens that we can identify. We can identify that more precisely than just a definition. The other thing is we think about the function–it’s always public, meant to be seen–and so there is a function. Lynching is a show of force. It is an important way to rethink phenomena we’re seeing today.
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