In May 1918, in Brooks County, Georgia, Hayes Turner, a black farm labourer, was lynched by a white mob seeking vengeance for the death of Hampton Smith, a white farmer and racist. The fact that Turner was not responsible for Smith’s death was no deterrent to the white men who kidnapped him from police custody and hanged him from a tree. Almost instantly, his wife Mary’s condemnation of the white mob’s violence was met with murderous retaliation. As activist Walter White reported, Mary - at the time eight months pregnant - was lynched in ways that render language powerless: “Gasoline was taken from the cars and poured on her clothing which was then fired. When her clothes had burned off, a sharp instrument was taken and she was cut open in the middle, her stomach being entirely opened. Her unborn child fell from her womb.” This is one of the many stories not to be found in Ashraf Rushdy’s book, but for good reason.
Adopting a long time frame and wide-ranging regional milieu, Rushdy traces the history of lynching as a “story about not one man but a race, about not one town but a region, about not one country but an empire”. He provides proof of the extent to which lynching’s ideological foundations and practical rituals have maintained a stranglehold over the white American body politic no less than its civil and cultural life over the centuries. He offers an invaluable lesson to readers by insisting on the damage done by the tendency to single out “spectacular” lynchings to the exclusion of thousands of black women, men and children dying as a result of widespread acts of “collective violence”. However lacking in iconic ritualised content, he insists, mob violence must be named and shamed in order to do full justice to the multiple rather than singular forms and functions of lynching as a quintessentially American institution.
Tracing the rise, race, age and discourse of lynching, Rushdy cuts to the heart of its “meanings” by confirming the failures of statistical information. Working in the vein of 19th-century African-American reformer and philosopher Frederick Douglass, who theorised the lives of enslaved black women and men as a non-existence since they circulated in (white) official histories solely as “chattel records”, Rushdy points to the senselessness of reducing the history of US lynchings to a body count. Any attempts to tabulate the number of lynchings, he argues, will at best only ever be incomplete or, at worst, erase lynching as a practice woven into the warp and weft of US national ideology.
The brilliance of Rushdy’s investigation into the discourse of lynching would have been even more clear-cut had there been space to provide a comparative investigation into lynching’s iconography. The photography, sculpture and paintings of James P. Ball, Meta Warrick Fuller, Aaron Douglas and Lois Mailou Jones, among many others, would have complemented this book’s discussion of literary works by Albion Tourgée, Owen Wister, Oscar Micheaux and Charles Chesnutt. The issue of “controlling the stories” of lynching remains inseparable from the fight for the power over its imagery. This kind of comparative work would have also enhanced the book’s claim that the black body as lynched icon reveals far more regarding white as opposed to black national, political and racial identities.
In the same way that Douglass watched with horror as the “spirit of slavery” rose at the end of the 19th century, Rushdy’s starkly original book leaves 21st-century audiences in no doubt that the spirit of lynching continues to experience a powerful afterlife, or rather “afterdeath”.
By Ashraf H.A. Rushdy
Yale University Press, 240pp, £25.00
Published 7 February 2013