In the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, and so many others, what can we learn from the violence in our past?Image from Flickr via Arash Azizzada
By Patrick Thomas Casey
It is not a new or original idea that the violent and profoundly public deaths of American black men at the hands of police and self-styled police in the last year may bear some relation to the lynchings of the Jim Crow South. Our aversion to cultural relativism can be a shield, and it is important to pull back what keeps us from the truth. It is important not to exaggerate the differences between a rope and a gun, between the drawn-out affair of hanging a man and the speed, the endless repetition, of a shooting caught on video. And so the simple shock of this relation bears repeating, and repeating. But there is something valedictory about its repetition also. Repetition begins to bear the weight of culmination, and so we stop there, as if naming the act were itself a triumph.
The notion behind this idea is that the relationship of white America to black skin, a relationship of power and numbness, is continuous between the two historical moments, ours and that of the Jim Crow South. While this seems more or less true, the parallel is more dangerous than simple continuity through time would imply.
The same fear—briefly alleviated by the effects of postwar prosperity on the generations of the ‘60s and ‘70s; then obviated or obfuscated by the epidemics of drugs, crime and poverty in black communities—courses again through much of White America. The same disappointments of white prosperity skulk around the edges of the American Dream. The nostalgia for an “America of my grandparents,” with all its attendant racial implications, is rising again to fever pitch among us. We find ourselves again in a society reaching to define and police the boundaries of our power—of, in fact, supremacy.
Like all people who have begun to fear they are powerless, we seek the exertion of power as consolation. But White America has always had the ability to exert power, so the exertion of power alone is not enough to answer a feeling that seems new. It is the aesthetics of power which make it real to those who have begun to doubt it. Their power must be seen, acknowledged, felt, and reciprocated in fear. We need to remind, and so be reminded.
Black skin has always borne American indignities disproportionately; it is, plainly, a fetish.
This is the same instinct that drives suburban people (white, mostly; men, mostly) to walk into public restaurants with assault rifles. It is important to understand that it is not the holding of the rifle that satisfies, but the look on the faces of others as they see you holding it. This is why open-carry rallies must be held in public, why they often—why they must, in fact—spill over into otherwise inappropriate spaces. And it is why the deaths of these black men must be filmed.
It is both reactionary and unsurprising that the bodies of black men are again the ground on which this parade is taking place. In one way, it has always been so. Black skin has always borne American indignities disproportionately; it is, plainly, a fetish. But in another way these acts have a dumbfounded distance to them, a second-tier intentionality, as though our nostalgia has begun to eat itself. We find ourselves half-consciously recreating even the past’s failed attempts to recreate a false past.
We have clung in the past months to the idea that these recent murders differ from public lynchings at least in their lack of ritualized spectacle and educational intent. But we watch them, over and over again. We ritualize them for ourselves. And as we do, the photographs of public lynchings we have seen ought to haunt our screens.
Their quiet, yellowing lawns are more pastoral but no less common than a Walmart’s aisles or a gas station. The panic in the faces of the young men about to be shot, the pleading in their voices, are stilled in the expressions of those men, genitals in mouths, hanging in the backgrounds of the photographs. The bewildered anxiety, the officiousness in the postures and voices of police as they navigate the fallout of these events suffuses the false pride of those men standing below the tree, unwilling to meet the camera’s eye.
And there we are, the befuddled, ambivalent crowd of white folks blurred at the edges, for whose edification this show has been put on. We watch from our rooms, Facebook and Twitter alive on our screens, where our cries of outrage and indignation are as quiet as if they remained in our skulls.
And it is here we must push ourselves farther, where we must look at ourselves more closely than we would like. Because it is not only black people who are being coerced, reminded again of their place. We must try to understand the purpose of lynching.
The purpose of lynching is complicity.
There is fear, of course. For blacks, though I doubt there have been many black people in this country’s history who have needed a reminder of how quickly America could turn on them. But also for whites, who must have looked up at those mangled victim’s bodies—arms and fingers bound and broken, legs twitching, genitals exposed, panicked faces—and for one horrifying, genetic second seen themselves. Whites who then looked down from that sight to the placid-faced men standing in front of them, to the children running across the lawn in the distance, and decided through an act of surely unconscious will to see themselves in these images instead. Given a choice, who would imagine themselves in a world so cruel and unstable? No, it is better to be the one with the gun. Even if you’d rather see the gun put away.
The purpose of lynching is not fear, then, though perhaps that is what one is meant to think. The purpose of lynching is complicity. It is the forced identification of bystanders with those in power. Because the identification of a majority with power is the definition of the status quo. It is for us, for our edification, that these men are murdered. To ensure that we know who we are not, and that we are thankful.
If we are not panicked, the lynchings of our time have achieved their purpose as well as those of the past.
Over the last year, my computer screen has so often been haunted by the photographs I have seen of lynchings, the ones early enough to still have the air of a public festival. In their pageantry and forms, one sees the construction of our responses. We are helped by shapes and patterns. The bent-necked body hung from a tree is taller than a man. It is not defined by the common symmetry of shoulders into neck and head. The ears are often cut, the mouth stretched with excrement or dangling out—tongue or penis—in a way unlike a man’s. The dark body we recognized in that first half-second as like our own is changed. It becomes a monster above the faces of people, then a void, a nothing, a white sheet stretched on a sidewalk.
Sympathy, even indignation, are not countermeasures to this separation. They are not the enemies of lynchings; they are the quibbles of the crowd. They are responses from the position of power. To feel them one must be safe. Otherwise, the only appropriate response is panic.
If we are not panicked, the lynchings of our time have achieved their purpose as well as those of the past. They have forced our complicity, our identification with those in power through the acceptance—the hope, even—that we are different from those who could be so easily tormented. The status quo will be built of our indignation.
Patrick Thomas Casey is the author of the novel Our Burden’s Light.