Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ashraf H. A. Rushdy's "American Lynching"

Ashraf H. A. Rushdy is professor of African American studies at Wesleyan University. He is the author of The Empty Garden: The Subject of Late Milton; Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form; and Remembering Generations: Race and Family in Contemporary African American Fiction.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, American Lynching, and reported the following:
Page 99 of American Lynching consists of a long paragraph in a chapter devoted to disentangling what I call the “discourse of lynching” that rose to prominence after the 1880s. This “discourse” is the product of pro-lynching advocates who claimed that lynching was performed as a punishment for rape, and African American intellectuals and anti-lynching activists like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells energetically contested it, exposed its logical flaws, and revealed to what startling extent it did not square with the known facts about lynching in turn of the century America. The paragraph on page 99 sums up the inchoate forms of that discourse prior to the 1880s, attending especially to the ways that “rape” assumed the status of the bloody shirt in that discourse.

It is a paragraph that assumes an important place in the logical argument I am making, which is to show how the discourse of the 1880s was formed from earlier rationales and excuses, and to delineate just what made it so forceful and appealing to those who defended lynchings. I would then turn to the devastating critique offered by Douglass and Wells and others. My larger point was to show how this discourse had assumed an inordinately influential place in our national imagination, how it had in fact continued to play a significant role in thinking about lynching and racial violence well into the 1970s and after. Because in the book as a whole I argue for the important continuities in lynching in America, I had to explain how certain ways of thinking and talking about lynching had played a role in delimiting the definition of what was and wasn’t a lynching. The chapter on the discourse of lynching argued that we had to examine how that discourse emerged, evolved, and assumed the form it did so that we could better appreciate the continuity between the late-nineteenth century ritual, spectacle lynchings and those acts of collective extralegal execution sanctioned and performed by Americans from before the Revolutionary War.

So, is the Page 99 test accurate for my book? Well, I guess the “quality of the whole” is revealed in it since the book as a whole is interpretive, and, like this paragraph, made up of connected arguments that reveal the intellectual and social evolutions and continuities in the historical phenomenon.

Page 99:
Here we see what would become the stark gendered dynamics of the lynching discourse, which represented lynching as a patently patriarchal practice, a defense by men of women, through violence. In later forms, primarily during and after the 1870s, the discourse of lynching will straightforwardly state that those who lynch are protectors of women and those who are lynched debauchers of them (and, of course, “women” in that discourse always could mean only “white”). It is notable that one of the earliest defenses of lynching also used the language of rape, and even more notable that the crime the lynchers punished was so obviously not rape. This apparent anomaly demonstrates the ways that the rhetoric of rape was used to register the most offensive type of crime, one for which there was no defense. Someone could murder in self-defense, could perhaps be driven to theft by hunger, but nothing could justify rape. Moreover, rape was seen to be worse than either murder or theft. While theft could be seen as an abstraction, to an extent, and not irreversible (property can be returned), rape was neither; in the terms of the debate over it, rape rendered the raped woman irredeemable and stole from her (and, in patriarchal values, her father or husband) something that was lost forever. It was common for lynching advocates to claim that rape was worse than murder because it assaulted the soul as well as the body of the victim, not a surprising rhetorical strategy in a patriarchal culture where a woman was valued for her capacity to deliver an honest heir, where centuries of religious scripture and secular writers celebrated chastity as a greater possession than life, for a woman. Finally, rape, according to the patriarchal dictates that governed the understanding of the crime, was perceived to be a crime against family, that haven in a heartless world, and one to which any man with a family was therefore susceptible. It was a crime without any means of defense, a crime that left the victim worse than dead, and one that struck close to the heart of any man with a mother or wife or daughter. In the midst of a culture holding such values, it was obvious how effective the rhetoric of rape could be, no matter what the crime. It was a metaphor for the nadir of human debasement. It was also a charge that was, in the words of British Lord Chief Justice Matthew Hale, “easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended.”
Learn more about American Lynching at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue