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:: By Laura Demanski, AM’94

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Investigations ::

Lynching uncovered

American literature, argues Jacqueline Goldsby, may be the best source for revealing lynching’s role in our cultural history.

photo:  Jacqueline Goldsby
Associate Professor of English Jacqueline Goldsby has studied American literature’s takes on racial violence for more than 20 years.

From 1882 to 1968, lynching claimed the lives of more than 5,000 African Americans. Witnessed by crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands and widely covered by the media, these murders arrested the national attention. Yet historical accounts of this systematic violence were, until fairly recently, strangely thin. When Associate Professor of English Jacqueline Goldsby began studying literary representations of lynching as a Berkeley undergraduate in the early 1980s, the most comprehensive history dated to the 1930s.

With her forthcoming book A Spectacular Secret: The Cultural Logic of Lynching in American Life and Literature (University of Chicago Press, December 2005), Goldsby contributes to a recent groundswell of efforts to bring lynching’s written history up to speed. Her book attempts to move the story from national history’s margins to its mainstream. Historians—and Americans in general—tend to pigeonhole lynching as an aberration in the narrative of forward American progress. “We analyze the violence as something regressive, atavistic, and Southern rather than something American,” Goldsby observes. But, A Spectacular Secret implicitly asks, can 5,000 murders stretching over 86 years and at least 26 states be considered an aberration? The answer is explicit: no.

Although her major at Berkeley was ethnic studies, Goldsby was always a passionate student of American literature, with a civil-rights slant. She wrote a BA honors thesis about racial violence’s devastating effects on family relations in novels by William Faulkner and Lillian Smith (whose Strange Fruit, named after the Billie Holiday song, topped the 1944 bestseller list). She began to regard literature as a neglected repository of knowledge about lynching.

As an American Studies graduate student at Yale University, Goldsby continued to study lynching’s representation in literature. She became interested in Gwendolyn Brooks, whose “Ballad of Pearl May Lee” is the centerpiece of A Spectacular Secret’s preface. That poem, among the most controversial in Brooks’s first published volume of poetry in 1945, tells how the speaker’s lover, Sammy, was burned to death for his consensual tryst with a white woman. “You paid with your hide and my heart, Sammy boy, / For your taste of pink and white honey,” Pearl May Lee says, fueled as much by sexual jealousy as by the fear and anger of a persecuted minority. Her rage is directed at Sammy’s murderers but also at Sammy himself.

Pearl May Lee’s is a side of lynching’s story that is seldom told. For Goldsby, the poem “shifted my thinking away from the lynched man to the lovers, wives, children, sisters, brothers, friends, and extended kin who survived lynching’s violence.” Literary works like Brooks’s poem, Goldsby argues, have stories to tell that are otherwise inaccessible. These stories shed new light on why the violence flourished and on how its survivors were affected. As Goldsby puts it, “Literature is particularly responsive to historical developments we can’t bear to admit shape the course of our lives.”

Not only can Americans not bear to admit lynching’s historical role; even discussing the practice is difficult. Goldsby quotes Irenas J. Palmer, who wrote a 1902 account of Julius Gardner, a rare survivor of an attempted lynching: “No pen—no tongue can fully portray these horrors.” Language, Palmer suggests, simply may not be up to the task of representing these acts. For Goldsby, the silence that envelops the subject is at once an understandable product of shame and fear and an integral part of lynching’s “cultural logic.”

The term “cultural logic” belies the notion that lynching was beyond explanation or analysis, outside the fabric of U.S. culture—illogical—and implies instead that it had a necessary relationship to the larger culture. In Goldsby’s view, silence and secrecy are central to that relationship. Because it is too painful to accept, Americans have disavowed lynching in the nation’s history, relegating it to the outer margins. But in fact, her book argues, it belongs to the same story as the rise of corporate capitalism, the emergence of mass culture, and the secularization of American life.

Goldsby discovers links between lynching and these modern manifestations in the writings of Stephen Crane, James Weldon Johnston, and Ida B. Wells. These writers were profoundly affected by personal lynching experiences, and each offers an account that ties the practice to larger historical forces. In her reading of Crane’s novella “The Monster,” for instance, newer forms of capitalism rising at the turn of the century redefined value in unapologetically economic ways, stunting “American political feeling in ways that allowed lynching to flourish.” In corroding old certainties and imposing new tensions on the American populace, Goldsby argues, such aspects of modernity made the violence possible and sustainable.

“Sometimes authors are ahead of us in their perceptions of what counts—what forces are moving society at any given point,” she says. “A major methodological claim of the book is that personal testimony can bear witness to big topics like history, modernity, and modern progress.” For Goldsby, these authors “offer something beyond their own personal testimony: insights and critiques of the violence that go straight to the core of formations and processes that we call modern and American.” She hopes her book will convey how complex the violence was—yet, through good scholarship and literature’s unmined testimony, fathomable. “We need to bring all the resources we have to bear on figuring out why this cruelty was inflicted on a group of people for so long, and what its effects have been on all of us.”

While A Spectacular Secret goes to press, Goldsby is at work on her next book, tentatively titled Birth of the Cool: African American Literary Culture of the 1940s and 1950s, which considers the popular and critical acclaim of authors like Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin in an era of Jim Crow segregation. As a magnet site for literary experiment and innovation, she says, Chicago will play a major role in her investigation.