Black History Month Spotlight: Living with Lynching

Laura Crowley

Lecture: Living with Lynching

In Koritha Mitchell’s lecture, “Living with Lynching,” she discussed the societal impact lynching had from 1890 to 1930. While looking at the photos was painful, Mitchell urged us to move past the individual victim, reminding us that his suffering was over. What lynching created was not just mourning but also a cycle of fear, a generational gap and economic challenges.

Mitchell, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University, is an award winning aurthor who specializes in African-American literature and racial violence in American literature.

A key characteristic of lynching photographs is the solidarity of the victim contrasted with the comradery among the crowd of perpetrators. Mitchell told to us that lynching photographs were specifically constructed in this manner so as to portray the victim as an “isolated brute without loved ones,” said Mitchell. 

The perpetrators were proud of their actions and often used the photographs as postcards. This act was considered a theatrical production that ensured white supremacy. Perpetrators specifically targeted the happiest and most successful blacks to “put them in their place,” said Mitchell. The practice was unpopular during the height of slavery, as it was unnecessary as long as whites felt they were in power.

After describing the history and practices of the crime, Mitchell refocused her talk on what really hurt: the lasting affects lynching had on families. Lynching had the enormous capacity of degeneration, which refers to the creation of a generational gap within a family. The practice also encouraged blacks to be either a pimp or a coward, as such behavior guaranteed that they didn’t pose a threat. The cycle of fear that lynching created made it virtually impossible for blacks to break out of a system of oppression.

Mitchell believes that the best way to memorialize victims is lynching plays. Rather than a brief photo that stirs sharp, yet rather fleeting pain in us, lynching plays shift the focus from the moment of the crime and refocus it on what really matters: the ways in which lynching affected families and communities in the long term.

While it is easy to put lynching to rest as something of the past, a woman brought up a point in the Q&A that led me to think that such wrongdoings exist today in more subtle, yet similarly pervasive ways. This woman addressed the disenfranchisement of certain minority groups from society due to the considerable time they spend in prison. The statistics that show the frequency with which males of minorities are arrested are indeed striking and may suggest that they are disenfranchised due to the time they spend barred from voting.

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