While the scholarship on lynching has proliferated over the past 10 or so years, the memory of lynching seems more elusive than ever. Lynching has lost its force, so much so that lynching has become a common metaphor for having a bad day. Curiously, not since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have images of lynching been more readily available. One wants to account for the erasure of the available. For the fantasies that erasure sustains. For the activity of erasing through silence. For the conversations that we are told should not happen because they will spread bitterness. In our Disney world, there are no more strange fruits. And rainbows describe happiness, not the shades of death-ripened bodies.
I saw images of lynched U.S. blacks before I saw images of lynched Kenyan blacks.
I do not know how to teach about lynching.
I played a movie.
I asked my students whether they would teach about lynching and how they would teach it. They were silent for a long time. The class could have remained silent. We could have left then. But we had to push through, to create speech and conversation, to refuse the comfort and risk of silence.
How, I asked, could we think about the labor of representation? What language and in what form can render (render: the smell of burning fat) the lynched as human, all too human, with desires, appetites, smiles.
One does not dare use a question mark.
How, I asked, could we approach lynching as scholars. What languages could we create. What strategies to discuss those who were once human—the body grotesque, and not through special effects. The grotesquerie of rotting flesh juxtaposed against beaming smiles. How does one think about the banality of dehumanization. About the righteousness of racism.
It is easier to forget. Easier not to teach. Easier not to think about.
I wonder how many of my students, if any, will return to images of lynching. I wonder how many will allow themselves to be haunted. Is this my job. To speak about history and literature.
We are reading Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel, an anti-lynching play. We need context. No, that’s not right. We need to experience, if only partially, the horror of writing about precarious life. Of experiencing precarious life.
Is this relatable?
Repeatedly, authors on lynching challenge what we think we know.
Here is Paul Laurence Dunbar:
Oh, the judge he wore a mask of black,
And the doctor one of white,
And the minister, with his oldest son,
Was curiously bedight. (“The Haunted Oak”)
[Your father and brother were lynched]—by Christian people—in a Christian land. We found out afterwards they were all church members in good standing—the best people. (Rachel)
The violence by “the best people.” This stays with me. Perhaps because of the ICC. Perhaps because of our belief that foot soldiers wield machetes while shadowy generals sit in plush rooms.
The threads are getting snarled.
A student worries that teaching about lynching will lead to racial hatred, to animosity between white and black. Easier, or more convenient, to allow the lubrication of silence.
My people suffered too.
We have all suffered.
A student says that all responsible books declare slavery “America’s shame.” Perhaps even “America’s sin.”
“We” are all implicated.
There is no racialization to the history of slavery, no attribution of guilt or shame or culpability. The entire nation blushes before slavery.
Is this too convenient?
Did Sanctioned Slavery bow its conquered head
That this unsanctioned crime might rise instead? (“The Monk’s Walk”)
Is screaming in rage and grief a pedagogical method?
One can open a door in teaching or point to a doorway; one cannot compel another to cross a threshold. One can hope that a question might direct interest—be an ethical act.
I am stuck in this period—I claim to have chosen it. I dwell in it. A scavenger hunting for stories.
It is a strange thing to live out of time—to wander around thinking about why forgetting lynching matters. Maybe it’s better to forget. To believe in the amnesia of Oak trees. In the now-fashionable flavor of strange fruit. One feels out of step, unfashionable, not quite, not right.
One’s language of feeling is awkward.
I ask, “how are we supposed to feel about these images” to students forced into an encounter that, despite my warnings, they could not have anticipated. They probably did not seek out. They would probably prefer not to handle. At least this is what I am thinking. I don’t know what to think. And so, I spur debate, hope that the apparatus of teaching will provide a way in, a move away from silence, a way to distance oneself from shock and horror and anger and guilt and shame.
I do not know what my students are feeling.
It feels cruel to ask.
It feels cruel not to ask.
We struggle to find languages appropriate to this situation.
Increasingly, I wonder if teaching is always about this struggle to find language appropriate to a situation. I opened this semester by talking about the Occupy movement: at this moment in history, I cannot and will not pretend that the literary is a refuge from the world.
I am more hesitant. I stumble more. I shelve cleverness. I want to model something about intellectual inquiry, something about inhabiting the fractures of what Hemphill called ass-splitting truth.
Course objectives cannot name this.
No doubt, some would consider this bad teaching. Or no teaching.
Far from elevating minds, I am risking something else: alienating feeling.
A course objective: by the end of this class, students will have encountered ass-splitting truth.
I do not know how to teach about lynching.
I hope that an encounter with the nakedness of history does something.