Nell Irvin Painter


"Who Was Lynched?" The Nation, 11 November 1991, Vol. 253, Issue 16, p. 577
Reproduced with permission of The Nation.

By Nell Irvin Painter

In the second part of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, Orrin Hatch and Thomas manipulated what Americans remember of racism and ignored what most Americans have forgotten about women in that same past. The Hatch and Thomas performances did not have black women in view. Any American with a sense of history understood the connotations of Thomas’s claim that he was a lynch victim, casting the fourteen white men of the Senate Judiciary Committee as his lynch mob. The lynch victim is an easily recognizable character in our tragic racial past. This character is, like Thomas, black, male and Southern, identities that reflect the actual practice of lynching. Here are a few facts on the matter: During Reconstruction lynching functioned as a means of crushing freedmen's political mobilization. After Reconstruction it was used to terrorize Southern blacks who transgressed the economic or social mores of white supremacy. Part of a larger phenomenon, the casual slaughter of the poor, lynching in the South has been aimed at the powerless. Lynch victims have not been the protégés of Presidents and senators. Since figures began to be kept in 1882, 82 percent of lynchings have occurred in the South, where 84 percent of its victims were black and 95 percent male. From 1882 until the early 1950s, reports show, 4,739 people died at the hands of lynch mobs; the actual number may approach 6,000. The state that ranks first in lynchings–Mississippi, with 581 deaths, of which 539 were black–is also a symbol of everything benighted and impoverished in American life.

Southern historians often speak of a rape-lynch syndrome, since the most popular rhetorical justification for such murders was the rape or attempted rape of white women. This excuse, however, did not hold up under scrutiny, as a courageous black journalist, Ida B. Wells, discovered in the 1890s. Black lynch victims were accused of rape or attempted rape only about one-third of the time. The most prevalent accusation was murder or attempted murder, followed by a list of infractions that included verbal and physical aggression, spirited business competition and independence of mind. But the association of lynching with rape persists, and even today to mention lynching is to sound the themes of race and sex. Its three emblematic figures are the white woman (the rape victim), the black man (the lynch victim) and the white man (the avenger of the white woman and the black man's murderer). This drama has been playing in American popular culture since the late nineteenth century and is encapsulated most neatly in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation.

Just as the rape-lynch scenario lives on in the minds of Americans (vide Willie Horton), so a countertradition of disbelieving that scenario also exists among blacks and well-intentioned whites. Clarence Thomas drew cynically on this countertradition. Casting himself as the black lynch victim was a move that made him the undeserving beneficiary of guilt over our bloody past. But what of the invisible figure in this tableau? It is not by accident that in both the rape-lynch set piece and in Thomas’s recitation, one figure in Southern society is missing: the black woman.

The black woman’s part in the drama (as opposed to the actual history) is usually ignored. Clarence Thomas's little play of a conspiracy of white liberals against his brave, black self caused Anita Hill to vanish completely. Neither prostitute nor welfare mother, Hill, an educated black woman, is hard to fit into clichés of race. As the emblematic woman is white and the emblematic black is male, black women generally are not as easy to cast symbolically. Consider the forgotten figure of Bessie, the first murder victim of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, which we recall only as the story of a racial crime with a white woman as victim. Consider the nameless black women Eldridge Cleaver, who wrote Soul on Ice, raped for practice before attacking white women and ending up in prison. Just as there is an overlooked drama of victimized black women, there exists an actual, neglected history.

Sexual violence against black women has outlasted slavery and segregation. Since the seventeenth century, black women have been triply vulnerable to rape and other kinds of violence: as members of a stigmatized race, as the subordinate sex and as people who work for others. Even though the testimony is abundant and available in two centuries’ worth of black women’s autobiographies and novels, black women's condition barely enters the drama of race. Why not? The reasons abound, but I will mention only three: First, as women, black women are discounted within their race, as witnessed by such cultural productions as men’s rap. Second, as blacks, black women are hesitant to speak up loudly, lest they endanger racial unity, for issues of gender are deeply divisive. Third, and most important, race is less salient, as sexual violence against black women indicts black as well as white men.

When a black woman accuses a black man of sexual harassment, there is no racial angle. But the racial angle was absolutely necessary in order to obscure the case and preserve Thomas’s nomination. Cognizant of Americans’ susceptibilities, conservative Republicans once again staged a drama of racial stereotype. This time black as well as white Americans seem to have believed their little show.

Nell Irvin Painter, Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton University, is writing a biography of Sojourner Truth.

Nell Irvin Painter, The Nation, 11 November 1991, Vol. 253, Issue 16, p. 577. Reproduced with permission of The Nation.

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