"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 Thomass 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 lynchingsMississippi, with 581 deaths,
of which 539 were blackis 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. Griffiths 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 Thomass recitation, one figure in Southern society
is missing: the black woman.
The black womans 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
Wrights 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 womens 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 mens
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 Thomass 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
Nell Irvin Painter, The Nation, 11 November 1991,
Vol. 253, Issue 16, p. 577. Reproduced with permission of The Nation.
Return to top Return to Articles