J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur's serendipitous discovery of a macabre scene in his "Letters from an American Farmer" suggests the 18th century lynching of a black slave: A cage hanging from a tree contained a man whose body was covered with wounds, and his eyes had been gouged out of the sockets (perhaps by nearby birds). Crèvecœur was alone and horrified, in contrast to the spectacle of injustice American lynching culture would later become.
Mark Twain focused on the insidious nature of American lynching culture in his essay “The United States of Lyncherdom,” and Billie Holliday sang of "blood on the leaves and blood at the root" in the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.” One of the most infamous black-and-white lynching photos (warning: extremely disturbing) captures a crowd of smiling, enthralled white men and women who seemed to view a man's death by hanging as a sporting event.
Now that killings by police officers of unarmed black men, women and children -- including Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Tamir Rice -- have possibly reached epidemic status, it seems shootings, excessive force resulting in deaths, hitherto uncorroborated "suicides," and the recent Freddie Gray incident in Baltimore have replaced noose hangings of yesteryear as the lynching method of choice. Instead of a huge crowd surrounding the victim, these days people have set up GoFundMe pages for cops engaged in acts of brutality against unarmed citizens. Fraternity members euphorically chant, “You can hang 'em from a tree." Online comments sections suggest just how prevalent bigotry and disregard for the victims of police brutality have become. Every day, it seems, brings news of another killing or a display of upside-down American morality, where the killer morphs into a hero and the deceased becomes demonized -- a second death of sorts.
The scourge of lynching cauterized the American consciousness decades ago and continues to do so today.
When a 32-year-old black man named Rubin Stacy was lynched before a throng of white onlookers in Florida on July 19, 1935, photographic images of the hanging revealed the insidiousness and extreme moral depravity of American lynching culture. Stacy, a tenant farmer dressed in a white shirt and what appear to be brown dungarees, hung from a tree surrounded by white men, women and children who appeared to be dressed for a horse race or golf tournament. It's a sickening, tragic display of Jim Crow's deadly legacy, but the convivial atmosphere and presence of four young white girls certainly make it a document of the moribund aspect of American morality. One of the worst examples of American lynching culture is captured in Lawrence Beitler's 1930 photo of lynching victims Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Close-ups of the terrible scene in Indiana reveal several lynching spectators to be smiling, almost carefree. Many lynching photos were then used as images for postcards -- a practice documented in a book called "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America."
The tendency to dehumanize black men and make spectacles of their deaths, all while smiling about it, is part of a disgraceful ongoing phenomenon. A Tuskegee Institute study enumerated the lynching incidents from the years 1882 to 1951, producing a tally of 4,730 lynching deaths. The stats are by no means definitive nor all-inclusive. It's hard to quantify exactly how many lynchings have transpired, especially when Lennon Lacy was found hanging from a swing set last year in North Carolina, and Otis Byrd was found hanging from a tree in Claiborne, Mississippi, on March 19, 2015.
Contrary to popular belief, not all lynching victims have been black. Whites, Chinese Americans, Native Americans and Mexican Americans have been hung. A Jewish man named Leo Frank was lynched in 1915. Eleven Italian men were lynched in the ironically xenophobic climate of New Orleans in 1891. Women have also been lynched. Still, the overwhelming majority of lynched human beings have been black men.
Addressing the link between early 20th century lynchings and the cellphone-recorded death of Eric Garner last year, Isabel Wilkerson (author of "The Warmth of Other Suns") once shared, “Many Jim Crow lynchings were over small things: a hog, 75 cents -- not unlike a cigarillo. Ultimately, for being out of one's place.”
Mark Twain had a different take on lynching, and the spectator culture surrounding it. In “The United States of Lyncherdom,” Twain wrote about the murder of three men: Eugene Carter, French Godley and Will Godley. He was so moved by the lynchings and the subsequent eviction, at gunpoint, of the entire black population from Pierce City, Missouri, in 1901, that he penned the essay the same year. He then shelved it -- it was published posthumously in 1923.
“When there is to be a lynching the people hitch up and come miles to see it, bringing their wives and children,” Twain writes. But where Twain errs in his essay is in not being able to see the crowd for what it is: a lynch mob with an insatiable desire to witness human suffering and death. Twain obviously didn't live to see the 1930s photos of smiling crowds at lynchings. And because of blind spots he couldn't articulate the extent of hatred in America the way Frantz Fanon did in his book "Black Skin, White Masks."
Personally, I think of how bigoted, heartless and disgusting many of the present day spectators to killings of black men are and find them to be just like the smiling people in the vintage black-and-white photos. Like many people, I watched the recent shooting of Walter Scott and was horrified. Not too much time passed before an officer said “Fuck your breath” to a dying Eric Harris. These filmed deaths are essentially snuff films, real-life killings recorded for viewing later.
Every time we watch someone die like this, with no dignity, medical assistance or concern for the sanctity of life, we're part of the spectator class. This is clear. But there are also too many people who enjoy watching this from the comfort of their own homes.
Now that back-to-back televised shootings have become the new lynchings, America needs to address the revival of this gruesome culture -- and finally come to terms with one of its darkest of legacies: chattel slavery, Jim Crow and lynching.