Strange Fruit

Those parallels, and the feeling of dread, and their lingering influence on black Americans’ attitudes towards police and other authorities, are dramatically evoked in a new book by Philip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown. The book is a thorough history of mob violence directed against African-Americans over nearly a century after the end of slavery, starting in 1886 and not truly ending until 1964, when the last known mob-directed lynching occurred with explicit assistance and approval from local police officials.

Dray has created a complex portrait of an American—particularly Southern—tradition of publicly murdering African-Americans, drawing on documents collected at the Tuskegee Institute known as the Lynching Archives. The typical lynching started with a fabricated report of a white woman ravished by a black man. A mob usually gathered and some previously anonymous black male was put to death in some excruciating way, thus restoring the honor of the befouled dame.

As a narrative, the book draws its power from the sheer barbarity of lynching. Through Dray’s eyes we see thousands of victims dying in the most gruesome ways. We also see some of America’s most celebrated institutions, along with the country’s own mythologies about race and sex, conjuring a shadow of terror that would forever haunt black America.

Dray’s book begins with America’s beginning. He traces lynching to some of its earliest manifestations during the Revolutionary War and to Virginia justice of the peace Charles Lynch, for whom the practice was later named. A Quaker banned from religious meetings due to his foul tongue, Lynch set up makeshift courts that routinely sentenced suspected horse thieves to flogging during the war. Suspected British sympathizers were often jailed or tied to trees, whipped, and made to yell “Liberty Forever.” In a shadow of things to come, Lynch was sued after the war ended by some who had been subjected to his brand of justice and were later acquitted at trial.

Lynching not only has its roots in the history of “citizen justice,” but also the South’s warped gentleman’s code. This quixotic brand of chivalry held violence as an endorsed means of evening a score or righting some gentleman’s besmirched honor. Dray recounts the assault on Sen Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) in 1856, which began after Sumner “insulted” Sen Andrew Pickens Butler (D-S.C.) by saying that he lasciviously embraced the “harlot” and “whore” slavery. A few days later, Rep. Preston Brooks, a relative of Butler, marched into Sumner’s office and beat him mercilessly with a cane. Sumner returned to the Senate, but never recovered from the attack. Brooks was acclaimed in the South, and The Richmond Enquirer praised his act as “a proper act, done in the proper place at the proper time.”

Dray’s retelling of American history is important, because it shows the basis of lynching lay not just in racism, but in fundamental psycho-cultural conflicts. This becomes apparent as Dray explains that lynching of African-Americans was rare during the years of slavery. Indeed, as late as 1885, the number of whites lynched annually almost always exceeded the number of blacks. (Blacks were only spared the rope because they were viewed as property, and the death of a slave meant a lost investment.)

The barbaric spate of violence visited upon freed slaves in the years following Emancipation is well chronicled by Dray, who pulls from old Freedman’s Bureau accounts tales of blacks scalped, beaten, shot, and clubbed to death. In an era when the South was mourning the loss of its honor, ex-slaves made easy targets for retribution—and even easier ones once Reconstruction ended and the real epoch of lynching began.

Numbers often fail to capture the true horror of mass murder, but they do help quantify the damage. One of the main shortcomings of the book, though, is Dray’s inability to give us a total number of blacks lynched in America. Instead, we get a patchwork of estimates varying in time and geography: 20,000 blacks killed by the Klan between 1868 and 1871; an 1872 congressional report estimating that at the close of the Civil War, 2,000 blacks were killed in Louisiana alone.

Rather than focusing on the accounting, Dray’s book derives much of its power through graphically detailing the means by which mobs put African-Americans to death. In Dray’s compendium of grisly acts, a quick death by burning looks merciful. Less fortunate victims had their hands chopped off or were force-fed their own sex organs.

Dray notes that on many levels, lynching begins to look like little more than ritualistic human sacrifice, or vicarious cannibalism. “It cannot be coincidence that the South’s most popular outdoor entertainment, the barbecue,” writes Dray, “was also the term commonly used for the spectacle lynching of black people.” Dray notes that it was not uncommon for spectators to either eat while watching a lynching or repair en masse after the lynching to a meal somewhere. Dray even digs up one egregious incident in which ice cream sundaes were actually served during the act.

His book, however, is more than an annotation of mob violence. It is a comprehensive look at homegrown ethnic violence and the various forces that allowed it to bloom and fester. Institutions—from Brown University to The Atlantic Monthly—gave platforms to intellectuals who, throughout the 1800s, pseudo-scienced away the humanity of African-Americans. Newspapers like the Atlanta Constitution exhorted mobs to wholesale pogroms. (A headline over one Atlanta Constitution story read “Negro, Seen in Dream, Causes Death of Girl.”)

Perhaps most disturbingly, the practice of lynching was intertwined with the mythology of the sex-craved black buck, the equally mythological virginal white woman, and the fear of the cataclysm that would ensue should the two so much as exchange eye contact. Dray quotes an Atlanta newspaper article lambasting “progressive white women” who ride next to carriage drivers: “To see a big black Negro sitting along side of or touching the body of a white woman makes the blood in every white man’s veins boil, [for] it is utterly impossible for the woman to keep from the body of the Negro. This is a horrible sight for white people to witness.”

In bringing these stories to light, Dray has accomplished something that so many African-American intellectuals fail at: placing the “black problem” in the larger context of the “American problem.” Dray is able to make seemingly obscure but justifiable connections between historical trends, for instance showing how the rise in working white women at the turn of the century informed the epidemic of lynching. With women growing in independence, insecure white men seemed fixated on the idea that independent white women would forsake them for black bucks and often used lynching to express their fears—and to subtly threaten their women as well. Likewise, Dray keenly notes that lynching often reached a peak during periods when large numbers of white men were out of work.

Dray also succeeds in evoking America’s lengthy history of denial when confronted with homegrown racial violence perpetrated by whites, a phenomenon still evident today in debates over everything from slavery to racial profiling. His work helps explain why historically, white people have rarely been held accountable and brought to justice for crimes against blacks. The reason, of course, is simple: With lynching, responsibility for the crime is diffuse, spread equally among many faceless mob members, none of whom can really be singled out for punishment any more than those who consumed the ice cream and cheered on the spectacles.

If Hands has one weakness, it is the inability of the author to tell us what the shadow of lynching means for us today. Reading his book, one wonders: Will the shudder that goes down the spine of many black men at the sound of a siren be forever impossible to separate from the legacy of police departments that participated in lynching or simply handed black victims over to mobs? Dray doesn’t really address these matters, but now, perhaps more than ever, it would be good to know.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me.