Wednesday, January 30, 2019

My book report: Unstuck in time

At the Hands of Persons Unknown:  The Lynching of Black America by Philip Dray, New York, The Modern Library, 2002

Have you ever handed a book to a friend with the words "Read this!  It's the most depressing thing I've ever come across"?  Neither have I.  I have no idea how Mr. Dray finished writing it without killing himself.  I have spent weeks with this material, and he must have devoted years.  Along the way, I learned many things:

Lynching is older than America.  During the Revolution a Virginia justice of the peace named Charles Lynch organized an "informal court" to deal with suspected horse-thieves and Tories, usually by flogging, in the town of Chestnut Hill.  I imagine there's a statue.

The largest group of lynch victims is black men (just as Jews make up the largest group of people murdered by the Nazis), but lynching is an equal-opportunity atrocity -- the dead include black women, white men and women, children, and in one case that will haunt your sleep, an infant cut out of its mother's womb.

The "black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze" of Abel Meeropol's song actually had it easy if they were only hanged.  Lynching often involved mutilation (pre- and post-mortem), whipping and other forms of torture, shooting, stabbing or burning alive.  It usually depended on whether rape was suspected.  Sex -- and the imputation of uncontrollable lust to "the other" -- is at the bottom of everything.

Schools that have no room in the curriculum for Helen Keller or Anne Frank probably don't teach Ida B. Wells-Barnett, either; or a courageous Texas woman named Jessie Daniel Ames, who founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in 1930.  They should.

The book's epilogue mentions non-traditional lynching victims like Matthew Shepperd and Amadou Diallo, but you may notice I've tried to use the present tense.  That's because the "determined men" who informally policed society in the past have traded their white hoods for red hats.  Last night on the frigid streets of Chicago they assaulted the actor Jussie Smollett, who is black and gay, shouting, "This is MAGA country!"  They poured bleach over him, broke one of his ribs and put a rope around his neck.  It might as well be 1930, or 1890.  Kamala Harris called it "a modern-day lynching," as if lynching belonged in the history books along with drawing and quartering.  It has never gone away.

I wonder if it ever will.  I wonder if someone will write a history of American vigilantism from Judge Lynch to the day it ended forever, or if, like America, this is a perpetual work in progress.  For now, everyone should be required to read this dismal book, written with a dispassion I could never manage.  Even people who will find in its pages only inspiration for their own crimes against humanity.



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