“A Lynching in Blackface”: The Representation of History and Fantasies of Black Male Violence in John E. Wideman’s The Lynchers

“A Lynching in Blackface”: The Representation of History and Fantasies of Black Male Violence in John E. Wideman’s The Lynchers

Carmen Dexl

African American intellectual and pragmatist philosopher Cornel West has repeatedly criticized “America’s historical amnesia about black humiliation and black suffering” (52). Emphasizing the impact of the past on present race relations, he states that “history will not let us off so easily” (52). John Edgar Wideman’s 1973 novel The Lynchers exemplarily illustrates this point. The text opens with a preface, entitled “matter prefatory” (3-23), that provides an overview of the history of racial violence directed against African Americans from the early eighteenth century into the 1960s. It features early colonial leaders’ ideas about white superiority and black inferiority, touches upon the history of slavery, and quotes articles from the white press that provide accounts of lynching and burning rituals in graphic detail. At the same time, the preface is interspersed with narratives of African American resistance including tricksterism, anti-lynching activism, storytelling, and lobbying. In that context, it also chronicles, as part of a petition by black people in Kentucky, more than one hundred instances of white mob violence directed against African Americans between 1867 and 1871. The major fictional part of The Lynchers can be read as another, quite different response to that historical context. Set in Philadelphia during the late 1960s, it traces the plan of four African American avengers to rewrite history by inciting the community to publicly lynch a white policeman. In detail, Willie Hall, initiator of the plan, wants his fellow conspirators, Thomas Wilkerson, Leonard Saunders, and Graham Rice, to kidnap and murder Sissie, the black woman who lives with the police officer. Rumors of the white man having raped and murdered her would be spread, the mutilated corpse would eventually be found. The black community would be so inflamed that they would execute the police officer. Willie Hall envisions this highly symbolic murder as a revolutionary act that reverses power relations between blacks and whites and promotes the constitution of a black nation. The plot eventually fails because two of the conspirators sabotage it.

Most interpretations of The Lynchers focus on the reasons for the conspiracy’s collapse. James W. Coleman argues that the central characters’ alienation from the black community is one major reason for their inefficiency. Trudier Harris has shown that their mutual mistrust, moral concerns, and flawed sense of the ahistoricity of lynching add up to their failure to implement the plan. Ashraf H. A. Rushdy and Rolland Murray offer more compelling, culturally contextualized interpretations of the novel. Situating The Lynchers in the context of the Black Power era, they read the text as a critical commentary on discourses of black nationalism prevailing at the time. According to Murray, the fact that many African American texts from the late 1960s have a conflicted relation towards the Black Power ideology explains “why narrative modes that tend to mimic and defamiliarize the effects of ideology―that is, parody, satire, comedy, and dialogism―figure so prominently in the[se] works” (7). Murray’s analysis of The Lynchers makes clear that the novel’s ambiguous portrayal of the black male body reflects skepticism about black nationalists’ preoccupation with manhood. However, Murray does not elaborate on the specific narrative modes adopted in the text and the functions they fulfill. Paying particular attention to the novel’s aesthetics, this essay analyzes the inversion of the lynching narrative at the core of The Lynchers as a form of parody that serves three major aims: First, it exposes lynching’s underlying functions, specific workings, and effects. Second and related to that, it debunks and challenges central elements of the dominant lynching mythology. Third, it expresses a critical position towards the premises and implications of gendered black nationalism. This argument relies upon Linda Hutcheon’s intertextual conception of parody as a “repetition with a critical difference” (32), which will be outlined in the beginning (I). In order to scrutinize the critical difference between the dominant lynching narrative and the novel’s ironic inversion, this essay has to provide a comparative perspective. I will therefore give an introduction to the discourse of lynching in the U.S. (II) before exploring the forms and functions of fictional rewriting. While section III illustrates the novel’s strategies to expose both the specific workings of lynching and the ingredients of the lynching mythology, section IV examines its ambivalent negotiations of black male and communal empowerment through the use of revolutionary violence. The central characters’ failure to implement the plan and the novel’s ending are interpreted within that context (V).

I. Defining Parody

The term parody has been used in various ways to describe—broadly speaking—a cultural practice that ironically imitates or mocks another cultural format, e.g. a specific literary text, film or composition, its form, a set of conventions, another artist, or specific aesthetic and linguistic modes (Dentith 9). The manifold and partly contradictory definitions of the term have incited heavy debates among scholars not only about the appropriate conception of parody itself but also—and particularly so—about its differentiation from related forms, such as pastiche, burlesque, travesty, and satire.1 Though the frame of this paper does not allow for a detailed investigation into this field of research, I would like to point to two major understandings of parody as they dominate the debate: the term parody derives from the Greek words pará denoting counter, against, or beside and ōdē meaning song (Hutcheon 32). Earlier studies of parody defined the prefix pará in the sense of counter or against and thus tended to conceive of parody as a counter-song, i.e. the mocking or ridiculing imitation of an original text. This form of parody can be found particularly in ancient and medieval literature. Focusing on modern and postmodern cultural practices, recent studies of parody, by contrast, refer to pará in the sense of beside and thus emphasize the concept’s intertextual dimensions. Prominent proponents of this second approach are, for instance, Linda Hutcheon, Simon Dentith, and Margaret A. Rose.

In order to make productive use of the concept for my reading of John Wideman’s The Lynchers, this essay draws on intertextual conceptions of parody as elaborated primarily by Linda Hutcheon in A Theory of Parody (1985). Modern parody according to Hutcheon is “a form of imitation, but imitation characterized by ironic inversion, not always at the expense of the parodied text [‘backgrounded text’]” (6; emphasis added). That is, parody imitates and at the same time defamiliarizes the ‘backgrounded text’ (22). As a result the parodic text offers different but not necessarily mocking or diametrically opposed perspectives on the ‘backgrounded text’ (5). In this context Hutcheon coined the concept of “repetition with a difference” (32). This means that the parodic text’s difference derives from inverting and transferring the ‘backgrounded text’ to a new context, which is called ‘trans-contextualization’ (32), and thus attributing it with new connotations, not simply from incorporating the element of ridicule. The use of irony as a rhetorical strategy is at the core of parody, because it marks a “difference in meaning” (54) on the semantic level and thus “allows and demands the decoder’s interpretation and evaluation” (53). Adopting an extended view of the term text, Hutcheon argues that parody’s “‘target’ text” can be “any form of coded discourse” (16) and adds that literature is particularly “famous for parodying non-literary discourse” (18).

To summarize: parody is repetition with a difference—the difference resulting from transcontextualization and ironic inversion. It is this very difference between parodic foreground and parodied background that can create new, potentially critical perspectives. Relating these ideas to The Lynchers, I argue that the novel’s major fictional part, which stages and dramatizes black ideas of lynching a white policeman, is a parody of the dominant lynching narrative as quoted in the novel’s preface. Transferred to the context of late 1960s’ Philadelphia and inverted ironically as “a lynching in blackface” (219), the ‘backgrounded text’—here the historical lynching narrative—emerges as a repetition with a critical difference, as the following comparison will show.

II. The Discourse of Lynching in the United States

From New London [Connecticut], Feb. 20th past. By certain Information from a Gentleman we are assured, that some Weeks ago to the Westward of that place, a very remarkable thing fell out, (which we here relate as a caveat for all Negroes medling for the future with any white Women, least they fare with the like Treatment,) and it is this, A Negro Man met abroad an English Woman, which he accosted to lye with, stooping down, fearing none behind him a Man observing his Design, took out his Knife, before the Negro was aware, cut off all his unruly parts smack and smooth, the Negro Jumpt up roaring and run for his Life; the Black now an Eunuch is alive and like to recover of his Wounds and doubtless cured from any such Wicked Attempts.
Boston News-Letter, March 3, 1718 (4)

This report that was featured in the Boston News-Letter as early as 1718 is one of the texts quoted in the preface of The Lynchers. It introduces constructions of race and gender as they prevailed in the United States at the time and came to inform dominant narratives of lynching and castration.

The fascination with black female and male sexuality has a long history in Western racial discourse,2 but the specific myth of the ‘black man as a brute rapist’ gained currency in the white American imagination after the abolition of slavery. As the article quoted above suggests, black male sexuality was framed as a form of excessive, phallic primitivism that endangered characteristically ‘innocent white women,’ the emblematic bearers of white civilization and white racial purity. Disciplining the ‘hypersexualized’ black male body allowed the white man to claim the image of the ‘righteous protector’ of white womanhood and white racial purity for himself. One prominent example promoting this mythology in a paradigmatic way is the blockbuster—as well as the novels The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), which served as the base for the movie—Birth of a Nation, a 1915 silent film directed by D. W. Griffith. As long as the black man is enslaved, so the story goes, he is docile and happy to serve his white master. Once the system of slavery is abolished, however, the African American man becomes greedy: he not only lusts after the white woman but also strives for the white man’s power. Against the backdrop of Reconstruction the film thus dramatizes an African American’s putative attempt at raping a white woman as well as chaotic black efforts to take over power in a coup d’état. Ending with the Ku Klux Klan’s triumphal parade after African Americans have been disarmed, disenfranchised, and thus quasi-reenslaved,3 the movie propagates and glorifies the violent reinforcement of white supremacy and national unity.

Both Griffith’s movie and the article quoted above represent violence (torture, castration, hanging etc.) as socially sanctioned means to punish African Americans who were accused of alleged crimes against whites. This reflects the general tendency among white Americans at the time to accept or rather affirm the use of violence for intimidating, disciplining, and containing blacks. The observation that in the years from 1890 to 1902 the number of lynchings reached a peak led most historians to understand lynching specifically as a reaction to the political, economic, and social transformations since Emancipation and Reconstruction (Guzman 278). In order to suppress black Civil Rights and reinforce white male dominance, lynching became established as a racially coded practice of violence.4

Even though both black men and women were executed by lynch mobs, I agree with Trudier Harris that on closer inspection “the issue […] really boils down to one between white men and black men and the mythic conception the former have of the latter” (20). This is not to downgrade feminist concerns with the experience of black women and black female corporeality, but the role of African American women in the lynching complex can be understood adequately only when one considers the specific race and gender ideologies involved. While in the post-Emancipation era black women—like women in general—were still excluded from the politico-jural domain, African American men occupied a disempowered racial but empowered male position. Their enfranchisement entailed a gender asymmetry between black men and women and—simultaneously—a “potential of masculine sameness […] so terrifying [to white men] that only the reassertion of a gendered difference can provide the necessary disavowal” for white male supremacists (Wiegman 90). Within the logics of the lynching complex the castration of African American men served to symbolically align the black male body with the female; the destruction of the black phallus through white male violence can be read as a form of disempowerment—a denial of masculine sameness and thus a denial of equality, political participation, and citizenship. For the white man, in turn, the conception of lynching as a “patriarchal duty” (Wood 7) provided the legitimizing grounds for his ongoing dominance.

According to Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, lynching then served to reassert white male dominance not only over black men but also over white and black women—over the white woman because her “right […] to protection presupposed her obligation to obey” (335) and over the black woman because she found herself doubly marginalized in a patriarchal and racist society and was, additionally, confronted with potential threats of lynching and rape. It was this specific intertwining of lynching and rape within the Southern “rape complex” (Cash 117)—i.e. the frequent rape of black women by white men signaling defeat to African American men on the one hand and the narrative of the black rapist executed by white avengers in a lynching ritual on the other—that “functioned as a means of both sexual and racial suppression” (Hall 335). Apart from ordering social divisions, lynching had possible community-building effects: it constructed white solidarity among generations, classes, and regions in a time that was characterized by a high potential for class conflicts and regional tensions between urban and rural areas as well as Northern and Southern states. This was particularly true of so-called ‘spectacle lynchings.’ These ritualized executions were announced in local newspapers and usually attracted a huge crowd of white spectators from different ages, sexes, regions, and classes that watched and celebrated not only the hanging but also the mutilation and burning alive of the victim. They involved the taking of pictures and selling of souvenirs like the lynching victim’s ears, fingers, penis, or strands of hair, as well as the nation-wide dissemination of documentary material like news accounts, photographs, or ballads (Hale 199-203). In its preface, The Lynchers gives a detailed account of a lynching ritual, originally published in the Vicksburg, Mississippi, Evening Post at an unspecified date:

When the two Negroes were captured, they were tied to trees and while the funeral pyres were being prepared they were forced to suffer the most fiendish torture. The blacks were forced to hold out their hands while one finger at a time was chopped off. The fingers were distributed as souvenirs. The ears of the murderers were cut off. Holbert was beaten severely, his skull was fractured, and one of his eyes, knocked out with a stick, hung by a shred from the socket […].
Vicksburg, Mississippi, Evening Post (17)

Sometimes instances of lynching that involved only a few participants and spectators gained persistent public attention because newspaper articles or radio reports focused upon their ritualistic and performative qualities. Photographs and postcards that show white supremacists posing near tortured black bodies were easily available and accounts of instances of lynching and burning rituals were integral parts of the daily news. Thus, these smaller or more private lynchings were re-told and made public through standardized visual and narrative practices that stressed white power and black powerlessness (Hale 205-06; Wood 2).

It becomes clear that lynching manifested itself in acts of physical violence but was closely connected to representational and rhetoric strategies that ‘other’ and objectify the black male body. In that context Robyn Wiegman claims that lynching in the U.S. South was a form of disciplinary violence that combined Foucauldian ideas about the spectacles of public torture and execution from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and strategies of surveillance that have gained increasing influence since the rise of modernity in the nineteenth century. The culture of lynching linked these panoptic and corporeal dimensions of violence. It was characterized by panoptic dimensions because in most cases white supremacists acted arbitrarily and homogenously, i.e. veiled in white capes and hoods, staging themselves as representatives of the dominant power discourse. Moreover, images and narratives of lynching spread all over the country so that not only the horror of lynching itself but also—and in particular—these sensationalist representations or rather ‘re-creations’ conveyed the omnipresence of an all too powerful white gaze. At the same time lynching was a corporeal form of violence because the mob’s panoptic power materialized itself in the spectacle of public torture and execution (Wiegman 39-41). Wiegman concludes that “the black subject is thus disciplined in two powerful ways: by the threat of always being seen and by the spectacular scene” (13). So lynching worked, as Trudier Harris elucidates, “to convey to blacks that there was always someone watching over their shoulders ready to punish them for the slightest offense or the least deviation from acceptable lines of action” (19). It was up to the ruling majority or rather the respective group of vigilantes to define these “acceptable lines of action.” Written and oral eyewitness accounts show that African American lynching victims were accused of various crimes, including homicide, robbery, insulting whites, and other minor ‘offenses’ (Franklin and Moss 282), but the myth of the black rapist, which constitutes one central element of the lynching mythology, has become a topos in fictional texts by African American and white authors alike.

III. Reverting the Dominant Lynching Narrative

The image of the limp black body hanging from the tree can be understood as an epitome of the experiences of racial discrimination and violence African Americans were historically confronted with. John Edgar Wideman’s The Lynchers responds to this historical context by rewriting the dominant lynching narrative and reflecting upon ideas of black counter-violence. Set in the black community of Philadelphia during the late 1960s, the novel evokes a tense atmosphere characterized by intra-communal conflicts, increasing frustration with state repression, and the spirit of black radicalism. Struggling with social inequality and racial discrimination, the central characters, Willie Hall, called Littleman because of a physical disability, Thomas Wilkerson, Leonard Saunders, and Graham Rice plan the lynching of a white policeman to revert power relations between blacks and whites. The plotline about the lynching conspiracy covers only a few months. But the text, interspersed with dream fragments and flashbacks, outlines the central characters’ development over a time span of several years. It thereby uses lynching as a major motif to emphasize the impact of the past upon the central characters’ imagination. Thomas Wilkerson’s daydream about a machine that exploits and eventually destructs black bodies is one striking example in this context:

I [Thomas Wilkerson] am standing in the guts of a huge machine. Behind each door energy is being generated by the friction of black bodies. I can hear the bumping and rubbing. I hear the low purr, the white voices from another dimension which by subtle magic orchestrate the movement in the rooms. […] black people shredded by futile motions behind their thin doors join the rainfall. I am breathing dust. The engines I hear are grinding flesh and bone (104).

The imagery in this passage suggests a comparison between the workings of white hegemony and a machine that incessantly generates and consolidates power from the exploitation of black bodies. The passage’s emphasis on the overall white presence in African American life and its destructive energy resembles the lynch mob’s panoptic and corporeal power. For Wilkerson whites, whose voices seem to come from a distant site, are in the superior position to control and determine black agency. They “orchestrate the movement [of black bodies] in the rooms” (104). The corporeal dimensions of white supremacy manifest themselves symbolically in the “shredding,” i.e. exploitation and destruction, of black bodies. The passage illustrates not only the immediate consequences of racial oppression on the central characters’ subjectivity but also the enduringly disturbing power of lynching discourses and a related imagery in the African American imagination. It represents a paradigmatic example of how the novel recurrently stages and reactivates images of lynching in different contexts to stress its legacy as well as the significance of remembering. During a walk from Lombard Street to South Street, Willie Hall similarly criticizes white ignorance concerning the history of black suffering and humiliation. He explains to Wilkerson:

―Two hundred years and they haven’t learned a goddamn thing. They want to rebuild a lie. Colonial architecture. […] Don’t they know it didn’t work in the eighteenth century and it surely won’t now. They want the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, as if they don’t know what those delusions cost, who paid for their leisure and elegance. How many black bodies were cast into the sea to finance what these damn merchants call culture. […]
What should a black man feel walking down this street, the Liberty Bell almost close enough to spit on, the fat, ugly boats full of money laying down there in the Delaware (110-111).

Willie Hall interprets Philadelphian architecture that imitates the Georgian style of the colonial period as a ‘re-construction’ of historical master/slave relationships. Since historical buildings like the Independence Hall, the Mint, or the Liberty Bell, which serve to symbolize U.S.-American cultural values and national identity as well as the country’s wealth and power, were created at the cost of black life, Willie Hall questions both their cultural value and the ideas of civilization and superiority that many white Americans associate with it. Strikingly, the promises of freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness represented by these national icons have been denied to African Americans ever since they were inscribed in the Constitution. Philadelphian urban space, divided into impressive places and ghetto areas, reflects these social divisions. Willie Hall is not willing to accept these unequal conditions that represent a continuation of the historical oppression of African Americans. Therefore he argues:

―What this town needs is a good old fashioned lynching. The real thing. With all the trimmings. It would be like going to church. Puts things in their proper perspective. Reminding everybody of who they are, where they stand. Divides the world simple and pure. Good or bad. Oppressors and oppressed. Black or white. Things tend to get a little fuzzy here in the big city. We need ritual. A spectacular (60).

The fact that Willie Hall, depicted as “the little man […] with his cane” (51), stages himself as spokesperson of the conspiracy may have comical dimensions. His persistent imitation and inversion of the dominant lynching rhetoric along these lines is described in the text as a “grade B spy movie language [that] at first amused him [Thomas Wilkerson]” (60). For Thomas Wilkerson, the suggestion to incite a lynching loses its supposed ridiculous quality, however, when he understands that “Littleman had never utter the word lynch in jest.” Instead, he comes to realize that the idea, after having been “repeated ten times in the space of a few days,” begins to “establish itself in the meandering reality of their talks” (60) as a thoroughly calculated plan. For the reader the amusement has a bitter aftertaste, too. On the one hand, Hall demands violent resistance against white male dominance for obvious reasons. On the other hand, his plan draws on and reinforces the problematic idea to use violent racism for nationalist purposes. This corresponds with Linda Hutcheon’s statement that “in imitation, even with critical difference, parody reinforces” (26). At the same time, however, it “creates new levels of meaning” (31).

In case of the passage quoted above, the call for a lynching spectacle by an African American speaker illustrates the functions of lynching, especially with regards to constructions of power and race relations. It reveals that the culture of lynching is based on a simplistic, literally black and white view of the world. In separating the world neatly into oppressors, who are conceived to be morally good and superior, and oppressed, who are stigmatized as bad and inferior, it validates and legitimizes the oppressors’ claims for power. Lynching thus works as a major force for the construction of power relations and corresponding social hierarchies. It dictates social positions along the lines of gender and race, “reminding everybody of who they are, where they stand” (60). As the idea of reminding indicates, the lynched body serves as an unmistakable message that relies on and further nourishes fictions of race and power. The mutilated black body hanging from the tree signals white male power. According to Willie Hall it worked like a “pendulum tolling power, power, power. White power” (61) and intimidated African Americans with the message to “beware. Nigger beware. If the whim took us [white men], we would burden every tree in Dixie” (61-62). The passage therefore shows that lynching is here charged with the potential to (re-)define power and race relations and restore order when “things tend to get a little fuzzy” (60).

Willie Hall, gifted with a clear sense of history, is well aware of the functions of lynching. Using these ideas as a starting point, he is convinced that the appropriation of the practice of lynching by African Americans will have the implications just outlined: a redefinition of power and race relations and the enforcement of a new social order dominated by blacks. The central characters’ plan corresponds in nearly every detail with the dominant lynching narrative, as the following passage shows. In the novel it is set in italics to indicate that it retrospectively renders a conversation between Hall and the co-conspirators as remembered by Thomas Wilkerson during a nightly walk in the park:

―[…] now suppose on this spring or summer day, has to be warm to bring our folks out, there is more cause than usual for the community to be hateful toward the Man. Suspicious, let’s say, of some outrage. Perhaps a sexual crime. Maybe a white cop beat up on one of the whores that pay him protection. […]
―Here’s the one. This particular white man in his bold blue hunting suit is the one you all been talking about and looking for. No you haven’t read in the white papers what he did to Clara Mae. Not news when some part time pimp cop slices up a black woman. (Crowd gasps) After all he’s white, he’s the Man. He’s been serving her black meat to his customers all along. (Glory) She was his property. He had absolute power over her to do as he pleased.
―And the voice goes on signifying, insinuating. It’s like a prayer meeting. Some old sister in the amen corner shouting back at the speaker

Relating to Willie Hall’s idea that lynching the white police officer “would be like going to church” (60), this passage illustrates in more detail how Hall envisions the public execution as a religious ritual. He fantasizes about staging himself as leading speaker at the lynching site comparable to a priest in a mass ceremony, animating a community of believers to respond to his words. The black community’s immediate reactions to Hall’s ‘sermon’ are put in brackets which stresses the performative dimensions of the act and contributes to visualizing the scene as the very “prayer meeting” (67) that the conspirators have in mind. The placeholders that are used for the names of the black woman and the white police officer mark the denial of identity accompanying lynching. Sissie, whom the avengers accuse of betrayal for living with the white man, is ironically referred to as Clara Mae, which means “bright pearl” and thus alludes to the image of the virtuous white woman, and the white policeman is here equated with “the Man” (66) to denote his representative status for any white man. In this passage the repetition with a critical difference makes clear how through lynching male dominance is enforced at the expense of women, utilized as involuntary accomplices, and at the expense of the lynching victim, transformed into an unidentified Other in the perpetrators’ imagination. Constructing the lynching ritual as a religious ritual adds another dimension to that complex. Lynching then emerges as a highly symbolic act whereupon the ‘beast rapist,’ the symbol of demonic sin and guilt, is according to Amy L. Wood “exposed, investigated, and finally […] expelled from a sacred community of believers” (46) in an allegedly divinely sanctioned outburst of communal violence. So the passage quoted above can be read to expose the lynching stake as a performative site where those in charge of lynching enact a battle between good and evil and create public representations of white superiority.

From the use of the white man as a scapegoat, the pretense of rape, the use of media, the conception of lynching as a public ritual, to its sanctioning by black police—Hall’s vision of lynching represents a defamiliarized imitation of the dominant lynching narrative. What constitutes the critical difference are the ironic inversion and trans-contextualization: the setting has changed from primarily the rural South during the first half of the twentieth century to the urban space of Philadelphia in the late 1960s, and the cast of “oppressors and oppressed” (60) has been reverted. Through this alteration The Lynchers starkly exposes and challenges central elements of the dominant lynching narrative. Since the text depicts rape as a mere pretense to motivate the lynching of the police officer, it questions the charge of rape that served as one major justification for white mob violence and, by implication, dismantles the myth of the black rapist. The central characters’ view of the lynching victim as a representative scapegoat points to the arbitrary nature of mob rule. In that context Willie Hall states: “If a white woman was molested or a slave struck his master and ran away, the South reacted by killing any niggers who happened to be handy. No questions of justice, of catching the offender. All black men were responsible and the rules of war meant all were guilty (118; emphasis added). At the same time the avengers’ conception of the public execution as a religious ritual underlines the role of performative aspects for the reaffirmation of racial and gendered hierarchies. Beyond that, the novel’s emphasis on the conspiracy’s underlying political motives—the consolidation of a black nation—suggests that more or less latent nationalist concerns have played a crucial role in the adoption of racial violence. The maintenance of white supremacy after Reconstruction and during the segregation era—just as the constitution of the U.S.-American nation in general—has involved the use of (racial) violence to a significant degree. Problematically, the central characters’ plan to adopt lynching for their nationalist endeavors runs the risk of perpetuating asymmetrical power structures, only in a reverted way, and reenacting existing ideologies of race, gender, and nationhood.

IV. Constructing and Dismantling the Black Revolutionary

The Lynchers dramatizes African American ideas to commit “a lynching in blackface” (219). The central characters’ labeling of their plan in these terms is cynical. In minstrel shows, theatrical performances that were popular in the United States especially during the nineteenth century, white entertainers painted their faces with burnt cork, greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and imitated or caricatured African Americans in stereotypical ways. Hall’s demand for “a lynching in blackface” (219) again turns the tables. To appropriate the racist idea of blackface here implies that blacks mimic whites and thus claim their position of power so that they are eventually the ones who have the last laugh. The plan to employ communal violence in order to counter oppression and propagate the constitution of black power and nationhood is reminiscent of radical agendas of militant black organizations such as the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) or the Black Panthers. The radicalization of these movements for black power shaped the political climate at the time of the novel’s setting. In the late 1960s, the Black Panthers, for example, advocated a guerilla war to redefine power relations in the United States, and four male members of the RAM were arrested for their plan to assassinate state officials and incite a race riot in the city of Philadelphia (Murray 44). The program and rhetoric of these militant organizations evolved through engagement with Marxist ideas and anti-colonial movements in Cuba, Vietnam, and Africa (Murray 41-43). Via transnational exchanges black nationalist thinking came to be heavily influenced by theories of radical figures like Ché Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, and Frantz Fanon, the latter of whom is also cited in The Lynchers several times. In his work, Fanon examines the effects of racism and colonialization on the colonial subject. He argues that the colonized, stirred by ambitions to be seen and heard, come to despise their own blackness and wear a white mask by adopting the oppressor’s language and cultural traditions. In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon suggests for black and white men to “move away from the inhuman voices of their respective ancestors so that a genuine communication can be born” (206). The Wretched of the Earth (1963), published eleven years later, can be read even more radically as a call for the use of violence to fight against oppression and pave the way for new liberated men and nations, as Jean-Paul Sartre states in his preface to Fanon’s work (Sartre xliii-lxii). Willie Hall represents a perfect example of the black nationalist inspired by Fanonian ideas when he argues:

When one man kills it’s murder. When a nation kills murder is called war. If we lynch the cop we will be declaring ourselves a nation. Only two responses to our action are possible. They [white Americans] must attack us or back off and either way they must recognize our sovereignty. […] We are incorporating their understanding of history and power in to our plan. We are saying crystally clear in the language they invented: We are your equals. Accept that or go to war (117-118).

Willie Hall is convinced that the imitation of the ruling majority’s strategies will necessarily have nation-building effects. In his study Our Living Manhood,Rolland Murray clarifies the reasoning underlying such thinking as follows: “If white supremacist nationalism legitimated itself through ritual negation of blackness, the new nationalisms codified their authority by negating that negation” (2). The African American avengers in The Lynchers want to appropriate the lynching ritual itself in order to negate the negation of blackness. Different from white mobs who attacked “any niggers who happened to be handy” (118), they deliberately intend to lynch awhite police officer. This act equals a ritual negation not only of white constructions of law and order as emblematically represented by the police officer but also of whiteness itself, as the following exchange between Willie Hall and Thomas Wilkerson suggests:

—You know if it was done right, if tradition, nuance, imagination were consulted, the victim would have to be a white cop.
―And in the middle of the afternoon. And everybody standing around. Not looking at the beast but eating chicken from picnic baskets, sitting on fences munching watermelon. Dancing, singing, playing ball. Blasé as could be.
―In a big city. With black cops all around. Music blaring from the record shops. No white faces in sight (63; emphasis added).

The passage indicates the exclusiveness of the new social order dominated by African Americans that Hall has in mind. There are “no white faces in sight” (63). Instead, black bystanders engage in everyday rituals like eating, “dancing, singing, playing ball” and do not pay specific attention to the public execution. The lynching of the white policeman thus emerges as an everyday ritual itself. The idea that “black cops [are] all around” (63) and sanction the perpetrators’ violent act relates to plans of the Black Panther Party around Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale to counter white police force by setting up black militia (Murray 46). At the same time the quotation gives another perfect example of Willie Hall’s skillful black adoption of white speech. The term “savage beast,” which derives from the stereotype of the slave as an uncivilized brute and has strongly informed the dominant lynching rhetoric, here ironically refers to the white policeman, who is objectified and subjected to processes of Othering in turn. Hall’s revolutionary nationalism clearly builds upon imitation and inversion. Historically white nation-building involved subjugating and appropriating the black male body; reclaiming the black body and destroying the white male body in turn, Hall argues, would release “every black man […] [from] the fear of death in his heart, a fear of death at the hands of white men” (118-119) and thus restore his sense of manhood and corporeal and psychological wholeness.

Willie Hall is the one who is most obsessed with the conspiracy. The plan not only earns him the admiration and recognition of his fellow conspirators, who praise him as a “genius” (218). Imagining black male violence also compensates his feelings of inferiority and impotence. In flashbacks we learn about several instances in which Hall has been discriminated against. During a stay in Atlantic City, for example, he visited a brothel but when the prostitute discovered his short stature she laughed at him and ran away with the money. When Hall at a later point in the novel gives a speech in front of Wilson Junior High in order to incite black activism he is beaten down by white police and hospitalized. Against the backdrop of these experiences it becomes clear that Hall projects his desire for personal and political empowerment onto the plan. This corresponds to an argument by Robyn Wiegman, which says that lynching represents “a transfer […] from the realm of the psychosexual to the material” (98). Imagining black male violence has empowering effects for the other characters as well. School teacher Thomas Wilkerson, who suffers from his parents’ brittle marriage and seeks nothing but recognition, especially from his alcoholic father, claims to “grow in a special way” (234). Graham Rice, the janitor who is angry about being underestimated by the other conspirators, feels empowered by envisioning himself as future leader (198). And Leonard Saunders, the stereotypical bad boy from the ghetto, whose family has broken apart, seeks retaliation for his fate. Though Saunders has at one point moral concerns about kidnapping and murdering Sissie, he talks himself into believing that the woman herself is to blame for it:

By taking certain steps she had lost all power over her life. She was dead already, a puppet in the hands of those whose whims controlled her, a doll who could perform certain lifelike tricks, simulate when the proper strings were pulled, love, passion, desire. Now he would steal the strings, and after she had wiggled her necessary dance, he would snip them (153).

The quotation reflects not only Saunders’s desire for a reversal of power relations, because he “would steal the strings” that control Sissie from the white police officer and dominate her himself. It also exemplifies the central characters’ attempts to fashion themselves as patriarchs, machos, or sexual heroes. They frequently use derogatory terms like “dolls” or “silly bitches” (165) to refer to women, engage in sexual fantasies, or imagine acts of physical violence against women.

The novel’s construction of the black male revolutionary in these terms relates to Black Power politics to equate the constitution of the national community with the reconstruction of masculine identity (Murray 1). Prominent radical activists like Amiri Baraka and Eldridge Cleaver, for example, inverted the lynching rhetoric and asserted the black phallus in order to (re-)claim black manhood, power, and nationhood. In his 1966 essay collection Home Amiri Baraka, for instance, calls white men “fags” (216) to figuratively associate them with the female and denote their lack of virility, and Eldridge Cleaver acknowledges the rape of white women as an insurrectionary and cathartic act (26). Cleaver’s adoption of the metaphorof rape in his influential work Soul on Ice (1967), a collection of essays and letters that became the philosophical foundation of the Black Power movement, serves to promote the image of the sexually and—one is prompted to conclude—politically powerful black man. 

Feminist scholars and activists like Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Michele Wallace questioned Black Power’s privileging of the masculine and simultaneous marginalization of black women. In Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Wallace criticizes the misogyny that goes along with the adoption of the macho image and the equation of black power with male power. The Lynchers is engaged with these objections in that it renders all male attempts to control women or establish patriarchal families unsuccessful. None of the men is able to sustain lasting relationships with women. All of the major characters live by themselves. The marriage of Thomas Wilkerson’s parents, Bernice and Orin Wilkerson, is brittle because of Orin’s alcohol addiction. Families have broken apart and even friendships do not last. When Orin Wilkerson eventually stabs his colleague, Wilbur Childress, in an argument about money, he loses the only close friend he ever had and is incarcerated. The four conspirators’ relationship is equally characterized by mutual mistrust and ends with Hall lapsing into delirium, Saunders going mad, and Wilkerson being presumably shot by Rice. The Lynchers emphasizes the conspirators’ overall ineffectiveness and thus dismantles the idealized image of the heroic black revolutionary, which was promoted especially during the 1960s and early 1970s in the works of many black male authors, e.g. in The Black Commandos (1967) by Julian Moreau, The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969) by Sam Greenlee, and Operation Burning Candle (1973) by Blyden Jackson (Bryant 247-249, 278). Ending with the collapse of the conspiracy, the novel ironically undermines the central characters’ plan to commit a “lynching in blackface” (219).

V. Interpreting the Failure of the Lynching Plan

The Lynchers represents an example of fiction that tracks, as Rolland Murray put it, “the unevenness, political incoherence, and anxiety that beset nationalisms tethered to masculinist identity politics” (2). Against that background, the central characters’ failure to implement the plan expresses two major ideas. First, it criticizes black revolutionary ideas to imitate the key principles and premises of white American nationalism, especially when it comes to the use of lynching as a strategy of empowerment. Racialized lynching in the United States was situated within specific historical and sociocultural contexts and closely connected to specific politics of representation and rhetoric. Had the four avengers in The Lynchers successfully implemented their plan, this would have suggested to understand lynching simplistically as an ahistorical cultural practice that can be adopted in any context and setting for the sake of nationalist success and male empowerment (Harris 135, 144). The central characters’ ineffectual rebellion and eventual social isolation signals skepticism towards Black Power discourses that associate the constitution of a black nation with the reconstruction of black manhood. This politics relies strongly upon dominant conceptions of masculinity and perpetuates ideologies of race, gender and class. It reproduces gender and class inequities, which generate internal conflicts and tensions in turn. The Lynchers covers this unevenness in that it stresses the divergences between male and female characters and the conspirators’ debates about the legitimacy of their plan. Wilkerson and Saunders frequently wonder whether their nationalist aspirations justify the murder of Sissie and of other civilians. Related to that, Ashraf Rushdy convincingly argues that The Lynchers conveys an even larger critique of nationalism itself because it indicates that “somewhere in the origins of one nation is to be found the source of its later tendencies to exploit another” (120) and “violate others on the basis of marking difference” (122). This is particularly true of white American supremacists who employed the lynching ritual along other forms of (racial) violence to mark differences. Yet, “this form of thinking (chosen / reprobate),” Rushdy argues, “is part and parcel of nationalist discourse everywhere” (122).

Second, the central characters’ social isolation at the end of the novel shows that under oppressive conditions African American attempts to entertain working relationships and engage in collective action are doomed to fail. The novel’s portrayal of wrecked relationships and family conflicts emphasizes rather the black community’s fragmentation and heterogeneity. The impact of white hegemony on the central characters’ subjectivity and their lack of integration into the black community undermine coherent constructions of identity. Wilkerson, Hall, Saunders, and Rice are torn between their desire for recognition and love on the one hand and their self-fashioning as patriarchs and machos on the other. Performances of black male agency are directed against the black community itself, not against whites. They turn out to be nothing but self-destructive as in the case of the murders committed by Graham Rice and Orin Wilkerson, the latter of whom ends up in prison and thus falls prey to white surveillance and control mechanisms.

I do not want to go as far as to argue that The Lynchers rejects ideas of black counter-violence completely. The novel’s very last passage shows Anthony, the young African American hospital orderly, whom Hall tried to recruit for his plan, “slash[ing] through bottles, vials, tubes, cups and glasses, all that sustains life in neat array atop the nurses’ station” (264). Anthony’s violent act may once more point to the self-destructive nature of black revolutionary efforts under life-negating conditions; at the same time his rage represents “the revolutionary potential of the next generation” (310). In what respect and to what degree the successors’ destructive energy will erupt and make a difference is left open in Wideman’s novel.

Conclusion: Lynching and the (Black) Cultural Imagination

“Racial memories exist in the imagination. I believe that there are certain collective experiences that get passed on.” (John E. Wideman in an interview with John O’Brien, 221)

The Lynchers provides us with haunting ideas about the enduring power of lynching—its narratives, myths, images, and related rhetoric—in the black cultural imagination and beyond. It illustrates how the central characters’ imagination tries to cope with the past in order to make sense of the present and pave the way for the future (Kermit 19). As the conspirators develop the plan, some of them find cathartic effects in writing, storytelling and the like. Hall, for example, uses writing to “get the words out that spin around and spin around and give my mind no peace” (113). Saunders remembers how he enjoyed listening to his mother’s tales. And Wilkerson, who is most skeptical of the plan, wonders, “wouldn’t it be right to cradle Willie in his arms? Rock him. Sing to him. Quiet the fears of lightning and thunder” (144). While the characters in The Lynchers are not able to make productive use of black oral culture and realize its communal significance, the text indicates what Wideman’s later novels, the Homewood trilogy (1981-1983), Reuben (1988), and Philadelphia Fire (1990) elaborate: storytelling has the potential to subvert dominant narratives and (re-)define the self and its relation to the community. It can serve as a means of remembering the past and coping with “America’s historical amnesia about black humiliation and black suffering” (West 52). In this sense I understand Wideman’s The Lynchers as a culturally significant work of art that illustrates the connection between past and present and provides us with a compelling critique of (black) male and communal empowerment through the use of violence. The conspirators do not implement their plan but what remains is the text itself or rather its thought experiment on “a lynching in blackface” (219), stimulating reflections upon the legacy of lynching in U.S. culture, the significance of remembering, and the ambivalence of violence.

1 For an overview of the historically different conceptions of parody see Margaret A. Rose’s Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-Modern (2006) and Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Parody (1985). The two studies also provide detailed, though quite different, definitions of parody and related forms such as travesty, pastiche, satire, and burlesque.

2 For a deliberate elaboration of historical constructions of Black sexuality in Anglophilic cultures see, for example, the chapter “Sexing the Difference” in Robyn Wiegman’s seminal study American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender (43-78).

3 I am referring here to David A. Blackmon’s definition of lynching as “slavery by another name” in his study of the same title.

4 Cf. Wiegman 81-100; Wood 3-15. Originally lynching was a frontier phenomenon, adopted as a disciplinary practice by vigilantes when sheriffs were absent. It did not necessarily entail the persecuted person’s death.

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