In May 1916, Joe Meyers, an oiler from Waco, Texas, bought a postcard and jotted a note to his dad: "This is the Barbecue we had last night." But the picture on the postcard, a 5½-by-3½-inch gelatin silver print, didn't show a pulled-pork sandwich. It was a photograph of Jesse Washington's corpse suspended from a utility pole, surrounded by onlookers, one of them Meyers.
That postcard is from of a collection of over 70 images of lynchings that's now on display at the New-York Historical Society. There's the postcard of five black men--Nease Gillepsie, John Gillepsie, "Jack" Dillingham, Henry Lee, and George Irwin--hanging from a tree in Salisbury, North Carolina, spectators all around them. There's the one that Aunt Myrtle sent her niece of Lige Daniels dangling from a tree in Center, Texas. There's the shot of Virgil Jones, Robert Jones, Thomas Jones, and Joseph Riley hanging from trees in Logan County, Kentucky, and the image of W.C. (or R.C.) Williams, castrated and suspended from an oak tree in Ruston, Louisiana.
As I gazed at these postcards, a couple standing behind me argued. "Nothing's changed," said the woman, Jessica James, who had come to the show two days earlier but had been so entranced that she returned with her husband. "This is just like the Diallo shooting. We congratulate ourselves that we've made so much progress in race relations, but white cops can get away with shooting black men."
"That's ridiculous," said her husband, Steve, a tall, balding, tweedy guy with elliptical glasses. "I'm not condoning cops going out and shooting whatever black man they want, but it's not as though we are still lynching people in the streets."
In the past few weeks, though, quite a few messages on the website that displays many of these photos have made the same point as his wife. "This show is timed well," wrote Karen Mengold. "New Yorkers can go to the show and then read about today's lynchings in their newspapers. Diallo was no exception. The murder of Patrick Dorismond"--the latest unarmed black man to be killed by a New York City cop--"shows that nothing has changed since these lynchings."
|Even if no one is passing around postcards of Patrick Dorismond's corpse, our appetite for spectacle violence is far from sated.|
At the Historical Society, the Jameses debated back and forth, and eventually Jessica James conceded a small point: "At least we're not passing around postcards of people being killed." Then she paused. "Why were there all these postcards anyway? I mean, did people actually send postcards of lynchings to their family?"
Early-20th-century lynchings were public spectacles, entertainment. As W.E.B. DuBois observed in The Nation in 1925, "Negro baiting and even lynching [are] a form of amusement." That Meyers called Washington's lynching a barbecue is suggestive--parading around his corpse was every bit as much fun as rounding up the kids and the neighbors for a cookout. More a theatrical extravaganza than an unplanned outburst of uncontrollable violence, lynchings were announced in newspapers; sometimes special trains were chartered to bring in spectators from the countryside. Cameramen captured the events, and people tacked gelatin silver prints on their walls as later generations would Elvis posters.
Many wanted souvenirs. They cherished charred fingers and toes as though they were medieval relics. DuBois recounted walking down a street in Atlanta, heading to a meeting with Joel Chandler Harris at The Atlanta Constitution shortly after Sam Hose was lynched: "On the way the news met me: Sam Hose had been lynched, and they said his knuckles were on exhibition at a grocery store farther down Mitchell Street, along the way I was walking. I turned back to the University. I began to turn aside from my work. I did not meet Joel Chandler Harris nor the editor of the Constitution."
Lynch mobs weren't the first Americans to turn violence into entertainment. Colonists in New England lined up to watch Quakers be stoned. Stephen Vincent Benet's poem "John Brown's Body" describes the entertainment value of Civil War carnage:
The congressmen came out to see Bull Run,
The congressmen who like free shows and spectacles.
They brought their wives and carriages along,
They brought their speeches and their picnic-lunch....
Some even brought a little whiskey, too.
Anthropologists, family therapists, and other talking heads have spun theory after theory about the role that spectacle violence plays in society. The French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that the state encouraged citizens' penchant for violent spectacle because violence dramatized the state's authority over an individual and, with him, over the whole society.
Others have suggested that spectacle is a relatively harmless way to channel our latent violent impulses. Joyce Brothers has told concerned parents that kids--and adults too--like to watch cartoon characters and movie actors get shot because it eases their fears that kidnappers with guns will accost them on the playground.
If Brothers is right, Americans should feel pretty safe. Rather than having a family picnic near a tree with a corpse swinging on it, we plop down in front of the tube (or play computer games, or shell out eight bucks at a Sony Theater). Wrestling programs are by far the most popular shows on cable TV. Parents of children killed in recent years' school shootings blame, in part, the killers' addiction to computer games like Doom and Duke Nukem. The average American teenager sees 10,000 murders, rapes, and assaults on television each year. By the time a child is 18, he or she will have seen 16,000 murders on TV. And guess what? Most of the murderers are white, and most of the victims are black.
There is, to be sure, a big difference between advertising "Fight Club" in the newspaper and advertising a lynching. But even if we no longer gather in crowds to watch black men's necks break, even if no one is passing around postcards of Patrick Dorismond's corpse, our appetite for spectacle violence is far from sated. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani may not be a small-town sheriff, but last weekend he did react to the killing of an innocent unarmed black man on West 38th Street by immediately praising the cop and smearing the victim. That he didn't sound like he was enjoying himself is cold comfort.