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A Brutal Embrace: Domesticating Lynching in American Visual Culture

Fri, October 9, 8:00 to 9:45am, Sheraton Centre, Cedar

Abstract

In the early half of the twentieth-century lynching violence was both a spectacular and ordinary facet of American life that dehumanized victims and perpetrators alike. In the hands of white supremacists photographic lynching postcards operated as complex forms of symbolic and material possession of black bodies. Despite a 1908 federal act that banned the circulation of these postcards in the U.S. mail, Congress failed to outlaw this extralegal violence. Many anti-lynching activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois countered the barbarism by appropriating these images that were too distasteful for national vision. For these social reformers the postcards had evidentiary and memorial value. Sandwiched between pages lauding black success in education and business, lynching imagery in black-owned activist publications highlighted the precarious nature of the African-American experience.

Today contemporary artists and community activists implement strategies of both the white supremacists and the anti-lynching campaigners. Through an interdisciplinary approach drawing from critical race theory, spatial studies, performance studies, and art historical methods, this paper examines two recent works, LaShawnda Crowe Storm’s quilt Her Name was Laura Nelson that features a photo transfer of a 1911 lynching postcard and the Moore’s Ford Bridge Lynching Reenactment that recreates a 1946 mass killing. While an Oklahoma mob hanged Laura Nelson, a black woman who attempted to protect her son, from a new bridge adjacent to a black neighborhood as public spectacle, artist LaShawnda Crowe Storm installed her quilt with a life-size image of the victim in a central location in the Indianapolis Public Library to promote community awareness about the nation’s heinous past and reclaim the degraded black body. Likewise, civil rights organizers in Georgia aim to restore the humanity of Roger Malcolm, Dorothy Malcolm, George Dorsey, and Mae Murray Dorsey, two couples savagely murdered by a mob, through the performative mode of reenactment. As this annual presentation mimics the vicious, unsolved crime, it provokes observers to identify with the slain victims and implores witnesses to come forward. Also it contextualizes the murders in terms of the local politics of the mid-twentieth century and current day issues. By studying this lynching visual culture, this paper exposes the intimate and tense relationships between violence, representation, looking, and cultural identification.

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