A Re-Introduction to Donald Mathews and Spectacle Lynchings
Bodies that have been called “African American” or “black” or “Negro” have performed significant work throughout U.S. history. Physically, those bodies have cultivated crops, built office buildings, dunked basketballs, made babies, and done everything else associated with life in this country. Metaphorically, however, those bodies have often served as anti-symbols. They were everything that bodies deemed “white” or “Anglo” or “Caucasian” were not. If whites were free, blacks were unfree. If whites were logical, blacks were emotional.
Sadly, one could write an entire history of the United States through violence inflicted upon bodies deemed not-white. It could perhaps begin with the traumas and terrors of the Middle Passage. This book may progress through slave society’s rules and regulations; after that, at least one chapter would have to be on spectacle lynching in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; violent reprisals to the modern civil rights movement could be in this book as well. Finally, in the twenty-first century, it seems a month fails to pass when we are not mourning devastation wreaked on the bodies of black women and men. #icantbreathe.
Fifteen years ago, Donald Mathews addressed one form of this violence–southern spectacle lynching–and took two audacious steps to study it. First, he endeavored to use scholarly tools and modes of analysis to link southern lynching with southern religion. Second, he published his essay, “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice,” in the newest of formats: the digital platform of the Journal of Southern Religion. In both cases, Mathews was a trendsetter. One of the foremost authorities not just on southern religion but also on southern society, Mathews linked two seemingly opposing strands of southern culture: transcendence and violence. Just as René Girard did with founding myths, Mathews suggested that violence was central to the southern symbolic system. Sure, other scholars had drawn attention to religion and lynching before, but never with as much sophistication or with such methodical work. With this essay, the study of religion and lynching had a basis. From it, scholars as noteworthy as James Cone could fashion new theological insights.
By publishing with the Journal of Southern Religion, Mathews was one of the first to lend his credibility to digital formats. Long before Paul Harvey’s Religion in American History blog or the Immanent Frame or Religion Dispatches or Religion Compass, the JSR pioneered scholarly publication in the digital realm. As an open-source digital publication, anyone with access to the World Wide Web could locate it. Now, as it reinvents itself, the digital format of the JSR allows for conversations like this to be published on timely topics.
The essays that follow in this conversation expand and expound upon Mathews’s original essay. On one hand, by paying homage to this marvelous scholar, they follow the lead of the recently published Varieties of Southern Religious History: Essays in Honor of Donald G. Mathews. On another hand, these essays ask us to look even more deeply into horrors we may wish to avoid: how and why violence against bodies deemed not-white has been and continues to be so important to American society, culture, and religion.
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011).
Trudier Harris, Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).
Donald G. Mathews, “Lynching is Part of the Religion of Our People: Faith in the Christian South,” in Religion in the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, ed. Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 153–194.
Orlando Patterson, Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries (Washington, DC: Civitas/CounterPoint, 1998).
Anthony Pinn, Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003)