Review: Lynching and Spectacle
Amy Louise Wood. Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 368 pp. ISBN 9780807871973.
In this cultural history, Amy Louise Wood urges readers to consider, as the book’s title suggests, the relationship between lynching and spectacle. She argues that “the cultural power of lynching—indeed, the cultural power of white supremacy itself—rested on spectacle “ (3). Through a thematic and chronological approach, Wood analyzes the history and function of lynching spectacles through an impressive range of sources and topics, including public executions, religion, photography, early moving pictures, as well as prolynching and antilynching films. The monograph investigates how lynching was represented through diverse visual forms and shifted from a local to a national spectacle, a transformation which, Wood argues, “sow[ed] the seed of its own collapse” (179).
The book’s first two chapters place the practice of lynching within the larger contexts of publicly sanctioned violence and religion. For example, Wood examines how lynching, as a spectacle, borrowed much from the practice of public executions that still occurred in the early 1900s. Lynching was also shaped by the traditions of evangelical Christianity. Public executions, evangelical Christianity, and lynching expressed similar concerns about crime, sin, and race in increasingly urbanized environments. Moreover, the practice of lynching incorporated elements of Protestant ritual—confession and testimonials—to find divine justification for their violence and religious affirmation of their racist views. While these chapters provide readers with insight into how white southerners justified lynching, the next three chapters explore its emergence as an accepted, if not celebrated, spectacle.
Chapter three investigates how lynching photographs, which obscured the violence and chaos of lynching, provided white southerners with visual “proof” of white superiority and unity. These images, drawing on other photographic traditions, legitimized prolynching rhetoric and notions of white southern masculinity. In a similar way, early moving pictures, which depicted lynchings and legal executions, provided audiences with the immediacy of seeing the action, while being protected by the distance of the medium. In moving pictures viewers could embrace “traditional rituals of popular justice and vengeance that were, in fact, at odds with practices of modern life” (144). The spectacle of lynching reached its height with D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the subject of chapter five. The film’s cinematic style and scope convinced many people of its historical veracity. However, Wood emphasizes how even as some embraced the film’s racist and prolynching message, other individuals and groups, such as the NAACP, began “to recognize that the spectacle that offered so much force to prolynching rhetoric could be used against it” (176).
Chapters six and seven examine this shift—how antilynching activists and Hollywood filmmakers began to use the spectacle of lynching as a way to fight against it. For example, the NAACP began to use lynching photographs as a way to solicit support for antilynching legislation. By reframing lynching photographs as evidence not of white superiority, but of white savagery, these images became a way to move viewers from apathy to action. Likewise, Hollywood films featuring antilynching messages (Fury, They Won’t Forget, and The Ox-Bow Incident) urged audiences to examine their own culpability, even as they focused on white victims and did not directly address the issue of racism. However, “by displacing race from the main plot, they, like so many lynching opponents at the time, attacked lynching as an American, rather than a white man’s or a southern, travesty” (231). The monograph ends with a brief examination lynching’s demise due, in part, to this antilynching activism.
This study incorporates a tremendous amount of information and provides a thorough understanding of lynching as spectacle, which will be of interest to scholars of American religion, the South, and American Studies. It takes seriously the power of visual culture to shape local and national discourses about lynching and makes a valuable contribution to this area of research. Wood is most persuasive when situating a visual form, whether photographs, early moving pictures, or film within its historical milieu and conventions of understanding—or put another way, when she is analyzing the construction of lynching as a spectacle. However, she often slips from an analysis of production to claims about consumption with little discussion of the difference. The homogenization of “white southerners” and their seemingly uniform prolynching views and experiences are less persuasive when compared with the complexity and richness of her otherwise thoughtful argumentation. Some explicit discussion of her methodology and approach to sources would have helped address this concern. Further, the volume would benefit from a stronger organizational vision. Each chapter explores interesting avenues of influence and inquiry that I was more than happy to travel; however, the lack of a clear roadmap and the amount of repetition in each chapter were at times roadblocks to the monograph’s effectiveness.