Without Sanctuary?: On Lynching in the 21st Century

In a recent New York Times article, Taiye Selasi offers this resonant insight on nationality and identity in relation to the recent Michael Brown case: "that we don't hear of American-on-American violence as we hear of black-on-black crime suggests that the identity 'American' does not, as advertised, imply a single community." The phrase "American-on-American violence" describes aptly the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the too many unarmed black victims -- men and women -- of police violence since 1999.

This hyper-racial (as opposed to post-racial) moment, overflowing with examples of lethal police brutality, harkens back -- as Alice Walker meditates on in her recent poem, "Gather" -- to those horrific practices of American-on-American violence historically known as lynching. Lynching involved citizen-led, ritualistic acts of public violence sometimes witnessed by large throngs of people, including children. An estimated 3,445 blacks died at the hands of lynch mobs between 1882 and 1968. Lynched bodies, the "Strange Fruit" Billie Holiday memorializes in her haunting and iconic recording, swinging from tree limbs or otherwise grotesquely displayed in full view, spoke the terror -- the racial terrorism -- that would come to others if they, too, stepped "out of line."

In Without Sanctuary, collector James Allen catalogs photographs and postcards taken as souvenirs at lynchings throughout the United States. The images collected in Without Sanctuary reflect what the historical record indicates: that the majority of victims of lynching were African American men, though it is also important to note that African American women and women and men of other ethnicities (for instance, Irish and Italian immigrants) were also lynched. Lynching, then, was a set of violent rituals used to police and punish the "Other," and to set clear boundaries between "whites" and "non-whites."

One postcard in Without Sanctuary is inscribed with this note: "This is the Barbecue we had last night my picture is to the left with a cross over it your son Joe." Repeated references to "barbecues" and "main fare," Allen notes in Without Sanctuary, are found often in lynching-related correspondence. This particular postcard also features an advertising stamp, "katy electric studios temple texas. h. lippe prop," revealing that, at times, these events were planned ahead, and professional photographers were hired to photograph them. Photographers would then produce and sell prints (in the hundreds and occasionally the thousands) as souvenirs.

Attendees and participants in lynchings would often mail these photographs and postcards through the United States Postal Service to friends and family in the same spirit as one might post photographs on Facebook today: as a general update or as a way to share the experience with those who could not attend. On one postcard, for instance, the sender wrote, "All ok and would like to get a post from you. Bill, This was some Raw Bunch." The postcard's front border reads, in handwritten script, "LYNCHING SCENE, DALLAS, MARCH 3, 1910." One of the most complex postcards includes a portrait of the victim, Will James, surrounded by four images showing the stages of his lynching and the burial of his ashes.

On occasion, such images were sent to other possible victims as warnings. Mailing these images meant that the results of lynchings were witnessed not only within the communities in which they occurred, but also were replicated, transmitted, and amplified for viewers sorting, transporting, and receiving these pieces of mail, effectively broadening the reach of these events. By 1908, the practice of mailing postcards or other visible forms of lynching images was so popular that the Postmaster General of the United States, through an addition to the Cromstock Laws, banned the mailing of the written messages that often inscribed these images.

There are certainly important differences between the ritualistic acts of violence called lynchings and the most recent yet systemic violence at the hands of police against black people. In terms of image transmission in particular, rather than sent through the United States mail, personally recorded video of police brutality and its aftermath is now recorded by smartphone and transmitted to millions through social media outlets -- evidence of the disease of American racism gone viral. The intent of sharing these images, of course, is starkly different from the intent of those who sent lynching images through the mail. People sharing, for instance, the Eric Garner video, seek justice for the victim, a purpose resonant with Mamie Till's decision to allow her son's mutilated, lynched body to be viewed at his funeral, and photographs to be reprinted in national newspapers and magazines. Today, videos, memes, hashtags, recordings of a victim's final pleas, post-Grand Jury explanations, protesting and all the forms protesting takes -- all of it is part of the spectacle and sonics of 21st century lynching, the spectacle and sonics of a New Jim Crow.

Yet there are parallels between the violence of the past and the perpetual violence we are witnessing in the present. While the intent might not be such, while these killings may not be illegal, the message repeatedly in these instances of violence and death is that black lives don't matter. When we watch an officer aggressively hold a man in a chokehold until he can no longer breathe, and that same officer on a second video moments later nonchalantly peering into the camera, it looks like black lives don't matter. Or when a black teenager's body is left out in the open for public view for at least four hours in the high heat of August, it looks like black lives don't matter. Or when our judicial system doesn't seem to know how to adequately speak to these instances of American-on-American violence, we can't help but think that while the intent may not be such, the message communicated is that black lives don't matter in the larger fabric of our society. As difficult as it is to contend with, the history of lynching and our contemporary moment of violence against black people reminds us that the devaluation of black life in America is as old as this nation. And it still exists, daily resuscitating the need for us to utter in chorus the otherwise muted truth that should be self-evident: Black lives do and have always mattered.

As we wrestle with two Grand Jury decisions not to indict police officers for murder and United Nations concerns regarding a "pattern of impunity" concerning victims of color in the American judicial system, as demonstrators of all hues flood the streets here and abroad in protest, I am reminded of anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells. Wells, an African American journalist who often sent detectives to investigate individual lynchings and published their reports, explained that she published these findings "to give the public the facts, in the belief that there is still a sense of justice in the American people, and that it will yet assert itself in condemnation of outlawry and in defense of oppressed and persecuted humanity." It is this sense of justice that now must compel this nation and its law enforcement agencies towards acting justly. Or are we living in a moment without sanctuary?