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Using literature to understand violence against blacks

MIT professor Sandy Alexandre studies the literary record to shed light on the history of lynching in the United States.

The grim history of lynching in the United States may be over, but it has been preserved through photographs, memoirs, novels and poetry.

To Sandy Alexandre, an associate professor of literature at MIT, those images and words help make clear, in retrospect, how closely lynching was related to the issue of property, in the form of bodies, possessions and land.

This is not the first thing usually associated with lynching; as many scholars and commentators have detailed, lynch mobs were often triggered by the suspicion, whether true or not, of physical relations between black men and white women. 

Now Alexandre’s first book, “The Properties of Violence,” published by the University Press of Mississippi, explores the territorial aspects of lynching — including its capacity to uproot blacks and dispossess them of property, while also denying them access to particular places.

“Racial violence is a way to demarcate space, and it’s a way to demarcate people,” Alexandre says. “Blacks who were aspiring to, and achieving, middle-class status were effectively reined in through lynching violence — this became a mechanism to make sure that blacks stayed ‘in their place.’ And that place, as far as whites were concerned at the time, was certainly not the middle class.”

In the book, Alexandre examines this issue, in part, by studying lynching as a theme in the works of some famous 20th-century writers. The prominent midcentury writer Richard Wright, for instance, had an uncle who was lynched after becoming a relatively prosperous saloonkeeper.

A close reading of Wright’s work, as Alexandre makes clear, reveals how the young black protagonist in many of his works exists “in a state of awareness about his geographical, social, and political limits.”

Or, as Alexandre puts it, lynching “served as a kind of ‘No Trespassing’ sign, a ‘Whites Only’ sign” establishing physical boundaries over whole territories, not just, say, buildings and restaurants.

Originally looking at nature

Alexandre says she originally intended to write a book about literary representations of the relationship between black Americans and nature, but found greater focus after studying the images most often associated with the history of lynching violence in the United States. 

“What ended up impinging upon that pastoral relationship of blacks and nature was history, particularly the visuals of lynching,” Alexandre says. “That very horrifying history has made the connection between blacks and nature necessarily complicated.” Indeed, the photographic record of lynching, as Alexandre notes, almost invariably juxtaposes bucolic rural settings with graphic, disturbing images of murder.

To be sure, Alexandre believes, the intent to prevent sexual relations between races was clearly a major impetus for lynching; it just isn’t the only issue to consider.

“The pretext for this extralegal form of violence was this desire to preserve white womanhood as something owned by the dominant culture,” Alexandre notes. “White women were considered a form of property that had to be rescued from ostensible black rapists.”

But following the pioneering black journalist and antilynching advocate Ida B. Wells, whose career began in the late 19th century, Alexandre believes American literature makes clear that lynching also was a tool of social control in economic terms.

Beyond that, a public lynching often served to stake out the site of the lynching as white territory for generations after the murder itself occurred.

“Violence itself was made into an event,” Alexandre observes. “Families would bring their children to view these gruesome murders, rendering the space an inviting picnic venue for whites and an off-putting place of death for blacks. The historical heft, atmosphere, and visual evidence of lynching violence ultimately shape discourses surrounding possession and dispossession.”

In American literature, an awareness of lynching continues in contemporary times; one of the chapters in Alexandre’s book, on Toni Morrison’s lauded 1987 novel “Beloved,” examines how violence against women — who were also sometimes lynched — has often been overlooked, creating heavily gender-influenced discussions of the subject. (Alexandre is currently teaching a seminar on Morrison’s writing.)

Other scholars have praised “The Properties of Violence.” Donald E. Pease, a professor of English at Dartmouth College, calls it a “remarkable monograph,” and particularly praises the way Alexandre sheds light on the impacts, tangible or intangible, that lynchings had on blacks.

“Professor Alexandre has unmoored the history of lynching from the white-supremacist discourse to which it was anchored so as to open its accounting to multiple interpretive possibilities and return psychological and politically empowered agency to its victims,” Pease says.

Writing the book has also helped spur more ongoing research for Alexandre: She is now working on her second book, on the relationship between slavery and material possession among black Americans, in the period after slavery formally ended. Alexandre is analyzing the ethical dilemmas and decisions blacks face regarding their relationship to material things, as a consequence of their prior participation in capitalism as owned property.

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