The Properties of Violence

The Properties of Violence: Claims to Ownership in Representations of Lynching

Sandy Alexandre
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24hxb8
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  • Book Info
    The Properties of Violence
    Book Description:

    The Properties of Violencefocuses on two connected issues: representations of lynching in late-nineteenth and twentieth-century American photographs, poetry, and fiction; and the effects of those representations. Alexandre compellingly shows how putting representations of lynching in dialogue with the history of lynching uncovers the profound investment of African American literature--as an enterprise that continually seeks to create conceptual spaces for the disenfranchised culture it represents--in matters of property and territory. Through studies ranging from lynching photographs to Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel,Beloved, the book demonstrates how representations of lynching demand that we engage and discuss various forms of possession and dispossession.

    The multiple meanings of the word "representation" are familiar to literary critics, but Alexandre's book insists that its other key term, "effects," also needs to be understood in both of its primary senses. On the one hand, it indicates the social and cultural repercussions of how lynching was portrayed, namely, what effects its representations had. On the other hand, the word signals, too, the possessions or what we might call the personal effects conjured up by these representations. These possessions were not only material--as for example property in land or the things one owned. The effects of representation also included diverse, less tangible but no less real possessions shared by individuals and groups: the aura of a lynching site, the ideological construction of white womanhood, or the seemingly default capacity of lynching iconography to encapsulate the history of ostensibly all forms of violence against black people.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-042-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-20)

    The Properties of Violencefocuses on two intertwined issues: representations of lynching in late-nineteenth-and twentieth-century American photographs, poetry, and fiction; and the effects of those representations. Putting representations of lynching in dialogue with the history of lynching uncovers the profound investment of African American literature—as an enterprise that continually seeks to create conceptual spaces for the disenfranchised culture it represents—in matters of property and territory. Through studies ranging from lynching photographs to Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel,Beloved(1987), I show how representations of lynching demand that we engage and discuss various forms of possession and dispossession....

  5. 1. ADDRESSES UNKNOWN On Location in Lynching Photographs
    (pp. 21-54)

    Taken individually, the photographs that make up the collection in James Allen’sWithout Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America(2000) just don’t make any sense. To wit, whatever punitive or disciplinary intentions might have motivated the gruesome lynchings we are now viewing a whole century later are, to a certain degree and perhaps for good reason, lost to us.¹ Besides, we might argue, gratuitous violence shouldn’tmeananything anyhow. That ostensibly bygone form of heinous violence, captured and frozen in photographic finish, certainly might elicit feelings varying from shock and sympathy to anger and fear, but to grant that it should...

  6. 2. OLD HAUNTS Place and Terror in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Poems
    (pp. 55-82)

    In his oeuvre, Paul Laurence Dunbar pays significant attention to the impact of the natural world on black life and vice versa. Therefore, the ecological questions, which guide this chapter, spring precisely from the evocative samples I have culled from this already accommodating body of work. These questions include the following: What does such close attention disclose about the value of ecological thinking to black culture and literature? How do the literary mechanisms by which a natural landscape is imbued with a sense of agency (such as prosopopoeia or pathetic fallacy) begin to approach an environmental ethics founded on the...

  7. 3. STRANGE AND FORBIDDEN FRUITS Richard Wright and Lynching’s Cautionary Tales
    (pp. 83-121)

    In his autobiography,Black Boy(1945), Richard Wright recounts the frightening circumstances that led to his Uncle Hoskins’s lynching. Describing his uncle as a successful black businessman who had managed to build a thriving saloon in Mississippi, Wright intimates that this particular manifestation of Uncle Hoskins’s prosperity was sheer anathema to white folks, was indeed the very reason for his murder. So it stands to reason why that instantiation, that edifice of black success—in the form of the saloon—would be burnt to the ground and that the success story himself, Uncle Hoskins, would likewise be extinguished. Once the...

  8. 4. HERS AND HIS TREES Sharing Lynching Iconography in Morrison’s Beloved
    (pp. 122-145)

    ThroughoutBeloved(1987), Toni Morrison situates black men’s and women’s provocative perceptions of each other in mutual tension. Paul D, the more omnipresent of the major male characters of the novel, has most especially to bear the brunt of the mistrust of men, which the outnumbering female characters express in various ways. For example, to his vehement assurance to Sethe that he “never mistreated a woman in [his] life,” Sethe retorts: “That makes one [man] in the world” (80).¹ The novel is rife with this gendered tension. But perhaps nothing emphasizes that conflict so clearly as the stark difference between...

  9. 5. MISSISSIPPI GODDAM Emmett Till’s Photographs and Geographic Identity
    (pp. 146-172)

    The story of Emmett Till’s murder has been told, through various media, many times over, and each iteration, rather than lessening or cheapening its impact, seems to magnify its importance. So it is precisely for the new lessons that can be gleaned from retelling that I think the story is worthy of another telling here: In August 1955, Mamie Bradley sent her fourteen-year-old son Emmett Till south from Chicago, Illinois, to Money, Mississippi, to visit with relatives, including his uncle Moses Wright. While there, he and his male cousins, of roughly the same age, stopped at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat...

  10. Afterword
    (pp. 173-194)

    I thought that I would have brought my discussion to a close with a contemporary political cartoon depicting how an overall suspicion of trees had been displaced from being the sentiment of a black person to being that of a white person, from being the opinion of the easily dismissible oppressed to being that of the always-authenticating power elite. This is not to suggest that we should put more stock into what whites believe. Rather, it is to suggest that we consider the evidence, which I have hitherto presented, from multiple perspectives. This cartoon (shown below) would have symbolized a...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 195-216)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 217-224)
  13. Index
    (pp. 225-235)