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Living with Lynching

Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890-1930

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Living with Lynching
    Book Description:

    Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890-1930 demonstrates that popular lynching plays were mechanisms through which African American communities survived actual and photographic mob violence. Often available in periodicals, lynching plays were read aloud or acted out by black church members, schoolchildren, and families. Koritha Mitchell shows that African Americans performed and read the scripts in community settings to certify to each other that lynching victims were not the isolated brutes that dominant discourses made them out to be. Instead, the play scripts often described victims as honorable heads of households being torn from model domestic units by white violence. _x000B__x000B_In closely analyzing the political and spiritual uses of black theatre during the Progressive Era, Mitchell demonstrates that audiences were shown affective ties in black families, a subject often erased in mainstream images of African Americans. Examining lynching plays as archival texts that embody and reflect broad networks of sociocultural activism and exchange in the lives of black Americans, Mitchell finds that audiences were rehearsing and improvising new ways of enduring in the face of widespread racial terrorism. Images of the black soldier, lawyer, mother, and wife helped readers assure each other that they were upstanding individuals who deserved the right to participate in national culture and politics. These powerful community coping efforts helped African Americans band together and withstand the nation's rejection of them as viable citizens. _x000B__x000B_The Left of Black interview with author Koritha Mitchell begins at 14:00._x000B__x000B__x000B__x000B_An interview with Koritha Mitchell at The Ohio Channel._x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09352-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Performing Arts, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Whose Evidence? Which Account?
    (pp. 1-20)

    When we hear the word “lynching,” most of us think of a hanging body, what Billie Holiday famously called “strange fruit.” This image has recently become even more powerful as the pictures produced by mobs have reentered circulation, usually as part of an effort to educate the public about an often-ignored chapter in U.S. history. In these photographs, a crowd typically surrounds the “criminal” it has subdued, and the corpse is often still hanging from a tree, telephone pole, or bridge. Yet during the same decades in which these pictures were originally created and distributed, African Americans wrote plays about...


    • CHAPTER ONE Scenes and Scenarios: Reading Aright
      (pp. 23-42)

      The unique genre of lynching drama survives to enhance our understanding of U.S. culture between 1890 and 1930. During these decades, racial violence was often understood as a way of removing evil from society. Mainstream discourses and practices encouraged this interpretation, bombarding all Americans with the message that blacks threatened civilization and progress. In order to survive this era still believing that they were a race of decent people who did not deserve to be butchered, African Americans had to be cultural critics who read their surroundings dynamically. Many also became culture producers, providing art that both reflected and encouraged...

    • CHAPTER TWO Redefining “Black Theater”
      (pp. 43-78)

      The archive of black-authored lynching plays began with Angelina Weld Grimké’s turn away from poetry and fiction to drama.¹ By 1914, Grimké was crafting and revising the play now known asRachel.The historical moment in which Grimké labored over her first full-length drama was marked not only by the prevalence of lynching and its photographic representation, but also by debate over the definition of “black theater.” On what basis could blacks claim to have created theater? African American performers such as Bert Williams and George Walker had found success on Broadway through musical comedy, and they soon employed all-black...


    • CHAPTER THREE The Black Soldier: Elevating Community Conversation
      (pp. 81-114)

      Lynching drama proliferated because playwrights maximized periodical culture to contribute to a community conversation that accommodated diverse perspectives. Long before appearing in print, Angelina Weld Grimké’sRachelinspired debate when it was produced in Washington, D.C., in 1916. Much of the evidence of the debate survives in periodicals,¹ including the responses of those who entered the discussion by becoming lynching dramatists themselves.Rachelfirst appeared in print in 1920, making Alice Dunbar-Nelson’sMine Eyes Have Seen(1918) and Mary Burrill’sAftermath(1919) the first two published lynching plays by black authors, with both appearing in progressive magazines. These scripts therefore...

    • CHAPTER FOUR The Black Lawyer: Preserving Testimony
      (pp. 115-146)

      As they continued to write lynching plays, black women authors preserved African Americans’ perspectives on themselves and their communities. Oneact revisions within the genre initially depicted the upstanding character of the race by showcasing the black soldier, but it was not long before the black lawyer became the centerpiece of conversations about identity and citizenship. In fact, the black soldier helped set the stage for the increasing visibility of black attorneys. First, some of the most prominent court cases after World War I involved black soldiers. Second, African Americans inspired by the soldiers’ heroism defended themselves in the race riots...

    • CHAPTER FIVE The Black Mother/Wife: Negotiating Trauma
      (pp. 147-174)

      In all conversations about lynching and citizenship, including those centered on the soldier and lawyer, black women were crucial. Because mobs so often negated black citizenship by targeting men, African American women routinely survived the physical attack and were left to face a forever-altered future. InMine Eyes Have Seen, Aftermath,A Sunday Morning in the South,andFor Unborn Children,the surviving black women are sisters and grandmothers. However, the plays written in the later 1920s by the genre’s most prolific author, Georgia Douglas Johnson, focus on black wives and mothers. Angelina Weld Grimké had inaugurated the genre by...

    • CHAPTER SIX The Pimp and Coward: Offering Gendered Revisions
      (pp. 175-192)

      Lynching plays by African American women preserve a remarkable diversity of opinion, but considering black men’s contributions to this unique genre reveals additional variety. Black men began writing lynching plays in 1925,¹ several years after Angelina Weld Grimké initiated the genre, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Mary Burrill began revising it.² Lynching drama therefore contradicts the expectation that men establish literary traditions and women revise them. Often, modern readers assume that genres expand when women offer “gendered critiques” of the silences in men’s texts, and this understanding often involves a hierarchical view in which authors who address perceived silences occupy a...

  7. CONCLUSION: Documenting Black Performance: Key Considerations
    (pp. 193-200)

    Novelist Pauline Hopkins,¹ quoted above, argued in 1900 for the value of writing fiction even when crises, such as mob violence, demanded African Americans’ attention. She insisted that creative writing preserved the race’s religious, political, and social customs by depicting the “inmost thoughts and feelings” of members of the group. I want to suggest (along with 1920s theater critic Theophilus Lewis) that black drama became increasingly important at the turn of the century for the same reasons.² Yet drama was perhaps even more attuned to the historical moment; it directly addressed the fact that theater was strengthening the assault against...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 201-230)
    (pp. 231-242)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 243-252)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 253-258)