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Lynching in the U.S.: Rhetoric and Representation, 1885-2015

The origins of lynching in the U.S. date back to before the American Revolution and belie an insistence that the practice is inherently associated with racial violence and oppression.  Lynching involves any individual whose access to due process is pre-empted and replaced by an assumption of guilt, followed by summary judgment, and rapid execution, often by two or more persons who conspire to carry out the judgment even if there is resistance from law enforcement.   

In this week-long seminar, our task will be to develop a deeper understanding of the rhetorical and representational practices associated with the violent murders of African American citizens at the hands of mob violence, starting in the years following the Reconstruction period and running till the 1940s. We will begin with the earliest attempts either to justify or condemn lynching to understand the rhetorical strategies writers employed to influence public opinion.   We will then turn to a variety of media (in the form of literature, cinema, and visual art) to understand how acts of representation work to mediate public understanding of lynching and its costs. Throughout the week, we will consider the role of memory as it pertains to representations of cultural trauma and as well how a more open discussion of lynching might serve to facilitate a more honest form of cross-racial dialogue and national healing.  Among the readings we will consider in this vein is the report submitted by the U.S. Department of Justice in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO.

There, we find parallels between the economic hardships imposed on black communities during the Lynching Era and this present moment where municipalities like Ferguson create and sustain parasitic relationships with black communities that are underwritten by police violence. There will be 2 short response papers due early in the week and group presentations on the final day of class.   

Herman Beavers
Professor of English and Africana Studies