I think about how we can all extend our understanding of belonging and unbelonging, and honor these relationships with people unlike ourselves. And think about how to come into encounters with one another recognizing inequality so that we can ally to undo these inequalities.”
Annette Rodríguez, Assistant Professor of American Studies
+ Seth Kotch, Associate Professor of American Studies + Director, SOHP
The image at the top of the page, a billboard installation by Ken Gonzales-Day, is courtesy of the artist: "Ken Gonzales-Day is a Los Angeles-based artist whose interdisciplinary practice considers the historical construction of race and the limits of representational systems ranging from lynching photographs to museum displays. He is a professor of art at Scripps College in Claremont, CA where he has taught since 1995. Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynching series features photos of lynching postcards where he removes, or 'erases,' the victims in order to focus on the white crowds gathered to witness the murders. He argues that this digital intervention 'allows the viewer to see, for the first time, the social dynamics of the lynching itself' … and helps us to 'recognize the dynamics of whiteness within the complex history of racialized violence in America.' -From the Artist's Website.
In this episode, Annette Rodríguez points to the creative resilience of Black women in the rural South, reading an excerpt from the Southern Cultures essay, “Makeshifting,” by Kimber Thomas.
"Since 1973, the Southern Oral History Program has worked to preserve the voices of the southern past. We have collected 6,000 interviews with people from all walks of life—from mill workers to civil rights leaders to future presidents of the United States. Made available through UNC’s renowned Southern Historical Collection online, these interviews capture the vivid personalities, poignant personal stories, and behind-the-scenes decision-making that bring history to life."
Find Seth's book, Lethal State: A History of the Death Penalty in North Carolina here.
"A Red Record documents lynchings in the American South, starting with North Carolina. The title, A Red Record, is drawn from Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s work by the same name and is intended, in a small way, to recognize Wells-Barnett’s remarkable courage and commitment to justice. Our research also corroborates Wells-Barnett’s core argument: that lynching was much more than just a response to crime. It was part of a narrative of white supremacy that sought to write out Black success, Black families, and Black personhood."
Belonging + Unbelonging
Melody: This is Southern Futures, and I’m your host, Melody Hunter-Pillion with the Center for the Study of the American South. Today’s podcast topic is not an easy one to discuss: lynching. So why do we need to talk about something so violent and ugly in our nation’s past? We have 2 guests on our podcast to tell us why the history of lynching has ramifications today for all of us. Annette Rodríguez is an assistant professor in the American Studies Department. She looks at the visual culture as an important piece of understanding what is at work. Seth Kotch is the director of the Southern Oral History Program in our Center for the Study of the American South, and an associate professor in the American Studies Department. Seth uses digital tools to examine lynching in North Carolina. We’re going to talk about his student driven digital project, “A Red Record.”
As a student of public history, I would say lynching is the most unsettling topic and the most visually disturbing practice that I’ve seen in my studies. How do you approach this topic in class?
Annette: One of the things that’s really important for me when I talk to students about lynching is that I look at archival documents, so we really take the time to think about the testimonies often of women, widows, and survivors. So we look at their testimonies and we think about the incredible courage they have. They present at a consulate, the Mexican or American consulate or a judges house or a sheriff’s office, and they are presenting to ask for justice on behalf of their loved one who have been tortured or murdered. So we start there with students, so they understand that this is a community terror, that there may be a single victim of lynching, but it’s meant to have a terroristic effect on a community. When I study this with students I make sure we think about the community.
Seth: The focus on the community is so important and so difficult. It’s much easier to focus on the victim and the story of how they were killed. There’s a really troubling tradition of scholars being really prurient. They're watching along with the mob. And that’s a problem. So what we try to do is to situate our students in understanding where these incidents took place, the context in which they took place. And like Dr. Rodríguez said, understanding that this is about trauma and terror. So what I try to do in my class is draw my students into being intentional about not participating in the same kind of “enjoyments” that the mob participated in. So we don’t actually look at photos of the victims of lynching. Because those photos were used as weapons of terror. We do read the messages on the backs of post cards that were sent with lynching images, so people can understand what the mindset is of some of the people in attendance. But by trying to turn students away from those visual elements, it’s not to lessen their revulsion. It’s to help them understand that lynchings have a resonance today and they can choose to take a position in how they look and talk about them.
Melody: You don’t look at the visuals of the victims, but do you look at visuals of the spectators?
Seth: We do, we absolutely do. And those images, which are in wide circulation, are hugely troubling in how familiar the faces can be, and the fact that the crowds are intragenerational. There are children there, there are elders. There are not just groups of middle-aged, angry men. There are people dressed up as if they are out for a night on the town. There are people whose faces are illuminated by electric lights. Looking at them, helps us understand how modern and communal lynchings were, or could be.
Melody: I think for me, I’ve seen some of those photographs, one of the most frightening things to see is the glee or joy you could see on the faces of spectators, almost as if they were at a spectacle. So I think studying this topic takes a lot of fortitude. Why does this topic hold interest for you, why do you think it’s important to study, and how did you become interested in this?
Annette: For me it was an interesting through-way, which sometimes happens with scholarship, which is I was studying migration and immigration, and I bumped into this footnote in Carey McWilliam's “North From Mexico” where he says something like, ‘as many Mexican people were lynched as African Americans in the South.” He doesn’t give you where that comes from--it’s a citation without a cite. So I started off with this idea of recovery, and thinking about, ‘could I prove this number? Could I examine the lynchings of Mexicans and see if they were that wide in scope?’ My project changed because it turns out, that this was a ubiquitous public practice, particularly at the turn of the 20th century at what we now call the Southwest and Texas. What changed about my project was that, rather than collecting a catalogue and index of victims, I started thinking about, ‘what’s the function of this violence?’ And this helps me understand, and helps my students understand, the relevance of public violence today. Which is to say, when we were talking about the photographs and postcards, these are public performances that are meant to be seen. They’re not hidden. And they are meant to be seen because they have that terroristic effect. And so when I’m thinking about public violence that’s meant to be seen, I can think about how public violence functions. It helps us think through things like contemporary hate crimes. It helps us think through things like police violence. It helps me understand the violence against children in INS detention that has been photographed--and not photographed by journalists who have snuck in, but photographed by border patrol and the INS that have been circulated because they want that same effect: “You’re not welcome here. Don’t come here.” That’s why studying public violence, like lynching, has real public resonance.
Melody: Annette’s book project, “Inventing the Mexican: The Visual Culture of Lynching at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” is showing us the connections today, but also revealing the nature of public violence. Seth’s book, “Lethal State: A History of the Death Penalty in North Carolina” connects the state’s death penalty history and lynching.
Seth: The book itself is a history of lynching in NC between the end of the Civil War and the 1970s. One of the more important parts of it, is that lynching and the death penalty are much more closely related than people acknowledge; in fact, they are part of the same system. We should not be turning ourselves in circles trying to figure out language that differentiates the death penalty from lynching, with an adequate degree of sophistication. We should be figuring out how closely intertwined they are. Like Dr. Rodríguez was just saying, lynching is a system of enforcement--a racial caste system. Lynching exists on a spectrum, that the death penalty is also on. It’s important to point out that people who were a part of these mobs understood what they were doing was an argument for the place of violence against non-white people in modern society. They were saying, “we insist on violence against non-white people as a part of our modern society.” In the South we're often talking about African Americans, in the Southwest and the West against Latinx and others, against migrants, against immigrants, against Jews. They were saying, “we insist on violence against these people as a part of our political system, our social system, our culture, our legal system.” It’s hard to understand why lynchings as we knew them in the past seemed to dwindle in the 1940s, but I think it’s arguable they began to dwindle because the mob understood that American governments were exceeding their requests. The government said increasingly, “we will not tolerate you committing this violence in this spectacular and public way that you want to, but we will integrate that violence in more subtle ways in the governments that we’re building.” Sometimes that violence was a death penalty that was almost exclusively used against African American people with white victims, but perhaps more often, it was about allowing white people to police the behavior of Black people in ways that don’t show up in newspapers, of neglecting the public health of non-white communities, of poor communities, of excluding non-white people from owning homes in certain neighborhoods, of educating non-white children poorly, of incarcerating non-white people at disproportionate rates. It’s all part of a much bigger system.
Annette: Another interesting thing about lynching, that becomes important as we do this kind of work, is that there’s no agreed upon definition. This is why, as I was doing the work, I really started thinking about, “what’s the choreography of the public act?” As Dr. Kotch is saying, we have these moments where people gather, where there’s an accusation, where there’s photography or filming--so there’s a sort of choreography that happens that we can identify. We can identify that more precisely than just a definition. The other thing is we think about the function--it’s always public, meant to be seen--and so there is a function. Lynching is a show of force. It is an important way to rethink phenomena we’re seeing today.
Melody: This year, anti-lynching crusader and pioneering journalist Ida B. Wells was honored posthumously with a Pulitzer Award. Her work exposed and documented lynching throughout the US at her own personal risk.
Seth: Ida B. Wells was a journalist who was documenting lynchings as they were happening. She was doing so at considerable personal risk. Part of the reason she was doing this was because she lost friends to lynching. This was close to her. She lived in Memphis when she began doing this work, was driven from Memphis to Chicago. She ended up spending time out of the country as well because her life was under threat--she was under real risk of assassination because she was speaking truth to power about the role of lynchings. This comes back to what Dr. Rodríguez was saying at the beginning of our conversation about how, at a time when the white press was routinely reporting lynchings as being a response to crime, or as being justified by the behavior of the victim, or justified by the behavior of non-white people generally, something along the lines of “if you can’t control your people, we will do it for you.” This was a time when Black journalists, Ida B. Wells probably most prominent among them, were forced to editorialize about how lynching was not a legitimate response to real crimes, that it was part of a much bigger system. That it was actually about economic displacement, or continuing to fight the Civil War, or the efforts to re-enslave and dominate people. Ida B. Wells was making an argument, I think if we look back, that was pretty clear to a lot of Black observers or readers of the Black press, but was being obscured and papered over, even by white institutions that were ostensibly anti-lynching, like The News and Observer. The News and Observer would have an editorial on page 4 saying, “what a horrible, barbaric practice...we should really stop this...but the best way to stop this would be if Black leaders in their communities would get Black people under control.” So really, in a weird way, they’re using their opposition to lynching to scold and try to dominate and encourage “self-police” as Dr. Rodríguez was saying.
Annette: Ida B. Wells makes so clear, so early on, something that we need to follow: it’s important to decouple lynching from the logic of crime and punishment. She makes it very clear that often there’s these pretexts, there’s these lies, these fictions of why somebody might deserve to be slowly tortured, to be killed. She very early on says, “this is not what lynching it--it’s not crime and punishment.” One of the earliest cases that she spends time with is the case in 1892 of The People’s Grocery Lynching--this was a co-op of Black owners who are becoming more prominent in the community. This lynching is very much about removing their property and removing their prominence and removing these men from the community. Early on, Ida B. Wells is telling us, “let’s take this out of this discussion of legal/crime and punishment.” That is so important now, as we think about, for instance, a case of the lynching of Emmett Till--who was a child. For decades, we have spent time on the guilt or innocence of Emmett Till, and more recently, the woman who accused him of whistling, recanted her testimony. It was already clear that the killing of Emmett Till was not about crime and punishment, and was made even more clear when she recants her testimony. You think about the way the logic of the lyncher took our focus away from the questions like, “is this racist violence? What is this racist violence meant to do? What is its effect on the community?” Instead we’re spending this time talking about guilt and innocence. I use the word “invention” in the title of my book because lynching invents all these fictional characters of history, like, the character of the vigilante, an the character of the extra-legal vigilante in particular, and very often lynchings are being accomplished with the help of the state, and certainly with the permission of the state. This invention of the extra-legal vigilante is another logic of the lyncher that we have to be really careful about not adopting.
Seth: The whole idea of what even constitutes a crime, particularly in the American South after the Civil War, is entirely tied up in racism. There’s no way we can understand anything that is “criminal” or “criminal adjacent” without understanding that often it’s only “criminal,” when or if, a Black person does it. We built our criminal legal system on racism, and we did it deliberately. They said it out loud when they were doing it.
Melody: Annette, your work focuses on the border in Texas--how do we connect that with lynching in the South?
Annette: Texas was one of the first war profiteers, continuing to sell munitions and cotton and uniforms to other places in the confederacy. Of course, Texas is where we get the holiday Juneteenth, because they continued to enslave Black peoples even after Black peoples emancipated themselves by joining the Union, and after the Emancipation Proclamation. Texas is very deeply a part of this southernness that happens before and after the Civil War. Many of the migrants into the Southwest and into the border areas come from the South. You have folks moving into what we now call, “Utah” or “Arizona,” or what we now call, “Southern California.” Those folks are coming from Kentucky, Tennessee. Their social imaginations are moving with them. This becomes so important when we think about citizenship, when we think about belonging. There’s this inversion of history that happens in the Southwest, and it happens in Texas, where you have immigrants and migrants moving west, and their positioning the Native people who are already there, and the Mexican and Mexican-American peoples there, as “the invaders,” There’s this amazing inversion of history that happens, that continues to this day. For instance, when we talk about “The Alamo,” we’re talking about “Coahuila” and we’re talking about a Mexican Mission--but people talk about this as “Texas.” That inversion becomes really important, and it’s the same kind of inversion that happens with lynching--where when we look at a photograph of a person who has been lynched and we look at the lynchers around them--somehow we’ve been taught and conditioned to think of the person who’s been murdered as “the criminal, the wrongdoer.” In fact, the wrongdoers are surrounding that person.
Seth: There’s an absorption of this idea of Southernness from the West and the Northeast and the Midwest: people identifying what they see as Southern and imagining their own place in it. That often is simply represented by flying a confederate flag or naming a school after a confederate general. In classrooms with undergraduates, the idea is to invest them in the fact that these incidents took place in places where they might have passed through, or have been familiar with, or maybe in their hometowns. What we’re doing is working with fairly newly available sources, digitized newspapers and digitized records, including death certificates and other documents, to gather as much information as we can about people who died at the hands of lynch mobs, and to make that information as available as possible, and to geo-locate it. For now, it remains a teaching tool and a learning tool. One of the best things about it is working with the wonderful people at Carolina K-12 on campus to produce curricula for middle and high school students. As a high school student in North Carolina, I definitely did not learn about lynching--this is a small way I can repair my own experience.
Annette: It takes the historian’s problem of huge datasets, and it makes it readable and accessible and searchable. People can look at particular dates and areas. Just the moment of students who are a part of the project, and folks who are accessing the project, becoming tactically involved in what the project is doing and understanding, is such a different experience than reading a book or an article. Students are often surprised and alarmed--and they start to think about what it means to carry a sense of vulnerability on your body. Those are such important moments for us to think about as we encounter folks different from us today, as we encounter one another...what it means for us to carry our unbelonging, or for what it means for us to carry privilege, or what it means for us to negotiate a world feeling vulnerable. When we can attach that embodiedness by looking at this project, it’s incredibly powerful.
Melody: This is the Southern Futures reading corner. We asked both of you to share a favorite piece of writing.
Annette: I really wanted to share a piece from Southern Cultures: “Makeshifting,” by Kimber Thomas. Kimber does oral histories in Mississippi, and she coined this theory of, “Makeshifting,” to name the agency of Black women. I think it’s a tremendous theoretical contribution to think of the full lives of marginalized people, a salve for what we’ve been discussing. But it’s also a lovely portrait of these women, and of this specific place. She highlights the resilience and the beauty and the full creative lives of Black women in the South. I choose it because my work attempts to highlight women, very often survivors in communities where there has been a lynching. When I read this piece I thought, “when I grow up, I hope I write something with this thick, and this real of a description, and this complex.”
Mamie Barnes was the first Black woman to own land at the Crossroads. Her lot was right below the four-way stop, down the fork and to the left, directly in the sun, in God’s spotlight. Her neat, white shotgun house had a white, wooden screen door that led to a screened-in porch and a white, wooden porch swing—the perfect prelude to the inside—and all around us was beauty: pink roses and petunias, ripened okra and purple eggplant, collards and cucumbers, stems crisscrossing, like braided hair.
My interviews examine how makeshifting includes Black women’s logical, material, and temporary responses to discrimination, oppression, racism, or lack. Makeshifting requires patching and piecing, and also requires Black women to view objects as multifunctional; that is, objects meant for one domain will almost always overlap with or be utilized for another. It is time-consuming—an arduous, laborious process that requires Black women, especially, to imagine, conceptualize, and create, again and again. But it is also provisional, meaning that though it provides temporary remediation to forces of injustice and constraint, it can never permanently erase them.
Mamie and the other Black women at the Crossroads during Jim Crow lived under the constant threat of white vigilante violence, but they were bounded by the confines of race, place, and gender.
Many of these Black women still live at the Crossroads. They never migrated North; they survived Jim Crow and segregation; and they do not own more than the lots on which they live, but they found ways of making, doing, and being, and have made their lives significantly meaningful through these acts. And they live on to tell the stories of how they “made a way out of no way,” or in their case, “made do.” This makeshifting is at the core of these women’s experiences, and it demonstrates how their demands for racial equality were always linked to their material circumstances.
Melody: Obviously that really resonates and hits home with me. Annette, thank you for reading that. Seth, what are you reading for us today?
Seth: I made a classic white guy professor choice, and selected Dostoevsky “Notes from Underground.” I chose it because it was something that made an impression on me when I was an adolescent, fancying myself very smart and daring in my thinking, which of course is the most conventional way of thinking as a 17 year old white kid in the suburbs. I like the book because it expresses this essential pessimism, which is I think is very appropriate at this moment, but it also finds this sort of glee in self-loathing and it’s liberating--because if one can be so miserable and self-obsessed as the narrator is in this book, then one can be not-miserable by being not-self-obsessed. So hopefully there’s a productive inversion.
It was not only that I could not become spiteful, I did not know how to become anything; neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now, I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything. Yes, a man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active man is pre-eminently a limited creature. That is my conviction of forty years. I am forty years old now, and you know forty years is a whole lifetime; you know it is extreme old age. To live longer than forty years is bad manners, is vulgar, immoral. Who does live beyond forty? Answer that, sincerely and honestly I will tell you who do: fools and worthless fellows. I tell all old men that to their face, all these venerable old men, all these silver-haired and reverend seniors! I tell the whole world that to its face! I have a right to say so, for I shall go on living to sixty myself. To seventy! To eighty!... Stay, let me take breath…
Melody: How do each of you reimagine the American South?
Seth: I think the way we reimagine the American South is with the project that Dr. Rodríguez is and has been working on, with the broader project of the Center for the Study of the American South, of the Southern Oral History Program, of Southern Futures, which is that we continue to bring in more voices of more southerners who have their personal stories to tell. Every additional voice we bring into the cannon, diversifies our definition of what southernness is, complicates it, makes it more rich and more nuanced, adds emotional range and depth, adds intellectual range and depth. I suppose it's a process of decolonization.
Annette: I’m thinking about my students who partnered this spring with an ESL class in Siler City at the community college. We did something very simple. We acted as conversation partners and we talked about everyday events with folks who are learning English. Our goal was to help bring up their confidence to speak with other English speakers. What was important about this, and how it makes me think of the future of the South, was that in these simple, everyday encounters, the students here at UNC were meeting communities they didn’t know about. They learned a whole lot about what it means to be a poultry worker in Siler City. I started getting emails after our break from students who were worried about these essential workers, who were worried about people in poultry farms who were being exposed to the dangers of Covid-19, who were being infected at higher rates. In my vision of the American South, I think about how we can all extend our understanding of belonging and unbelonging, and honor these relationships with people unlike ourselves. And think about how to come into encounters with one another recognizing inequality, so that we can ally to undo these inequalities.
Melody: Annette, thank you for being here. Seth, thank you for being here--and we’re wishing you a lot of luck in your new role as Director in the Southern Oral History Program at the Center for the Study of the American South. To our listeners, thank you for your time today. Please join us for our next episode. For executive producer, Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery and sound editor Mark Meyer, I’m Melody Hunter Pillion. Southern Futures is a podcast powered by the Southern Futures initiative--the new collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences, UNC libraries, the Center for the Study of the American South, and other units of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Southern Futures, reimagine the American South.