When I wanted to change my name to disrupt the legacy of white supremacy I’d inherited as a white girl in Texas, I chose Jessie Daniel Ames as my namesake. I’d read about her in Jacqueline Dowd Hall’s book Revolt Against Chivalry.
Jessie Daniel Ames started an organization called The Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL), founded in November, 1930. To interpret this to mean that “not all white women were bad,” is too facile and misses the purpose and context of her organization. She started the ASWPL– quite late, it should be noted, in the ‘reign of terror’ known as lynching – precisely because the prevailing ideology was that lynching was justifiable because it served to protect white women who were believed to be besieged by brutish black men.
This theme – pure, virginal, victimized white women set upon by violent, rapacious, black men – was the central theme in the film Birth of a Nation (1915), screened at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson, who proclaimed it “history writ in lightening.”
The conventional norm among white women in the U.S. at this time was to ignore or dismiss this justification for the extra-legal murder of hundreds of black men each year as a problem that didn’t concern them. Ames, unusual for a white woman (and especially for one from the South), saw lynching as a practice that was centrally about the mythology of white womanhood, and she set about to change it. This installment in the Tuesday series on #troublewithwhitewomen is meant to do much the same, call into question the prevailing norms about white women, and point out the ways that the oppression of others relies not only on racism, but on the privileged structural position of white womanhood.
Historical Background on Lynching
Lynching, scholar Jennie Leitweis-Goff argues in her book Blood at the Root, is central to American culture. The facts about lynching are well known to historians, but most people with a high school diploma in the U.S. don’t know a thing about it, because it’s generally not taught in K-12 curriculum. I’ve written lots more about the definition, geographical patterns and historical context of lynching here. The peak period of lynching in the U.S. was from 1882-1930 (note: after slavery and well into the 20th century), and estimates are that some 4,742 people have been lynched in the U.S. (through 1968). A few key points to keep in mind: lynching refers to any death outside due legal process and at the hands of a mob (many think it only refers to death by hanging, which is incorrect); white people were lynched, women (mostly black) were lynched, but by 1919 and the notorious “Red Summer” the practice was reserved almost exclusively for black men; lynchings happened in almost every state in the U.S., but predominated in the South, because this is where most black people lived during that time; and, class played a role, as research indicates that the number of lynchings went up as cotton prices went down. There was also an element of macabre display to many lynchings, as Amy L. Wood notes in Lynching and Spectacle. All that being said, white women, and a particular way of thinking about white womanhood, were central to the practice of lynching.
White Women’s Complicity in the Practice of Lynching
“White womanhood’ haunts lynching….,” Shawn Michelle Smith writes in her compelling book, Photography on the Color Line, She goes on in the chapter “The Spectacle of Whiteness,” to say this about lynching photography:
“[white womanhood]… is that phantom that is resurrected over and over again as a symbol of white racial purity defining the limits of the white lynch mob. …the figure of a threatened or raped white woman, evoked as the innocent victim of a ‘terrible crime,’ was conjured in attempts to justify lynching as the ‘understandable’ retribution of white fathers, brothers, and lovers. Ida B. Wells herself claimed to have believed this ideology at one time, before her extensive research revealed the cry of rape to be largely myth” (pp.129-30).
Indeed, it was Ida B. Wells who courageously began calling out the mythology of white womanhood promulgated in the service of lynching, a call that often fell on the deaf ears of white women. More often than listen to such claims, white women were actively participating in lynch mobs, as is clear in the many photographs Smith analyzes in her book. White men and women are present in the hundreds and thousands in these images. They have come to witness and to participate in these spectacles of racial violence with family and friends: they are dressed for an occasion; they meet the camera directly, unashamed, even gleeful.
In Smith’s analysis, lynching photographs work as defining images that make whiteness visible to itself. “Lynching photographs consolidate a fluid signifier; a pale crowd enacts and fiercely embodies whiteness” (p.140). And, this whiteness is deeply gendered, sexualized. It is the specific, repeated theme of “black man attacking white woman” that is the lynchpin – if you will – to inciting mob violence, as Dora Apel notes in her book, Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women and the Mob.
There are as many individual stories about lynchings as there are murdered black men (and women) in the historical record. This account, from Smith, about the lynching of Rubin Stacy, murdered in Fort Lauderdale, Flordia, on July 19,1935, captures the role of white women in inciting mob violence:
“According to the New York Times, as recorded in James Allen’s footnotes, [Rubin] Stacy, a homeless tenant farmer, had approached the home of Marion Jones [a white woman] to ask for food. On seeing Stacy, Jones screamed. Stacy was then arrested, and as he was being transported to a Miami jail by six deputies, a mob of over one hundred masked men seized and murdered him. Finally, Stacy’s corpse was hung in sight of Marion Jones’ home.” (p.130)
A white woman screamed, a black man died. This is the ‘logic’ of white supremacy. White womanhood, that ‘lily of the South,’ had to be protected at all costs was the prevailing ideology. All an individual white woman like Marion Jones had to do to activate the network of white fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins who would come to her “defense” and murder a black man who was asking for help was scream.
Lynching was a form of racial terrorism intended to subordinate black people following slavery, and in particular, black men. There were lessons in lynching for young white girls, too. Smith goes on in her analysis of the photograph of the lynching of Rubin Stacy (not posted here), writing:
“It is plausible that the young white girls who regard Stacy’s hanging corpse in the photograph are the children of Marion Jones. As they look at Stacy’s lifeless body, the girls are instructed in the nature of the white patriarchal power that ‘protects’ them, a power that will define their womanhood and confine it to the reproduction of white supremacy. If this is a lesson in white patriarchal protection, it is also a lesson of fatal consequences, of the wrath of white fathers and brothers, uncles and cousins roused by the sight of an African American man near a white woman’s house.” (p.130)
In many ways, it is the ‘fatal consequences’ to which Smith alludes that kept (and continues to keep) white women in line, conforming to and benefitting from white patriarchal protection. White women were not merely victims of patriarchal power; they gained power by supporting white supremacy. And they did so through families.
“Here’s the barbecue we had…” : Women’s Labor in Maintaining White (Supremacist) Familial Ties
White women actively participated in weaving together families knit with the thread of white supremacy. We can see this clearly in the messages written on the back of lynching postcards. Postcards of lynchings were sold in dime stores throughout the U.S. well into the 1950s and 1960s, and they continue to circulate today through sites like eBay. Featuring gruesome images of murdered corpses, mostly black men, on the front, the backs of postcards often carry casual familial exchanges, such as this one:
handwriting reads: This is where they lynched a negro the other day.
They don’t know who done it. I guess they don’t care much. I don’t, do you?)
The notation follows the conventions of postcard greetings, but with a murderous twist. How can we understand these postcards, not only the images, but the inscriptions? Here again is Smith writing:
“The example provided by a Katy Election, one that records the lynching of Jesse Washington in Robinson, Texas on May 16, 1916, proves especially disturbing in this regard. A note scrawled on the back of this particular postcard in large, looping hand reads: ‘This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your sone Joe.’ By sending the postcard, Joe perhaps demonstrates to his mother how he participates in upholding the mythology of pure white womanhood, he ‘defends’ his mother. …. Joe looks directly out at the camera, perhaps anticipating the eyes of his mother….To what degree is the white supremacist’s ‘family album’ supported by such terrible, inverted relics?” (p.122)
handwriting reads: ‘This is the Barbecue we had last night
my picture is to the left with a cross over it your sone [sic] Joe.”
It is women who do the domestic labor of stitching together family relationships, keeping family albums, encouraging their children to keep in touch, send a postcard. And, it is that labor that is put to use in the service of white supremacy in these postcards.
Photographic postcards of lynching victims functioned to solidify the ties for a white community, reinforced through the spectacles of dead black bodies. Sentimental and material familial bonds were reconfirmed through images of white violence, reasserting a larger imagined (white) community.
Resistance to Lynching
People resisted lynching. The list of white women resisting lynching is a short one. The broad pattern of resistance to lynching was that some people, mostly black people, resisted much more than others. Ida B. Wells stands as a towering figure in the struggle against lynching. And, as scholar Koritha Mitchell points out in her book, Living with Lynching, popular lynching plays were mechanisms that African American communities used to survive day-to-day under the threat of actual and photographic mob violence. Professor Kidada Williams continues that legacy of resistance through her Lynching in American Life & Culture course. Acts of truth and reconciliation like this one continue. In Monroe, Georgia people gather every year to re-enact a lynching that took place at Moore’s Ford in 1946. The patterns set by lynching have created a template in American culture that not only shaped our past but continues to reverberate in the present.
The Defense of White Womanhood Now
In September, 2013 Jonathan Ferrell, a former FAMU student, crashed his car near Charlotte, N.C., crawled out the back window looking for help, and then knocked on the door of the first house he saw. A white woman, thinking it was her husband knocking, answered. When she saw Ferrell she shut the door, hit her alarm and called the police. Ferrell, who was unarmed, was shot 10 times by a Charlotte police officer.
In one account, Ferrell family attorney Chris Chestnut wondered Monday what role race may have played in Saturday’s shooting.”The officer is white, Mr. Ferrell is black. This might be more of a reflection of where we are as a country,” he said. But to my mind, this observation is partial one. The observation not made here is: The woman (Sarah McCartney) who called was white. Mr. Ferrell is black. The officer is white. It is a reflection of where we are as a country that a white woman calls out, activating a network of white male protection, and a black man is dead. Marion Jones screams, a mob gathers, Rubin Stacy is dead.
The brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates, comes to the defense of the woman who called:
“There’s been some rage directed at the woman who called the police. I think this is wrong. You may believe racism is an actual force in our interactions–I certainly do–but you don’t know whether it was an actual force in this one. It’s important to recognize that this is both a woman and an individual. You might speculate about what she thinks of black people. I might speculate about whether she’d been a victim of sexual assault, or any other kind of violence. That also happens in America. But it would be better to speculate about nothing, since all we actually know is that this was a woman who was home with a young child, opened the door in the middle of the night, and found a dude standing outside.”
I disagree with Coates here. This is not about the individual racism of a particular white woman. It’s about the structural position that we find ourselves in as white women. When Sarah MCartney was frightened to find ‘a dude standing outside,’ she had a powerful resource at her disposal: white womanhood. It lends her credibility, victim status, protection at the hands of police. When she called the police, she did so from that cultural position and mobilized police. A white police officer arrived and interpreted the situation: white woman, in danger; black man, attacking. His protection of Sarah McCartney meant the death of Jonathan Ferrell, unarmed, asking for help.
It’s the template of white womanhood in American culture that’s been shaped by lynching, and it’s deeply ingrained.
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Next Tuesday, the #troublewithwhitewomen series continues.