Monthly Archives: January 2013
On New Year’s Day 1923 a crowd of Whites marched on the Black community of Rosewood, Florida seeking retribution for an alleged assault on a White woman by a Rosewood resident. A group of White men captured an African American, Sam Carter, and shot him and hung his lifeless body, but by January 4th a brewing mob marched on Rosewood, angered by the suggestion Rosewood had provided refuge to Carter. Two Whites were killed in their initial assault, and by January 6 hundreds of Whites had migrated to Rosewood and set the whole town ablaze, with at least eight people eventually dead in the aftermath and nothing left standing.
Like much of the landscape of racism and extra-legal violence, Rosewood appeared to have been easily submerged in America’s historical amnesia about the depths of racist violence. Yet increasingly more of these spaces of shame are now being memorialized in a public acknowledgment of a variety of injustices inflicted on ordinary innocent people. Some of this memorialization involves formal material markers; some involves genuine reparations (e.g., nine of Rosewood’s victims received a financial reparation in 1994); some have been studied anew by the state (e.g., in 2001, Oklahoma conducted an official report on the 1921 Tulsa race riot); and some sites remain largely unacknowledged, submerged in grassroots memory but not yet in something we might circumspectly refer to as “public memory.”
Moments like Rosewood are akin to the fanatical Anti-Black anxieties that exploded in Tulsa (1921), East St. Louis (1917), Houston (1917), Elaine (Arkansas 1919), Omaha (1919), Knoxville (1919), and Chicago (1919), where massive race riots exploded taking aim on African-American communities. Other spaces witnessed the seemingly random, anti-Black terror of public lynchings and mob murders that have now secured some measure of public reflection, and the spaces of public executions, urban displacement, and anti-Black state policies and violence are slowly joining the same discourses.
Many of these moments lost any recognizable footprint on the landscape and were reduced simply to violent aesthetics—images of riot scenes, postcards of lynchings—that appear to contemporary eyes as horrifying but alien experiences of unknown people from a distant moment. Ken Gonzales-Day’s brilliant project “Erased Lynchings” underscores how mundane the landscape of lynching violence was: when the corpses of murder victims are removed from period images, the crowds gathered to witness death are absolutely prosaic and the spaces seem utterly commonplace. Landscapes changed over time, trees were torn down, public spaces took on new shapes, and former prisons were torn down or took on new roles, so much of the visual evidence of riots and lynchings documents spaces that look quite different now.
The now-prosaic landscape risks concealing the horror concealed in many such spaces. Harvey Young has chronicled how many lynching scenes were instantly dismantled and the bodies of victims themselves were dismembered by souvenir hunters who took trees, rope, clothing, and body parts as mementoes of the experience. In 1899, for example, after a Maysville, Kentucky lynching the victim was burnt and the newspaper reported that spectators “carried away pieces of ﬂesh and the negro’s teeth. Others got pieces of ﬁngers and toes and proudly exhibit the ghastly souvenirs to-night.” In 1901, a Terre Haute, Indiana man who had likewise been hung and then burnt was dismembered and his toes sold at the scene as relics. When a reporter visited the scene of a 1911 lynching a few weeks after the Coatesville, Pennsylvania event, he found nearly nothing left: grass was burnt away from the blaze in which Zachariah Walker had been burnt alive, neighboring fences were demolished for souvenirs, and all that remained of Walker fit into a small box. A famous photograph of two men lynched in Marion, Indiana in August, 1930 has two women in the foreground holding swatches of fabric that were likely keepsakes torn from the bodies of the victims. An image of the lynching displayed with a lock of hair and emblazoned “Klan 4th, Joplin MO, 33” is almost certainly hair of the victims that was displayed by the fourth Klan in Joplin.
Ironically, as communities aspired to rationalize an act of mass violence and forget the space in which it occurred, they nonetheless often held onto material trappings that evoked that very event. Young argues that these human keepsakes were distinctive material things that transformed a human into mere materiality but never fully rid themselves of the shadow of human meaning invested in the dismembered corpse. For those unable to attend the lynchings and riots, picture postcards were widely distributed: the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas was documented by a series of postcards documenting a grim spectacle taken over several hours in which 10,000 spectators set Washington ablaze, removed his genitalia, cut off his fingers, and removed his bones.
As the landscape was actively dismantled and declined through benign neglect, communities masked histories they hoped to forget even as those events persistently lurked beneath the surface of publicly condoned heritage. Yet throughout the US and much of the world such traumatic heritage is being placed onto the landscape in concrete forms. These “dark tourism” sites run a gamut of traumatic histories that reveal the absence of a consensus history; Erika Doss argues that memorialization in these contexts does not resolve shame as much as it sparks discussions that bear witness to the dignity of people who fell victim to racist violence. At the Art Race Space conference Doss argued that true shame does not lie in acknowledging and discovering shameful histories; instead, genuine shame is an unwillingness to confront such histories.
James Davidson and Edward Gonzalez-Tennant have contemplated the distinctive quandary of conducting an archaeology of Rosewood in lieu of archaeology at the site itself, whose current owners have denied descendants, scholars, and tourists access to the space, which has remained untouched in the intervening 90 years. Rosewood’s inaccessibility (despite being a Florida Heritage Landmark) has not prevented Gonzalez-Tennant from producing a “Virtual Rosewood” that connects to survivors’ oral histories, census records, a virtual tour, and videos of Rosewood today. Nevertheless, it is likely that people aspiring to forget such heritage recognize the power of archaeology to tell an absolutely compelling and challenging story about Rosewood.
Rosewood may be a distinctive event in some ways, but Davidson and Tennant argue that the American landscape includes numerous more racist riots, and violence is impressed into an exceptionally broad range of spaces that have now received community attention. One such episode came in South Carolina in 1947, when a Greenville taxi driver was robbed and stabbed. A 24-year-old African American, Willie Earle, was jailed, and a line of cab drivers drove to the Pickens County Jail along with a crowd that seized Earle. The crowd dragged Earle from the jail, beat him, and eventually shot him and left him on a roadside near a slaughterhouse. This memorialization process is certainly not without resistance: A 2010 commemorative marker erected at the site of Earle’s death was stolen in April, 2012 (the Rosewood marker has bullet holes in it); the former jail from which Earle was taken is now a county museum, and Jennie Lightweis-Goff lamented in her 2011 Blood at the Root: Lynching as American Cultural Nucleus that the museum says nothing about Earle’s murder.
Other communities have more successfully confronted their histories. In June, 1920 the circus passed through Duluth, Minnesota and a young man charged that his girlfriend had been sexually assaulted by several Black men working with the circus. The police chief lined the laborers along the train tracks the next morning and arrested six of them. A crowd of between 5000 and 10,000 people gathered at the jail and eventually stormed it, dragging out three men– Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie—and hanging them in the street before posing for pictures with the victims’ bodies.
The unmarked graves of the three men were located and markers were placed at the graves in 1991. In June, 2000 the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial committee was formed to acknowledge the lynching, construct a memorial, and use the discussion as a springboard for anti-racist community activism (e.g., see the Memorial Discussion Guide) In October, 2003 the Duluth Memorial was unveiled at the site of the lynching with the figures of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie as part of a memorial including the Edmund Burke quote “An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent.”
In 2006 the Duluth New Tribune editor expressed mixed feelings about memorializing lynchings, arguing that “there were 4,743 documented lynchings in America between 1882 and 1968, almost 3,500 of them black men. Even if memorials are done with decorum, as in Duluth, I don’t know if there should be a marker at every site. Four thousand, seven hundred forty-three memorials in town squares and highway rest stops would be a gruesome reminder across America.” It may indeed inspire apprehension among some people eager to cast racist violence as the products of other communities in distant places, but such a maneuver awkwardly dodges complicity in violence. Many more sites of comparable trauma certainly remain remembered but unmarked; many spaces like riot sites certainly contain concrete archaeological evidence, but in places like Rosewood the threat of that material history provokes apprehension for both undoing racist caricatures and sparking conversations about the impression of such violence on contemporary social life. Many of these landscapes witnessed brief events lynchings that left little material evidence, yet marking such spaces and telling these stories is certainly well within archaeological method. The challenge is less techniques of placing such heritage on the contemporary landscape as it is a challenge to overcome anxiety over the discussions that may follow. Yet the tenor of such discussions in many communities suggests that efforts to conceal such a heritage are always losing battles.
2004 Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob. Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, New Jersey.
2011 Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America. Ivan R. Dee, Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania.
Roy L. Brooks
2004 Atonement and Forgiveness : A New Model for Black Reparations. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Alfred L. Brophy
2003 Reconstructing the Dreamland : The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation. Oxford University Press, New York.
James M. Davidson and Edward Gonzalez-Tennant
2008 A Potential Archaeology of Rosewood, Florida: The Process of Remembering a Community and a Tragedy. The SAA Archaeological Record 8(1):13-16.
Dennis B. Downey and Raymond M. Hyser
2011 Coatesville and the Lynching of Zachariah Walker: Death in a Pennsylvania Steel Town. The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina.
R. Thomas Dye
1996 Rosewood, Florida: The Destruction of an African-American Community. The Public Historian 58(3):605-622.
Maxine D. Jones, Larry E. Rivers, David R. Colburn, R. Tom Dye, and William W. Rogers
1993 Documented History of the Incident which Occurred at Rosewood, Florida, in January 1923. Report submitted to the Florida Board of Regents.
2011 Blood at the Root: Lynching as American Cultural Nucleus. SUNY Press, Albany, New York.
2006 A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
2008 American Pogrom : The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics. Ohio University Press, Athens.
Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
2001 Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Report submitted to the State of Oklahoma.
2005 Emancipation Betrayed : The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920. University of California Press, Berkeley.
2010 Lynchings of Women in the United States: The Recorded Cases, 1851-1946. McFarland and Company, Jefferson, North Carolina.
Stewart Emory Tolnay, E. M. Beck
1995 A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
Kidada E. Williams
2012 They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I. New York University Press, New York.
2005 The Black Body as Souvenir in American Lynching. Theatre Journal 57:639–657.
Carter-Jackson-McGhie Memorial image courtesy artstuffmatters
Rosewood ruins image courtesy wikipedia
Rosewood sign image courtesy Richard Elzey
In 1979, Ralph Ellison captured the complicated notion of color line visibility and took aim on the apparent contradiction of being both Black and American. Ellison suggested that African America was “penalized not because of their individual infractions of the rules which give order to American society, but because they, like flies in the milk, were just naturally more visible than white folk. . . . In this dark light `high visibility’ and `in-visibility’ were, in effect, one and the same. And, since black folk did not look at themselves out of the same eyes with which they were viewed by whites, their condition and fate rested within the eye of the beholder.”
This week the Art, Race, Space symposium examines the relationship between aesthetics, material culture, and urban space along and across the color line and the complicated notion of visibility, power, and race that Ellison contemplated. Defined narrowly, the conference focuses on a late-19th century sculpture of a freed captive that artist Fred Wilson proposed recasting in 2007, but Wilson’s design was eventually deemed to be an unacceptable representation of the African diaspora. The broader issues that matter beyond Indianapolis revolve around the complicated question of precisely what constitutes Black materiality: that is, how do we see Black materiality, and how should we socially and materially represent Black experience in the early 21st century? How should we fashion the aesthetics of contemporary Black subjectivity filtered through 19th-century racial aesthetics, the weight of 20th-century anti-Black racism, and dynamic 21st-century, post-segregation identity politics?
The story of Fred Wilson’s project E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) has been detailed in Modern Art Notes, Studio 360, Citizens Against the Slave Image, FredWilsonIndy, the Monument Circle Project, NUVO, Art:21, Kirk Savage’s blog, the Indianapolis Recorder, Art Avocado, Contempartnotes, and my own blog. My own sense is that much of the tension was over the concrete process by which this artwork was selected: that is, established Indianapolis sources of power rooted in class and racial privilege reaching back to the 19th century determined how to represent African American in a monumental piece of art meant to last indefinitely if not forever. In a city that has circumspectly embraced assertive grassroots politics, the monument plan and review process sparked profoundly strong feelings about public representations of African diasporan identity. Wilson hoped to redeem the freedman from the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument, where Whites placed him to transparently applaud their ability to secure freedom and forgive themselves for the racism that followed Emancipation. Yet by once again obscuring the process of determining how African Americans would be publicly represented (through no fault of Wilsons’), the review process risked repeating the racist patronage that produced the original statue a century ago.
The freedman was faced with an impossible mission to timelessly represent Black subjectivity, but he sounds a critical message about race in the late 19th century and the subsequent hundred years that revolves around the trope of visibility that Ralph Ellison placed at the heart of American experience. The visual metaphor captures the potential redemption promised by being seen authentically, as we are and can ideally be, and today many people do not consider 19th century racial conventions to be productive ways to make African diaspora publicly visible. Nothing could be more material than the African-American agency and anti-Black racism invested in every square inch of the American city, so the challenge is to recognize that heritage and the White privilege impressed in prosaic bus stops, abandoned lots, homogenous shopping malls, forgettable university campuses, and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument that betrays no consciousness of Blackness and the color line.
What might we make of the freedman in a moment that aspires to fragment the essential Black subject? Contemporary scholars routinely herald the demise of essentialized subjects that have been replaced by fluid identities. The potential death rites to a unified, recognizable Black subjectivity may be a reason for guarded optimism—a signal that anti-racist activism is rendering racialized subjects increasingly untenable and perhaps taking aim on long-disavowed White privilege—but it simultaneously provokes anxiety among White and Black people alike in the face of apparent racial ambiguity if not nothingness. A stable, clearly bounded African diasporan subjectivity is seductive to many of us—albeit for quite different reasons–but it ultimately is an inadequate representation of the dynamism of contemporary diasporan subjectivity.
Like the long-ignored freedman, the city’s broader landscape is an inelegantly evaded material testament to racial privilege: state office complexes, the IUPUI campus, the circuitous ribbon of interstates through the city’s heart, and mundane apartment complexes inhabit what were predominately African-American neighborhoods for more than a century. Nevertheless, these prosaic spaces pass without critical reflection and little or no acknowledgement that they are products of racist spatial engineering. In an early 21st-century post-segregation society, African-American heritage is perhaps more thoroughly masked than it was just a half-century ago. Crispus Attucks High School, Indiana Avenue, and a network of churches, stores, clubs, and homes in the near-Westside was a spatial refuge and the social heart of Black Indianapolis for a century. Consequently, as in most of early 21st-century urban America, much of historically African-American Indianapolis is today spatially displaced, literally erased, or ideologically effaced.
An understanding of the freedman and the discourse over his present-day re-casting needs to push beyond historically specific aesthetics and symbolism and connect him to the 20th and 21st century experience of space and the color line in urban America. The freedman can no longer aspire to being “authentic”: he is rooted in a persistent shared African consciousness and a half-millennium of capitalism and colonization, but African America looms uniquely within and outside the American experience. In a position shaped by African culture, a half-millennium of racist negotiation, the specter of 19th century racial stereotypes, and this post-segregation moment, perhaps the freedman’s burden is to provide us a sober, critical, and potentially redeeming mirror of American life. This what Richard Wright referred to when he pronounced that “the Negro is America’s metaphor” and argued that African American experience was American history told in its most “vivid and bloody terms.”
The conference web page has more information on the symposium. These thoughts are simply my own and do not represent the Conference Committee or other speakers at the symposium. See the PACE Gallery Fred Wilson bibliography for background on Wilson’s work.
1993 Case Study: Mining the Museum. Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution blog.
Rena Bransten Gallery
2012 Fred Wilson Press. Rena Bransten Gallery Web Page.
Callahan, John (editor)
1995 The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Random House, New York.
Cooks, Bridget R.
2011 Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.
2009 Fred Wilson. Flyover Blog.
Globus, Doro (editor)
2011 Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader. Ridinghouse, New York.
Kitson, Thomas J.
1999 Tempering Race and Nation: Recent Debates in Diaspora Identity. Research in African Literatures 30(2):88-95. (subscription access)
Murray, Freeman Henry Morris
1916 Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: An Interpretation. Published by the author, Washington, D.C.
2010 Letter to the Editor: Sculpture is Appalling. Indianapolis Recorder 16 September.
1997 Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
Judith E. Stein
1993 Sins of Omission: Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum.” Judith E. Stein, Writer and Curator Blog.
2008 Monument image courtesy DRSPIEGEL 14
Monument Circle image courtesy Justin Harter
Monument Peace face close-up images by author
I am traveling in Europe this week, but for those interested in hipster materiality, my piece “Authentic Cool: Global Hipsters and Consumer Culture” is over at PopAnth. I will be back in the states and posting from home again anytime now.