Sitting in the Room with History: Lynchings, Police Brutality, and Spectacle

By Meredith Warden 

The back of a lynching postcard

What does it mean to view an image of white people inflicting violence on a black person?[GW1] Can we only consume it as spectacle, as a public display that desensitizes and voyeuristically justifies white violence? Or can we use these images while recognizing their broader history and relevance today—that is, can we, as witnesses, promote constructive awareness of racial injustice? By looking at spectacle lynchings, which served to uphold white supremacy through spectacular images of black suffering, and contemporary police brutality footage, which has the potential to be used for the same means, I will grapple with these difficult questions. Ultimately, we must view these images not as spectators but rather as ethical witnesses who, armed with historical and systemic context[GW2] , will take action beyond the images to work toward a just world. 

            In the words of Elizabeth Alexander, “black bodies in pain for public consumption have been an American national spectacle for centuries” (78). Post-Reconstruction era spectacle lynchings[GW3] , in which hundreds or thousands of white people assembled to view a lynching, were no exception. Spectacle lynchings aimed to cement white supremacy through the visual spectacle of “the (usually) black (usually) male body” suffering (Smith, 127). In this sense, “the amusement, the cultural power of spectacle lynchings, lay…in the looking,” as the viewing of spectacle lynchings shaped both whiteness and blackness in post-Reconstruction America, allowing whites to define themselves in complete opposition to African Americans and to engender terror in African American communities (Hale, 221 & Apel, 468). Whites present at spectacle lynchings “cheered, hooted, [and] clapped” as “the feel and push of the crowd created a sense of belonging and commonality that sustained violence” (Wood, 11). However, although spectators in the crowd experienced firsthand this construction of a unified white community, images of spectacle lynchings were particularly adept at reconstructing white supremacy beyond the immediate locality of the lynching, doing so through reinforcing the perception of black men as ‘beast’ and ‘brutes.’ 

The torture and mutilation of black victims in lynching photography reaffirmed the spectacle of black male suffering, transforming the victim “into the ‘black beast’ that [whites’] racial and sexual ideology purported him to be” (Wood, 76). The concept of a black man as a threat was a ubiquitous way to ‘justify’ lynchings—for example, one newspaper referred to a lynching victim, Henry Smith, as “the most inhuman monster known in current history” (Wells, 79). This construction of the black male body as threatening, in turn, defined the collective white body in direct opposition to blackness. At their core, spectacle lynchings and photography were symbolic productions of white supremacy, creating “a spectacle of demonic and wicked black men against a united and pure white community” (Wood, 67). Indeed, as whites often posed for the photos, their composure created the image of a civilized and self-assured crowd that contrasted the presumed barbarity and inhumanity of the victim. In other words, the dissemination of this juxtaposition through photographs of lynchings shaped not only how whites saw the black male body but how they saw themselves. Moreover, because this communal sense of whiteness “was founded in the spectacle of the dead black other,” spectacle lynching photography thus demonstrated to white viewers that, in the end, not even the black victim’s body was his own (Smith, 138). Importantly, this construction of whiteness in contrast to blackness held a unique power of objectivity, as lynching photos “provided seemingly indisputable graphic testimony to white southerners’ feelings of racial superiority” (Wood, 76). Although these photos were often staged, whites still digested lynching photos as objective truths that authenticated narratives of white supremacy and violence. 

            In addition to reaffirming a united sense of white supremacy, the perception of the black male body as the threatening ‘other’ also worked to construct a gendered ‘mastery’ of this threat. As Wood points out, lynching photographs eerily echo hunting pictures, showing how “picture taking at lynchings was itself an act of violence that reenacted the objectification and physical degradation of the black victim” through portraying the “white man as masculine hunter, [the] black man as degenerate beast” (Wood, 98). In these photos, as in spectacle lynchings themselves, white men saw themselves as ‘taming’ the threatening black man who preyed upon ‘their’ white women. This intimate construction of a white community, defined by the intersections of white manhood, white womanhood, and black (‘lack of’) manhood, is exemplified in a lynching postcard a white man, Joe Meyers, sent to his parents. Meyers marked the photo to show his position in the crowd and, referring to the burned victim, Jesse Washington, wrote on the back, “This is the Barbecue we had last Saturday” (Wood, 108; Smith 122-125; Allen et al., 83). In this postcard, as in hundreds of others, the dehumanization of the black male body through lynching was a tool through which whites communally confirmed their ‘superiority.’ Furthermore, in sending this postcard to his mother, Meyers demonstrated how he was paradoxically protecting the purity of white womanhood by “upholding the mythology of pure white womanhood that fueled so many lynchings; he ‘protects’ white womanhood, he ‘defends’ his mother” (Smith, 122). By ‘proving’ their presumed claim over the black male body, white men like Meyers duly upheld racial hierarchies and “constrained the actions of white women” (Smith, 131).[1]In this sense, not only were “sentimental white family bonds reinforced through black death,” but constructions of whiteness and gender were reaffirmed as well through lynching postcards and photography (Smith, 125). Thus, these images, in their assumed objectivity, worked to reinforce collective white supremacy and gender constructions through the spectacle of black male suffering and death. 

            Spectacle lynchings also aimed to terrorize the black public, meaning that the intended audience for spectacle lynchings was often not only whites, but African Americans too. In lynching photography, the “spectacle of whiteness” loomed as “a Black man dead at the end of a rope warned all African Americans not to push the limits of their freedom too far” (Smith, 117; Edwards, 366). One black Mississippian reflected that “back in those days, to kill a Negro wasn’t nothing. It was like killing a chicken or killing a snake” (Litwack, 12). Another unwilling witness evocatively recounted the terror she felt as a child at the sounds of a lynching in progress: “There was yelling and screaming. The white people were cheering: ‘This is great.’ I could hear it. It was close by. I’ll never forget that” (Fujii, 670). These feelings of fear at white pleasure and the dehumanization of black people worked to strengthen white supremacy, as many African Americans feared fatal retribution if they did something deemed offensive by a white person. Richard Wright described this paralyzing fear, writing, “the penalty of death awaited me if I made a false move and I wondered if it was worth-while to make any move at all” (Wright 84, Black Boy,qtd. Wood, 1). As Wright aptly sums up in this line, spectacle lynchings were often effective in producing terror in African Americans and maintaining white supremacy through this terror. 

Although spectacle lynchings eventually died out, contemporary acts of police brutality can be considered “modern day lynchings,” not only in terms of racial violence, but in the public nature and viewing of this violence as well (Embrick, 837). Like spectacle lynchings, images of police brutality often terrorize black witnesses, even inadvertently. Michael Brown’s body, like the lynching victims who “were left hanging for days or weeks as a lesson to people not to step outside the caste into which they had been born,” was left “in the street in Ferguson for four hours in the August sun after he had been killed” (Wilkerson). [GW4] The trauma black men and their communities feel from witnessing acts or images of police brutality shows that this violence is a form of racial terror akin to lynchings. Indeed, the historical legacy of lynching can “reverberate in the collective psyche of Black Americans and may be triggered with each new event of police violence and killing of a Black American” (Smith Lee and Robinson, 149).[GW5] Thus, modern police brutality often builds upon the history of public racial violence such as lynchings, making black people, especially black men, hesitant in the public sphere and primarily white spaces. 

However, even though repeatedly witnessing acts of police brutality can be traumatic for many African Americans, this inundation of footage has the opposite problem for white viewers: desensitization or, even worse, voyeuristic pleasure. Similar to the ways in which spectacle lynchings normalized black suffering, police brutality footage has the potential to become “yet another distant and thrilling spectacle that could be consumed and then overlooked” (Wood, 10). This fear that images of police brutality “immure us to pain by virtue of their familiarity [and] reinforce the spectacular character of black suffering” is necessary to consider when thinking about how to view these images, or even if to view them at all (Hartman 3, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, qtd. Smith, 118). Furthermore, these images’ capacity to become spectacles of black suffering connects to the view of the black male body as a threat, which, as in lynchings, works today to justify white violence. For example, Darren Wilson, although of similar stature to Michael Brown, described Brown by saying that he “felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan…[he] had the most aggressive face…it look[ed] like a demon” (Sanburn, “All the ways Darren Wilson described being afraid of Michael Brown,” qtd. Smiley and Fakunle, 13). Descriptions like this work to “de-victimize” black men killed by police by relying upon perceptions of them as ‘inhuman’ and ‘threatening,’ beliefs that clearly harken back to the white justification of lynchings (Smiley and Fakunle, 1). Thus, the contemporary murders of black men highlight “the systemic and racialized ways in which murdering brown and black bodies have become normative practice in US society” (Embrick, 837). Moreover, because of this perception, people’s ability to recognize police brutality footage as incontrovertible evidence of white wrongdoing is limited. Although footage of police brutality is assumed to be objective, these images are seen through the subjectivity of racial bias, which, especially for whites, means that,“because the black male body [prior to action] is the site and source of danger, a threat, the police effort to subdue this body…is justified regardless of the circumstances” (Butler, 18). Thus, contrary to the assumed objectivity of images both in the lynching era and today, images of racial violence are contingent upon the racial biases of the viewer. 

Because trauma, white voyeurism, and the contestable nature of racially violent images means that images of lynchings and police brutality threaten to reaffirm spectacles of black suffering and uphold white supremacy, the question that remains is, can we avoid this, and, if so, how? Firstly, these images shouldbe used, because to omit them would be to neglect history, and the present, head-on—images of racial violence are rooted in a history that reverberates today, “a past that is with us still,” and so they cannot and should not be sanitized or omitted from historical interpretations (Sharpe, 62). Reckoning with these images of racial violence is “sitting in the room with history”—not necessarily moving past this history, but grappling with it (Brand 213, A Map to the Door of No Return, qtd. Sharpe, 132). Because of this need to sit with the past, the inclusion of historical context when using these images is necessary—if divorced from analysis and context, police brutality footage and lynching photographs will almost surely devolve into spectacles of black suffering. 

Likewise, although these images’ contestable nature means that they can be consumed as spectacles, this is also a strength: recontextualizing pictures or footage of racial violence can promote awareness of their systemic nature throughout history. Ida Barnett-Wells did this in painting the act at the core of spectacle lynchings, looking, as inhumane—in one line, she writes that “the crowd looked on with complaisance, if not with real pleasure” (Wells, 111). In the hands of activists like Wells and the NAACP, these images, along with compiled statistics, no longer work to reaffirm white supremacy, but rather act as recontextualized symbols of racial injustice. In this sense, we need to understand the intertwining history of racial violence and its systemic nature to grasp how police brutality is a continuation of this terror. Nicole R. Fleetwood highlights this in her statement that “[Trayvon] Martin’s image…circulates as…traumatic wound [and] historical fact. Martin lives through his image, because of our attachment…to the historical legacy of blacks…and to the historical present of racial subjugation” (Fleetwood, 30). 

This historical and systemic context must also engender ethical witnessing that can promote action beyond the images. Because photographs depicting suffering don’t necessarily “translate into believing, caring or acting,” they must act as jumping-off points for deeper discussions about racial injustice and as a first step to demand justice in the present (Linfield, 33). In this sense, “the real issue is how we use images of cruelty. Can they help us to make meaning of the present and the past? If so, what meanings do we make, and how do we act upon them?” (Linfield 60). [GW6] And who makes these meanings? Who is doing the telling, and who is doing the looking? The relatives, ancestors, and communities of those killed by police brutality or lynching, and the survivors, must be the ones who shape narratives of this racial violence and its images. Just as Mamie Bradley, in wanting “all the world to see” the maiming of her son, Emmett Till, centered the narrative of lynchings not on white voyeurism but rather on “the black corpse and the grieving community…and called on ‘the world’ to grieve alongside her,” images of racial violence should be used by people affected by this terror to tell bigger stories about racial injustice (Wood, 267-268). In turn, this will hopefully empower these people and lead to more respectful ways of using these images, such as avoiding the “re-killing” of the victim by focusing on the white perpetrators and spectators (Mowatt, 779). Likewise, emphasizing often devalued narratives will potentially engender more intersectional discourse, such as promoting awareness that African American women have been killed by police brutality and lynchings too, and that the aforementioned constructions of gender and race mean that they were, and still are, “denigrated by the same rhetoric that revered white women” (Hale, 132). 

However, I am not suggesting that African Americans should be solely responsible for addressing the legacy of racially violent images within the context of lynchings and police brutality. Who is engaging in the act of looking is important to consider—for white people, we should view these images as a way to acknowledge our collective and individual complicity, as well as often active engagement, in maintaining structures of white supremacy. RM Wolff gives excellent suggestions on how to engender such white ethical witnessing in envisioning an exhibit with text such as, “‘Do you recognize any of the people in the crowd of this photograph?’ or ‘Does your family have a picture like this in an album?’ or ‘When have you witnessed violence against black male bodies? What did you do?’” (Wolff, 140). This last question is especially powerful, as it challenges viewers, especially white ones, to not only connect historical spectacle lynchings to present police brutality and recognize their own inaction as tacit consent for this violence, but to strive to act for a more racially just worldbeyond merely witnessing these images.

Ultimately, because images of spectacle lynchings and police brutality can be consumed as spectacles and employed to produce African American trauma, we must use them cautiously and recognize that including their systemic and historical context is vital. Through doing so, we can hopefully act as ethical witnesses to these images of racial violence rather than spectators, and use them as tools to promote constructive discussions that value the narratives of those silenced above all. In short, “it’s a difficult task, this re-viewing of violence, this striving for reflection rather than spectacle, for vision rather than voyeurism, for study rather than exposure,” but it is necessary (Williams 270, “Without Sanctuary,” qtd. Apel, 460). Racially violent images force “us to envision what a better world, or at least a less-bad world, would be; but they also suggest how hard it is to create one” (Linfield, 39).

Works Cited

Alexander, Elizabeth. “‘Can You be BLACK and Look at This?’: Reading the Rodney King Video(s).” Public Culture, vol. 7, no. 1, 1 January 1994, pp. 77–94.

Allen, James, et. al. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Twin Palm Publishers, 2000. 

Apel, Dora. “On Looking: Lynching Photographs and Legacies of Lynching after 9/11.” American Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 3, 2003, pp. 457–478. 

Butler, Judith. “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia.” Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising, Routledge, 19 Apr. 1993, pp. 15-22. 

Edwards, Laura F. “The Disappearance of Susan Daniel and Henderson Cooper: Gender and Narratives of Political Conflict in the Reconstruction-Era U.S. South.” Feminist Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, Summer 1996, pp. 363-386.

Embrick, David G. “Two Nations, Revisited: The Lynching of Black and Brown Bodies, Police Brutality, and Racial Control in ‘Post-Racial’ Amerikkka.” Critical Sociology, vol. 41, no. 6, Sept. 2015, pp. 835–843.

Fleetwood, Nicole. “I Am Trayvon Martin.” On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination, Rutgers University Press, 2015, pp. 13-31. 

Fujii, Lee Ann. “‘Talk of the Town’: Explaining Pathways to Participation in Violent Display.” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 54, no. 5, Sept. 2017, pp. 661–673. 

Hale, Grace Elizabeth. “Deadly Amusements.” Making Whiteness, Pantheon Books, 1998, pp. 199-239.

Linfield, Susie. “Photojournalism and Human Rights.” The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. The University of Chicago Press, Nov. 2010, pp. 33-62. 

Litwack, Leon E. “Hellhounds.” Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Twin Palm Publishers, 2000, pp. 8-37. 

Mowatt, Rasul A. “Black Lives as Snuff: The Silent Complicity in Viewing Black Death.” University of Hawai’i Press, vol. 41, no. 4, Fall 2018, pp. 777-806. 

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.

Smiley, Calvin John, and David Fakunle. “From ‘brute’ to ‘thug:’ the demonization and criminalization of unarmed Black male victims in America.” Journal of Human Behavior in The Social Environment,vol. 26, no. 3-4, 2016, pp. 350-366.

Smith, Michelle Shawn. “Spectacles of Whiteness.”Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture, Duke University Press, 17 May 2004, pp. 111-145. 

Smith Lee, Jocelyn R., and Michael A. Robinson. “‘That’s My Number One Fear in Life. It’s the Police’: Examining Young Black Men’s Exposures to Trauma and Loss Resulting From Police Violence and Police Killings.” Journal of Black Psychology, vol. 45, no. 3, Apr. 2019, pp. 143–184.

Wells, Ida Barnett. On Lynchings. Dover Publications, 2014 (originally pub. 1892, 1895, and 1900). ProQuest Ebook Central, Accessed 21 Nov. 2019. 

Wilkerson, Isabel. “Mike Brown’s shooting and Jim Crow lynchings have too much in common. It’s time for America to own up.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Aug. 2014, Accessed 17 Nov. 2019. 

Wolff, RM. “Persons Unknown.” Museums and Photography, edited by Elena Stylianou and Theopisti Stylianou-Lambert, Routledge, 2017, pp. 130-147. 

Wood, Amy Louise. Lynching and Spectacle.The University of Carolina Press (Chapel Hill), 2009. 

[1]This is not to imply that white women played no part in upholding white supremacy—indeed, given that many lynchings occurred because a white woman accused a black man of rape, “lynching narratives simultaneously empowered white women as it emasculated black men” (Smith, 235). 

 [GW1]Something about this sentence doesn’t flow to me—perhaps making the white brutality the subject of the sentence to emphasize the intentionality of racial violence (i.e. an image of white people inflicting violence on black people)

 [GW2]You use this phrase twice in this paragraph

 [GW3]Maybe add the centuries/specify that it was during slavery—I know it seems obvious but it might just add some clarity 

 [GW4]This is a really powerful connection

 [GW5]I would add another sentence here (maybe about how this terror, like lynching, forces black people to be hesitant in the public sphere/white spaces) just so you can end the paragraph with your own voice

 [GW6]I feel like (in the interest of shortening the paper a bit) this paragraph doesn’t necessarily need to be here

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