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

On Objects & Voices: The Intersection of Oral History and Archaeology in the Case of Shule Ya Kujitambua

By Ella Murray

I was not sure what I wanted to do with my degree after three years at Oberlin College. As an Archaeological studies major, I felt stuck. I was unsure of how to combine the theoretical archaeological tools I had gained with the more introspective history courses I had taken during my time at Oberlin. The spring of my junior year I took Tania Boster’s Oberlin Oral History course. As her student, I was assigned an interview with Ian Yarber, Oberlin’s Recreation Director. I prepared for days, writing and rewriting interview questions and trying to calm my ever growing nerves. When I walked to Ian’s office down Main Street with Alex Black Bessen (the ever-kind sound editor for my interview) I shook. We walked into his office, exchanged pleasantries, and prepared for the interview. All went smoothly until we approached Ian’s memories about a school he called Shule. I felt blindsided; even after preparing for this interview for days, I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Intrigued and excited, our oral history soon veered off track. Ian answered my questions about the Shule, explaining that it was a school in Oberlin for Black students in the 1970s. In many ways this was the most fruitful part of our interview, I left elated—and a little worried that Tania would be disappointed with how far off track we had gone. I thought that would be the end of our interview, that it would be filed away in an archive not to be looked at until someone new came along. For weeks I was curious about the Shule. I did very basic research in the Oberlin College Archives and the Oberlin Heritage Center, and then I left it alone. 

Later that semester I realized that I had to decide what my senior capstone would be for Archaeological studies. I had absolutely no idea what to do. Conducting research on individual artifacts was too dry, looking into ancient societies was too removed, making classic archaeology relatable was too much to take on. Clearly I was not a great archaeological studies student. I had chosen to study archaeology because I thought it was an interesting way to look at the world. If what makes us human is that we require tools to survive, what better way to study people than through their stuff. (I would later learn that this is a key argument of a favorite archaeologist of mine, Ian Hodder).  Then Tania reminded me of my interview with Ian. She encouraged me to follow what I was excited about. I met with my adviser Amy Margaris and she reminded me of what brought me to archaeology in the first place—a desire to look at societies from a new perspective. She reminded me that archaeology can be used as a social tool to understand people, that it can be more than excavation. A group of amazing professors and community members, a couple of grants, and many, many hours in front of a microfiche machine later, I am building my senior capstone about the Shule. Understanding the Shule through an archaeological perspective has allowed me to immerse myself in the interdisciplinary nature of archaeology. 

For my capstone I research Shule Ya Kujitambua, translated from Swahili as School of Self Realization. The school was founded in Oberlin, Ohio during the 1970’s and was the same school that Ian Yarber attended and mentioned in his oral history interview. The Shule was part of a network of African Free Schools and a push for African centered education in the United States by the Council for Independent Black Institutions (CIBI). Founded in 1972, CIBI is a foundation that utilizes the African-centered learning approach to educate black children. CIBI is a formal title for a value that has always been a part of African Centered institutions. Pauline Lipman explicates the purpose of the CIBI in her book Race, Class, and Power in School Restructuring: “CIBI was formed to enable educators of African descent to share information, materials, and curriculum and to have material unity that would support the development of independent schools as alternatives to public education” 

Dr. Kofi Lomotey founded the Oberlin Shule within the network of the CIBI. In the early 1970’s, the school operated out of the Afrikan Heritage House (AHH). College students who enrolled in teaching practicums at the beginning of the Black Studies program would work on a rotating schedule to teach the four children enrolled in Shule Ya Kujitambua. The curriculum followed the Nguzo Saba, a set of seven core values compiled by Dr. Mwalimu Karenga. Translated to English, these values are cooperation, self sufficiency, self reliance, contributing to the community, and a positive attitude towards Black history and culture.

 The Shule subscribed to an Afrocentric model of education. This holistic remodeling of the hegemonic curriculum completely changed how students learned. For example, the Shule relied on the family model to encourage education. They focused on this model because in public schools, “the Black nuclear and extended family as well as the Black community, are no longer galvanized around a common set of values, goals, and guiding principles as they once were.” By re-centering the family, African centered schools are able to draw the family and the community back in. Teachers both treat their students as their children and encourage their students to treat their teachers as parents. This allows students and teachers to be deeply embedded within the institution, understanding it as a family. Pauline Lipman explains that “Smaller, family-like groupings” benefit students of color because they decrease anonymity and increase aims for shared goals as well as increase teacher-student empathy.” This is just one example of the many ways that Shule Ya Kujitambua differed from the Oberlin Public Schools in Oberlin during this time. In many ways a product of the Black Power Movement and an extension of the minority programs that were being instituted in Oberlin, Shule Ya Kujitambua changed the lives of those it touched.

 Since last May, I conducted oral histories with former students and parents of Shule Ya Kujitambua, and these interviews would not have been possible without the help of community members. Community members are the experts of this history, and their interviews become objects of the archive. They have been gracious as to speak with me, both on and off the record, send me clippings and stories, and words of encouragement. The excitement about reestablishing this story is tangible. This project puts oral histories and primary source documents in conversation, operating under theories of community-based learning and material culture to uncover just one part of a national story of race relations and education deficits. I focus specifically on the Oberlin Shule rather than others founded in the United States because of the way it troubles Oberlin’s reputation as a racial utopia. The project uncovers the ways public schools have failed Black students in the past and how Black community members have and continue to resist. The timeliness of this project is two-fold; the two elementary schools that were the main focus of racial integration efforts in the 1960’s are scheduled to close next year, and Black students on campus are currently working to reopen the Shule. A historical record of the racial discussions surrounding the reorganization of the schools and the response to the Shule’s opening are not consolidated anywhere in the college or town archives; this project strives to be the first source of its kind to be used by those working to improve the schools of Oberlin today. Made possible by a generous grant from the Oral History in the Liberal Arts Association, I will translate my findings into a website which will offer an easily accessible primary source archive and narrative of the time period. 

Working on this project has allowed me to feel more connected to Oberlin, more amazed each day by the intricacies of our history, more excited about the power of academia and community. Archaeology is no longer just catalogue numbers and trowels, it is a manner of thinking. By thinking like an archaeologist, I have asked new questions, rephrased my curiosities, followed a trail and accepted each helping hand along the way. Archaeology has empowered me to trust oral history, to draw on the shared power of the archive and the narrative. What makes us human is that we depend on things, and we need stories to give meaning to our things.

Many thanks to Tania Boster, Amy Margaris, Kofi Lomotey, Maggie Robinson, Phyllis Yarber, Ian Yarber, Candice Raynor, Deverrick Mccallister, Brooke Bryan, Ken Grossi, Megan Mitchell, Julia Rohde, the Coalition for Oberlin History, and so many more for your support on this project. If you’re interested in learning more or looking to get involved, email me at!


  1. Brenner, R.B. “Shule Schools youngsters in African Heritage.” Oberlin Review. November 19, 1982
  2. Fleming, John E., Civil Rights movement, Impact Of, On African-American Education. In Jones-Wilson, Faustine C. Encyclopedia of African-American Education. 1. publ. ed. Westport, Conn. [u.a.]: Greenwood Press, 1996.
  3. Hodder, Ian. “The Entanglements of Humans and Things: A Long-Term View.” New Literary History 45, no. 1 (Jan 1, 2014): 19-36,
  4. Jones-Wilson, Faustine C. Encyclopedia of African-American Education. 1. publ. ed. Westport, Conn. [u.a.]: Greenwood Press, 1996.
  5. Kornblith, Gary John and Carol Lasser. Elusive Utopia. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018.
  6. Lomotey, Kofi. “Independent Black Institutions: African-Centered Education Models.” The Journal of Negro Education 61, no. 4 (Oct 1, 1992): 455-462. doi:10.2307/2295363.
  7.  Lomotey, Kofi. Going to School: The African-American Experience. Albany, N.Y: State Univ. of New York Press, 1990. 108. 
  8. Lipman, Pauline. Race, Class, and Power in School Restructuring. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press, 1998.
  9. Shujaa, Mwalimu J. “Afrocentric Transformation and Parental Choice in African American Independent Schools”, The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 61, no. 2, pp. 148-159. 1992. 
  10. Subira Kifano, “Afrocentric Education in Supplementary Schools: Paradigm and Practice at the Mary McLeod Bethune Institute“, The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 65, no. 2, pp. 209-218. 1996

Williams, Juan. Brown Vs. Board of Education: Its Impact on Public Education 1954-2004. New York, Brooklyn, N.Y: Word For Word Pub. Co, 2005.

Hystery as Genre: Manifestations of Hysteria & Trauma in Beloved

By Celeste McBride

In “A New Hystery: History and Hysteria in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” Emma Parker uses Toni Morrison’s focus on female characters and the ways that their experiences have been shaped by slavery to suggest that hysteria is one of the novel’s most relevant themes. She defines Beloved as a hystery because it is a story in which characters “unconsciously express repressed memories of psychic trauma through physical symptoms and use a corporeal discourse to articulate what is otherwise unspeakable” (Parker, 1). While most of her argument centers around the character of Beloved as the epitome as a hysterical character, she suggests that Beloved also serves as a manifestation of the trauma of those around her. Despite being a work of fiction, Beloved is deeply rooted within a very real and deeply emotional history; Morrison acknowledges that her writing seeks to reckon with the aftermaths of slavery. Parker’s evaluation of the characters’ hysteria frames Morrison’s novel as a space in which psychological trauma and repressed experiences can be rehashed and confronted without the expectation of a peaceful resolution. Reading Beloved through the proposed genre of hystery–and framing Beloved herself as a manifestation of hysteria–sheds light on the way the inhabitants of 124 attend to their various traumas in different ways. 

In the introduction to the novel, Morrison explains that she wants her readers to feel they have been “kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population” (Morrison, x). Although most contemporary readers of Morrison’s novel have no direct experience with slavery, the language of Beloved and the violent experience of stepping into the novel allude to the traumatic experiences of its characters. Slavery has impacted each of the main characters in various ways; Baby Suggs, Paul D, and Sethe were all enslaved at Sweet Home, and although Denver was a child when her mother escaped, she lost her sister and nearly perished due to the threat of re-enslavement. If Beloved is read as a singular manifestation of these individual traumas, it only makes sense that each of these characters encounters her in a different way and responds differently to her demanding presence. However, her dual identity as both a ghost and a physical being evokes a strong emotional response from each one, signaling a re-encounter with memories that have been repressed. 

Baby Suggs is the only character who encounters Beloved as a ghost haunting 124, and only for a seemingly short period of time. Indeed, Sethe’s arrival at the house and the subsequent murder of her infant daughter Beloved–the event that triggers the ghost’s presence–precipitate the deterioration of Baby Suggs’ faith and will to live. When Baby Suggs originally leaves Sweet Home, she decides that since slavery has rendered her body useless, she has “nothing left to make a living with but her heart” and begins leading religious ceremonies for her community (Morrison, 102). She seeks to bring light to the world after experiencing a lifetime of hardship, and she becomes a pillar of hope for the masses who come listen to her preach at the Clearing. However, “her faith, her love, her imagination and her great big old heart [begin] to collapse twenty-eight days” after Sethe’s arrival–the day Sethe commits infanticide (Morrison, 104). This decline in Baby Suggs’ mental and physical health may symbolize the destabilizing impacts of trauma and its subsequent triggers.

During the time leading up to her death, Baby Suggs’ only request is to see various colors from the world outside; she is aware that death will bring her no peace, so she uses “the little energy left her for pondering color” (Morrison, 4). For Parker, Baby Suggs’ desire for color in her life is a manifestation of her hysteria. She links the way that the ghost of Beloved sucks the energy out of 124 with the way Baby Suggs dies, “starved for color” (Parker, 12). By reading her character as hysterical in the time leading up to her death, it becomes clear that Baby Suggs’ attempts to move forward from the pain of her past ultimately fail because Beloved’s presence stirs up the memories she has tried to repress about the brutality of slavery. The fact that Baby Suggs never encounters Beloved personified may suggest that she dies without fully confronting her traumatic memories. 

Unlike Baby Suggs, Paul D first encounters Beloved as a young woman after she appears outside of 124 the night of the carnival. However, Parker points out that Paul D’s hysteria begins long before he arrives at Sethe’s house–he trembles uncontrollably during his time in prison (Parker, 14). After his escape, Paul D stuffs his painful memories “in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be,” locked deep within himself (Morrison, 86). However, his sexual encounter with Beloved forces the lid of the tin open, revealing the heart that had been hidden away for so long–and the pain that lived within it. Beloved forces Paul D to reckon with memories of his enslavement and, more specifically, its impact on his identity as a man. This reckoning manifests itself in what can be read as another act of hysteria: Paul D surprises himself by asking Sethe to have a baby with him. This proposal comes out of nowhere, but it becomes a solution for Paul D to “document his manhood and break out of the girl’s spell” and ultimately avoid the pain of his past (Morrison, 151). However, his relationship with Sethe soon falls apart as he realizes he cannot avoid Beloved, signaling that he cannot avoid his pain. 

Similarly to Paul D, Denver expresses symptoms of hysteria prior to interacting with Beloved as a young woman. Denver temporarily loses her ability to hear when she is confronted with the fact that her mother killed Beloved and tried to kill her; this sensory loss can be read as a “corporeal manifestation” of her psychosis (Parker, 2). Only when Denver sees Beloved’s hands choking Sethe at the Clearing does she realize that Beloved is the reincarnation of her dead sister, forcing her to confront the memory of her murder. Seeing Beloved’s hands around her mother’s throat evokes a realization in Denver that she would always choose Beloved over her mother. After the incident at the Clearing, Denver expresses fear for her mother; she recalls that when Beloved showed up, she was “ready for [Denver] to protect her” (Morrison, 243). However, despite the way her encounters with Beloved change her relationship with Sethe, Denver ultimately ends up happy at the end of the novel: she forces herself to interact with her community and ends up hopeful for the future. Denver’s fate–and Paul D’s, as he ends up with Sethe in the end–signifies that the confrontation of a repressed memory can have positive effects. 

The character most clearly impacted by Beloved’s appearance is Sethe, and her hysterical symptoms begin the moment she sees Beloved outside of 124. Upon seeing the young woman, Sethe loses control of her body, runs behind the house, and urinates. At the same time, Beloved has entered the house and Paul D and Denver watch her as she drinks “cup after cup of water” (Morrison, 61). This is just the beginning of Sethe and Beloved’s give-and-take relationship; throughout the novel, Beloved consumes Sethe and takes everything she has to give. Parker points to Beloved’s insatiable hunger–and Sethe’s selflessness–as clear manifestations of hysteria, of the fact that for both characters, “nothing can make reparation for [Beloved’s] death” (Parker, 5). As Sethe is “licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved’s eyes,” she grows weaker because she is desperate to repent for killing her daughter and she sees Beloved’s reincarnation as a chance to make up for what she has done. 

As Sethe grows weaker and gives more of herself to Beloved, she becomes increasingly hysterical; her experience towards the end of the novel where she loses her job and locks herself inside of 124 with Beloved “epitomizes the debilitating effects of the hysteric haunting of the present by the past” (Parker, 13). Denver begins to realize how destructive her mother’s hysterics are; she reflects it being “as though her mother had lost her mind, like Grandma Baby calling for pink and not doing the things she used to” (Morrison, 282). Unlike Baby Suggs, however, Sethe does not deteriorate and die–the women in the community come together to exorcise Beloved from 124. Parker points to this scene as a healing one because Sethe is able to re-experience the conditions that led to her daughter’s death; when Bodwin approaches the house “the same way that schoolteacher approached to recapture his slaves… Sethe chooses a different course of action… instead of trying to protect her children by killing them, she flies at Bodwin with an ice pick” (Parker, 13). 

It is through this moment of action–one of the most jarring acts of hysteria in the novel–that Beloved is removed from the house and Sethe’s guilt becomes less all-consuming: she has proven to herself that she will do anything to protect her children, and that she has learned from the regrets of her past. Ultimately, her encounter with Beloved has forced Sethe to come to terms with the pain she has repressed for eighteen years. Although it is clear that she will never forget Beloved, nor will she ever completely forgive herself, Sethe grows willing to move forward with Paul D at the end of the novel. Sethe will become her own “best thing,” signifying an understanding of her traumatic past and the desire to move forward with it.

Although Beloved’s presence evokes different memories–and triggers various hysterical symptoms–from each of the inhabitants of 124, Parker emphasizes the importance of community in overcoming past traumas. Beloved is only exorcised from the house once the group of women comes together to remove her, which supports the idea that her character can be read as an indication of mass hysteria among a broken community. Parker ultimately concludes that “if the ghost [of Beloved] can be read as a shared hysterical symptom, this implies that ‘rememory’ must be a communal project for peace to be established” (Parker, 15). However, despite the fact that the book ends with a resolution–the removal of Beloved and the reunion of both family and community–it is unclear whether or not peace can ever be established in the process of remembering and memorializing the experiences of slaves. If Beloved represents the “Sixty Million and more to whom the book is so movingly dedicated,” we cannot accept her absence as permanent because in the case of so many unnamed slaves, memory is all there is. 

Works Cited: 

Parker, Emma. “A New Hystery: History and Hysteria in Toni Morrison’s Beloved”. Twentieth-Century Literature, vol 47, no. 1, 2001, pp. 1-16. 

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Random House, Inc., 1987.

Mothers of Massive Resistance: A Review

By Emily Spezia-Shwiff

            Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae focuses on the movement white women founded during the 20thcentury to resist desegregation. Gillespie McRae argues that white women decided to advocate for preservation of segregated schools for the sake of their children, invoking white motherhood as the source of their inspiration and tool of resistance. She states that previous scholarship looked at resistance to the desegregation movement top-down, focusing on the legislative and judicial system rather than the grassroots massive resistance movement. White women were key players in both fields but were especially prominent and essential in the grassroots movement. 

Gillespie McRae cites the stories and words of many women through her book, including Florence Sillers Ogden, Mary Dawson Cain, Cornelia Dabney Tucker, and Nell Battle Lewis (236). These women, especially Florence Sillers Ogden, wrote many newspaper columns that illustrate their points of the rhetoric of massive resistance. Gillespie McRae shows how white women relied on the public school system to educate her children on the principles of white supremacy and to teach them how to act as the superior race in their everyday lives.

            A large part of Gillespie McRae’s argument is that white women “defend[ed] segregation in the name of white motherhood” (133). She argues that white southern women leaders used “white motherhood” to convince other women to join their movement. They also used the concept to justify their actions to themselves and the public. These actions included regulating how history was portrayed in the public school textbooks (naming the Civil War as the “War among the States,” claiming that the cause of the war was disagreements over states’ rights, putting a lot of the blame of the war on Abraham Lincoln, limiting the amount of Black history present, etc.), resisting school integration, and later resisting the busing movement. These women believed that segregation was God’s will (Gillespie McRae 171) and that they must defend it to follow that will and to protect their children. They resisted through public protest, petitions, in-person appeals to the legislature, campaigning for electoral candidates, and writing newspaper essays and editorial letters advocating the preservation of segregation. These efforts were considerable, affecting the landscape of the South and the ability to implement desegregation.

            While Gillespie McRae does a good job of detailing the white mothers’ movement, she fails to consider the role of Black motherhood and how this movement affected Black families. She left out the voice of Black mothers. Gillespie McRae does discuss how the moment affected Black history, such as the manipulation of textbooks to erase Black history (Gillespie McRae 58), but she does not discuss how Black families reacted to this movement and how/if they responded. Though this book focuses on white mother’s resistance to desegregation, it would have added a layer to her narrative to include how Black mothers reacted to this movement and whether they acted. It is unlikely that Black women watched these protests without any response. Considering how vocal Black people were in discussing Brown v Board of Education, both in print and in speeches, it is unlikely they did not engage with the white mothers’ protest of massive resistance.

A Gathering of Creative Minds

To begin the year, we gathered together to meditate on the life and work of Shirley Graham Du Bois, dramatist, composer, writer, and political activist who took the world by storm as the first African American woman to compose and stage an opera. The gathering featured renowned scholars in African American women’s intellectual history to consider her scholarly work and revisit her librettos, plays, novels, and letters. Larger than life, Shirley Graham Du Bois channeled an energy of unparalleled ambition and creative genius. We merely touched the surface with a breathtaking performance of her work, the launch of a interactive digital book (featured in the projects section of this site) and an exhibit of her life and work.