Black Perspectives’ regular contributor, Menika Dirkson, interviews Mari N. Crabtree on her most recent book publication, My Soul Is a Witness: The Traumatic Afterlife of Lynching (Yale University Press, 2022). Crabtree is an associate professor of African American Studies at the College of Charleston. She also has published essays in Raritan: A Quarterly Review, Rethinking History, Contemporaries, Chronicle of Higher Education, and elsewhere.
Menika Dirkson (MD): In your new book, My Soul Is a Witness: The Traumatic Afterlife of Lynching, you mention how trauma studies are greatly shaped by analyses of the Holocaust. What shared racial experiences do you see in the histories of Jewish Europeans and African Americans that inspire your research, writing, and activism in documenting lynching memory in America?
Mari N. Crabtree (MNC): There are several areas of overlap between Holocaust studies and African American studies as they relate to trauma studies, but there are some important differences, too. One of the interventions this book makes is to point out the ways we should theorize trauma in the African American context specifically. Some of the similarities between the trauma of the Holocaust and the trauma of lynching are in the way trauma works on the psychological level. Trauma itself is a response to a traumatic event, so not everyone who witnesses a traumatic event is necessarily traumatized. Trauma is something that occurs in the aftermath of the event. It’s something that most survivors don’t have control over, especially when the trauma will reappear. It’s something that often intrudes upon the present. So they experience the collapsing of past and present, and you certainly see that phenomenon in Holocaust survivors and survivors of lynching as well. Memories of trauma often intrude in unwelcome ways. The pain itself is manifested in similar ways in both cases because there’s often similar harm being done. But post-1945 West Germany is not the same as the Jim Crow South or even the post-Civil Rights era in the South. In Germany, you had reparations. Criminal trials of Nazis. Memorials to those who were killed and those who survived the Holocaust. You have public conversations about this history, whereas, in the United States, there hasn’t been that kind of self-reflection. That is an important distinction between the two contexts that requires a different theorization. The other difference is the African American experience is very different from the European Jewish experience. I use the blues as the central metaphor in understanding African American trauma because I want to center Black culture, the Black experience, Black communities, and the ways Black families deal with trauma. Although I do draw upon Holocaust Studies, we need to think in slightly different ways about the African American experience and trauma.
MD: In the past, books like Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynching and museum exhibits like James Allen’s Without Sanctuary have documented the graphic nature of lynching with newspaper clippings and postcards in what some have described as uncritical and voyeuristic. How does your book parallel the philosophy of scholars like Dora Apel and Michael Eric Dyson in narrating this difficult history without committing the offense of double victimization?
MNC: Scholars, artists, and activists have chosen to use images of violence to protest and bring awareness to lynching. Apel situates the use of that imagery in the particular contexts in which it’s being used. For example, Mamie Till-Mobley showing her son Emmett Till’s disfigured body in Chicago in a public viewing and then publishing images of his body was a direct response to what was going on in 1955. The ways we consume that image in 2022 are going to be different and situated in our particular historical context. There has often been an impulse to show the violence inflicted on Black people because of what amounts to society-wide gaslighting of Black people. [To show the violence] says this is real and a photograph, which is typically seen as an objective and concrete representation of what has happened, is much harder to refute. We see a similar thing happening with the police videos of the murders of Eric Garner and Walter Scott. There’s a political importance to having those images and videos available because of rampant white denial and inaction. I think these videos shock the conscience, or at least they should. That’s why the NAACP used lynching photographs to get anti-lynching legislation passed in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s.
There’s a very good reason for people sometimes showing violent images, but there also needs to be thoughtfulness and care in how we depict the violence of lynching in images and through the written word.
I am well aware of the existence of people out there who don’t want to confront the history of lynching and will deny it, but that’s not who I’m writing for. Whether lynching happened or whether lynching was immoral are not questions I engage with, so the need to show the gruesomeness of the violence in my book is less critical. There are descriptions of violence, especially in the first chapter of the book, and I have grappled with how to depict violence and do it in a way that’s ethical. As scholars, we must contend with this desire to unearth, tell, and reveal stories. On the other hand, we should think seriously about privacy and whether we are re-inflicting harm through what we write and how we write it. There’s the matter of preserving the dignity of people who were killed and the families that survived them. Those two impulses can seem to be in direct conflict with one another because you don’t want to give the impression that lynching wasn’t as horrible as it was by not talking about the violence. You also don’t want to glorify the violence or re-scribe the violence. Thinking about the people I am writing for was critical for tempering the tendency to overdo the violence.
MD: How have the writings of novelists like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison guided you in conducting research in the archives and the geographic sites of violence, along with the questions you ask survivors (and their kin) who have memories of lynching?
MNC: I’m really glad you asked this question because, too often, there is a hard and fast boundary drawn between what literature is doing and what scholars, especially historians, are up to. For my [interdisciplinary] project, my engagement with literature in this project began with a question from the poet on my [History PhD] committee, who asked how literature could aid in my understanding of history. What that question prompted was a framework for my dissertation and, later, for the book that followed. James Baldwin’s short story, “Going to Meet the Man,” talks about memory and lynching. He’s specifically looking at white Southern memories of lynching and how that manifests and shapes white Southerners’ reactions to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Reading this short story prompted me to consider how a historian could reveal the legacies of lynching in the archives and whether the depth and nuance of Baldwin’s short story could be achieved by a historian using different kinds of tools. Baldwin could create an interiority to his characters. As a scholar, I have to actually know what someone has said and thought, so these are certainly very different kinds of writing. Novels, like those by Baldwin or Toni Morrison, offer insights into the human condition through creativity and dexterity with language that is enviable for most nonfiction writers.
The beauty with which they capture the realities of the human condition have always inspired me. Take, for example, Beloved by Toni Morrison; the way she talks about love and family in spite of being haunted by slavery is something that informed my thinking. There’s a lot I pull from Morrison and Baldwin because of their incredible ability to speak about horrific things that have happened and what it says about humanity that Black people have lived beyond these traumas and said yes to life. Baldwin and Morrison helped me think through how intergenerational dynamics work—how to think about the passage of memories and the refusal to pass on memories. In Beloved, what Sethe tells Denver protects her daughter [Denver] from the worst of slavery. I see a similar thing happening within these Black Southern families around lynching, where children are not told about what happened to their great-uncle because their parents and grandparents don’t want to harm the children. They don’t want children to know all of what white people are capable of doing to Black people. They often don’t want children to hate white people. In several oral histories, people said, “My parents didn’t tell me because they knew I would be so angry that I might do something that would get me killed.”
Another aspect of Morrison I drew upon is the way she talks about place—the landscapes of trauma. Sethe tells Denver she can never go to Sweet Home, the plantation where she had been enslaved. Even if every blade of grass and every tree and all the buildings are gone, the memory of the horrors of what happened there would still be waiting for her. There was a way in which, in my study of the afterlife of lynching, memories, in a sense, clung to spaces, places, and landscapes. I visited many lynching sites. I talked to people who grew up in these towns and walked by these places their whole life. These spaces continued to be inhabited by those memories long after a body was taken down, long after the mob dispersed, long after anyone who was still alive at the time could tell you about it.permission.