Black Resistance and Lynching Memory: An Interview with Mari N. Crabtree Part II

Memorial Corridor at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama (Wikimedia Commons)

Today’s post is the second part of Black Perspectives’ regular contributor, Menika Dirkson interview of Mari N. Crabtree on her most recent book publication, My Soul Is a Witness: The Traumatic Afterlife of Lynching (Yale University Press, 2022). You can read part 1 of the interview here. 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 book, you discuss how looking through the sensibility of the blues offers a window into how Black people have processed, managed, and lived with trauma. How do artistic interpretations of lynching like singer Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” provide both a humanizing Black perspective on racial violence and express collective trauma outside of the white gaze?

Mari N. Crabtree(MNC): In Chapters 4 and 5, I talk quite directly about visual arts. One of the interventions this book makes is to think more critically about the resistance paradigm within Black studies. There is a tendency to reduce Black life to either suffering or resistance when there are vast amounts of living that happens in between. Art tends to capture that vastness in between the two. I’ve read protest broadly to include mourning and remembrance. One piece is a painting by Jacob Lawrence. It’s a figure in a barren landscape that’s bent over and looks to be crying, and there’s one branch that splits the top part of the frame, which has a noose hanging from it. What I think is so beautiful (and the way it relates to the blues) is there’s the absence of the body, so there’s no gratuitousness to his depiction of Black death. You know someone has died because the noose is enough to tell you someone has been lynched, but the focus is on mourning, and mourning itself is about love. Mourning is about remembering the person whose absence you feel and so that image depicts what the blues are really about, which is, finding a way to make it through these terrible times. That painting centers the Black world without the white gaze and without Black death in the picture, even though death provides the context for the painting. It depicts mourning as a protest against the seemingly all-encompassing power of white supremacy by keeping whiteness out of the frame. The artwork in the book, which includes a sculpture by Richmond Barthé, decenters the white mob and the dead body. I think about mourning and love as a form of reclaiming oneself, one’s community and family. That’s a really important element to the blues sensibility since much of the work of the blues is done in a separate space from the white world. Protest also includes taking it to the streets and the work of Ida B. Wells to end lynching and what the NAACP did to lobby Congress to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, but we also need to think more broadly about protest in terms of mourning.

(MD): How does your book provide the historical and cultural context for white readers and scholars to comprehend Black fear, rage, revenge, silence, trauma, spirituality, mourning, and healing around the issues of white supremacy and racial violence?

(MNC): The tendency to reduce Black responses to one or two of these things is part of the problem with the perception of the Black experience around trauma and violence. Even within an individual who is surviving lynching there isn’t only one thing they feel or one way they respond. They might be feeling both rage and sadness. They might not talk about what they survived with their families because they don’t want to pass on the trauma to their children and grandchildren. But, in other circumstances, they might talk about it, complain, be angry, afraid, and vulnerable. What I’ve done in this book is only possible because of other books that do a wonderful job of thinking about questions I don’t have to engage in much detail: Why did white people do this? What were the broader patterns of lynching throughout the South? How many people were lynched? Those quantitative questions have been well documented, so that’s not what I’m concerned with in my book. Instead, I wanted to think in terms of lynching memories that continue to have meaning over many decades so I could recover and tell whole stories in depth. This also allowed me to draw a wider frame around the temporality of lynching—to extend it beyond the moment lynch mobs formed and the moment they dispersed by centering Black memories of lynching. Within the same family you have different kinds of silences and protests. They’re haunted in different ways. The book captures the nuances of Black trauma responses, but also how Black communities and families moved through and beyond the trauma of lynching.

(MD): In your book, you suggest that scholars who write about racial violence must be careful that their goal to write the “unvarnished truth” does not cross the line into salacity and the reproduction of violence. How does your book offer ethical approaches to documenting graphic racial violence for scholars who write about slavery and police brutality?

(MNC): If you’re writing a book about rituals of violence, you can’t avoid the violence itself completely. However, if you are mentioning that somebody was lynched but you’re mostly talking about other aspects of their life, you don’t have to go into the fine-grain detail of every horrid thing that happened. Aaron Sachs, one of the series editors, helped me find ways to deal with this narrative challenge. He said, “You described the Mary Turner lynching, which is absolutely gruesome and horrible. You only have to do it once. You don’t have to mention what the circumstances were again.” Being sensitive to not unnecessarily replicating the violence is one thing you can do. Also, language really matters. Who are the subjects of our sentences when we’re writing about lynching? I definitely push some limits when it comes to the ways I imagine the past, but I think it’s important narratively to speculate about what the person may have experienced or may have felt. We don’t know for sure because they’re dead, but centering the person who was lynched is important. The other thing I do in the book is surround them with their people and not just the lynch mob and what it did. I talk about who they [lynched persons] were, who loved them, who they loved, and what they were like when they were alive. Sometimes you can’t do that because the historical evidence isn’t there, but you can move in that direction. For example, with Mary Turner I had the great honor of being able to interview her great-granddaughter, Audrey Grant. Mary Turner’s daughter, Leaster Grant, was her grandmother, whom she grew up with, so I could talk about Mary Turner’s children and what they were like and how they processed their grief and trauma. I used those insights to provide a sense of who the Turners’ children were beyond the lynching. Both of Leaster Grant’s parents, Hayes and Mary Turner, were lynched in 1918. I certainly think of her as a person who survived that horrific set of lynchings in Georgia, but also as someone who had this whole other life ahead of her. Her [Leaster Grant’s] granddaughter told me about how she used to sing spirituals wildly out of tune while doing housework, how she loved tending to her garden, and when her brother came to visit she would make all his favorite foods. There was this richness that I could excavate about her. I didn’t reduce her to victimhood, and I think that’s really important.

(MD): I’ve read that your next book project is Shuffling Like Uncle Tom, Thinking Like Nat Turner: Humor, Deception, and Irony in the African American Cultural Tradition. What can readers expect to learn from this future work?

(MNC): This is a project that is a cousin, or maybe a second cousin, of Chapter 3, which is about haunting and includes several ghost stories. I am interested in deception in terms of its political utility for undermining white supremacy and other systems of oppression. When we talk about abolitionists and activists, we often think about them in terms of direct sincere moral appeals. There’s another side of undermining and subverting white supremacy that’s more deceptive and can provide more protection because it’s indirect, more cloaked. This protection comes in the form of plausible deniability. Subversion is carried out on the sly, so it also provides pleasure, satisfaction, and joy because of the ingenuity it takes to pull it off. There’s great value in exploring both the political utility and pleasures of subversion via deception, in part because of the dangerous times we live in. In the next book, I’ll look at sabotage, lies, masks, satire, humor, and other forms of deception that are central to African American culture and history but haven’t always been in our conversations about combating injustice. I’m not quite wedded to the title, but that’s where I want to go.

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Menika Dirkson

Menika Dirkson is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Morgan State University. She received her Ph.D. in History from Temple University while her M.A. in History and B.A. in History, Latin American Studies, and Cultural Studies are from Villanova University. She has received grants from the Philadelphia Foundation and Thomas Jefferson University’s Arlen Specter Center for her research on police-Black community relations in Philadelphia following the Civil Rights Era. Dirkson’s research and writing have appeared in articles for the Urban History Association’s The Metropole and the Washington Post. She is currently working on a book entitled, Hope and Struggle in the Policed City: The Rise of Black Criminalization and Resistance in Philadelphia. You can follow her on Twitter @Philadelphian91.