Modern Language Association
Viewing convention Program information from 2009

Session Details

Tuesday, 29 December

556. Literary Calls to Rethink the Iconography of Racial Violence

7:15–8:30 p.m., 305–306, Philadelphia Marriott

A special session

Presiding: Koritha Mitchell, Ohio State Univ., Columbus

Presider's Annotation:
This special session emerges from the energy among scholars whose work in American literature and culture has been shaped by an awareness of our nation’s histories of racist violence. The gruesome images of lynch victims published in 2000 in *Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America* has alerted many to the role that such violence played as the United States marched into modernity, but the importance of the photographs threatens to outweigh literary legacies. This panel foregrounds the interdisciplinary work being done by younger scholars in the field who remain committed to what literature can teach us about the visual archives upon which so many scholars have been relying.

In the past 25 years, research on U.S. racial violence, especially lynching, has dramatically proliferated, and it shows no signs of waning, especially as gruesome images generate interest both inside and outside of the academy. Nearly 100 pictures of lynch victims became readily available with the publication in 2000 of *Without Sanctuary*—a $60 photography book that was printed 6 times in its first 6 years of existence. The photographs have inspired academic conferences on racial violence, major museum exhibitions around the country, and a virtual exhibition on the World Wide Web . Perhaps more remarkably, they led the U.S. Senate to issue in June 2005 a formal apology for having never passed anti-lynching legislation (Resolution 39). The nation’s increasing willingness to acknowledge this history thus seems to coincide with the re-emergence of visual evidence produced by the mob itself, between the 1890s and 1930s. Because whites took many of these pictures, and appear in them (often smiling as they surround black victims), these photographs have gained the status of testimony that simply cannot be ignored.

However, literary scholars have offered some of the most complex engagements with this material because they have tempered readings of the photographs with a keen awareness of the cultural artifacts left by authors who lived and wrote while these pictures originally circulated. Jacqueline Goldsby’s Scarborough Prize-winning study *A Spectacular Secret* is a particularly powerful model of how attention to literary form can illuminate the representational conventions of lynching photography in unexpected ways. In that spirit, this panel examines “Literary Calls to Re-think the Iconography of Racial Violence.”

This session will prioritize having a formal response from Trudier Harris, who wrote *Exorcising Blackness,* the seminal study of lynching in literature that scholars have been building on since 1984. Harris was the formal respondent 5 years ago when Julie Armstrong organized a 2004 special session titled “Literary Responses to Lynching” (session 484 that year). At least 50 people attended in 2004, and this panel taps into the interest that we are sure remains. The chosen panelists represent the most exciting, interdisciplinary advances in the field by using the literary to complicate assumptions about the visual.

1. “Gender, Race, and Public Space in ‘Massacre of East St. Louis’: The Photo-Essay and Collective Memory in Crisis Magazine,” Anne Rice, Lehman Coll., City Univ. of New York

2. “The Black Mother/Wife: Lynching Drama and Its ‘Castrated’ Homes,” Koritha Mitchell

Speaker's Annotation:
This special session emerges from the energy among scholars whose work in American literature and culture has been shaped by an awareness of our nation’s histories of racist violence. The gruesome images of lynch victims published in 2000 in *Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America* has alerted many to the role that such violence played as the United States marched into modernity, but the importance of the photographs threatens to outweigh literary legacies. This panel foregrounds the interdisciplinary work being done by younger scholars in the field who remain committed to what literature can teach us about the visual archives upon which so many scholars have been relying.

In the past 25 years, research on U.S. racial violence, especially lynching, has dramatically proliferated, and it shows no signs of waning, especially as gruesome images generate interest both inside and outside of the academy. Nearly 100 pictures of lynch victims became readily available with the publication in 2000 of *Without Sanctuary*—a $60 photography book that was printed 6 times in its first 6 years of existence. The photographs have inspired academic conferences on racial violence, major museum exhibitions around the country, and a virtual exhibition on the World Wide Web . Perhaps more remarkably, they led the U.S. Senate to issue in June 2005 a formal apology for having never passed anti-lynching legislation (Resolution 39). The nation’s increasing willingness to acknowledge this history thus seems to coincide with the re-emergence of visual evidence produced by the mob itself, between the 1890s and 1930s. Because whites took many of these pictures, and appear in them (often smiling as they surround black victims), these photographs have gained the status of testimony that simply cannot be ignored.

However, literary scholars have offered some of the most complex engagements with this material because they have tempered readings of the photographs with a keen awareness of the cultural artifacts left by authors who lived and wrote while these pictures originally circulated. Jacqueline Goldsby’s Scarborough Prize-winning study *A Spectacular Secret* is a particularly powerful model of how attention to literary form can illuminate the representational conventions of lynching photography in unexpected ways. In that spirit, this panel examines “Literary Calls to Re-think the Iconography of Racial Violence.”

This session will prioritize having a formal response from Trudier Harris, who wrote *Exorcising Blackness,* the seminal study of lynching in literature that scholars have been building on since 1984. Harris was the formal respondent 5 years ago when Julie Armstrong organized a 2004 special session titled “Literary Responses to Lynching” (session 484 that year). At least 50 people attended in 2004, and this panel taps into the interest that we are sure remains. The chosen panelists represent the most exciting, interdisciplinary advances in the field by using the literary to complicate assumptions about the visual.

3. “The Empty Noose of the Black Arts Era: The Lynching Icon as a Specter of Capital Punishment,” Ursula McTaggart, Wilmington Coll., OH

Respondent: Trudier Harris, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

For abstracts, write to mitchell.717@osu.edu.

No comments have been posted for this session.

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