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28. Lynching and Burning Rituals in African-American Literature

TRUDIER HARRIS-LOPEZ


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In August of 1997, three white men in Elk Creek, Virginia, poured gasoline on a black man and burned him to death. That summary justice, or lynching, along with the dragging death of James Byrd in June 1998 in Jasper, Texas, are the most recent in almost two hundred years of such violence against persons of African descent upon American soil. For observers who believed the practice had ended in the United States, the 1997 incident brought back thoughts of the 1890s, the peak years for lynching in this country. In 1892, 1893 and 1894, an average of two hundred black people were lynched each year. Indeed, it could be argued that lynching almost became a nationally sanctioned pastime, for even in the years in which most deaths occurred, it was impossible to get national legislation passed to condemn or terminate the practice. The Dyer Anti-Lynching bill, which had several sponsors and was presented in Congress on repeated occasions, was never made into law. How could lynching be outlawed, so the logic ran, when black men were still prone to rape white women? Accusations of rape, which were the most emotional cause of mob-inspired lynchings (though other presumed crimes were more numerous), were frequently the incentive that creative artists used to shape their depictions of lynchings. As creators who drew their subject matter from the substance of the lives of the people about whom ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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