Author Kidada E. Williams
The slaying of Trayvon Martin brings to mind centuries of racial violence and white supremacy in America. Physical force by whites against blacks, including beatings, burnings, rapes, whippings and murders, accompanied every step of racial change from slavery to emancipation and from Jim Crow to desegregation.
In 1919, the black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois explained that racial violence occurred because “too many Negroes are forging beyond the place in which the community thinks they ought to stay; they are evidencing too much prosperity; they are showing new independence in manner and expression; they are accumulating property.” In his classic essay “The Souls of White Folk” (1920), Du Bois proclaimed: “For two or more centuries America has marched proudly in the van of human hatred,– making bonfires of human flesh and laughing at them hideously, and making the insulting of millions more than a matter of dislike,–rather a great religion.”
Though scholars have painstakingly documented and interpreted strains of racial violence in American history, Kidada E. Williams, who teaches at Wayne State University, offers an important and fresh perspective on what Du Bois termed blacks’ “descent to hell.”
Focusing on racial violence from emancipation through the establishment of the NAACP’s anti-lynching crusade of the 1920s and 1930s, she analyzes the broad cultural, political and social meaning of blacks’ testifying about their experiences as victims of racial violence. Williams considers that testimony “an underappreciated form of resistance to white supremacy,” one that fashioned a “vernacular history” of racial violence.
In the post-emancipation era, white Southerners sought to return the freed people to the status of semi-slaves. To do so they subjected them to horrific terror in the form of night riding, lynching, massacring and rioting. Though some blacks remained traumatized by such acts, others took bold steps, risking their lives and their credibility “to recover their agency and resist violence by proclaiming their trauma to strangers.”
They did so by testifying before Army officials, Freedmen’s Bureau agents and courts, at congressional hearings, in autobiographies and in letters to officials. Williams interprets such acts as “resisting violence discursively.” They forced whites to “bear witness to black people’s suffering from racial violence” and helped “recruit allies to their campaigns to end violence and advance civil rights reform.”
In May 1871, for example, night riders broke into Mary Brown’s home in White County, Ga., convinced that she was withholding evidence regarding the murder of a white man. After whipping her husband, Joe, until he was incapacitated, the men turned to Mary, stripping and whipping her. She testified before congressmen that the attackers “left great marks on me.” Williams suspects that her assailants’ true motive was to retaliate against Joe, who had outbid a white man for the land on which his family lived.
Seven years later Alfred Blount, former Republican state senator from Natchitoches, La., armed himself to the teeth and fought off white Democrats who sought to assassinate him. Testifying before a Senate committee, Blount insisted: “No two or 3, or fifty, can contend with an organization in northern Louisiana who are in opposition to the Republican party. I will tell you that it will require the U.S. Army.”
Over generations, Williams concludes, such testimony coalesced into a multilayered “transcript of violence, terror, and suffering that later campaigns against racial violence suggest became embedded into the social memory of black people.” Those who testified against racial violence “helped African Americans and the nation edge closer to the Promised Land of full citizenship rights and participation in American life.”
That destination, as Trayvon Martin’s case seems to suggest, remains elusive.