"A Different Kind of 'Strange Fruit': Lynching Drama, African American Identity, and U.S. Culture, 1890-1935"

Thumbnail Image


umi-umd-2901.pdf (1.23 MB)
No. of downloads: 2613

Publication or External Link






Since November 1999, the book and exhibition Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America has made nearly 100 pictures of mutilated victims readily available. These images convince Americans that we can plainly see the destruction that mobs caused and encourage us to overlook the disadvantages of equating lynching with the hanging body--what Billie Holiday called "strange fruit." My work argues that we not blindly accept the corpse as the ultimate symbol of racial terrorism by taking seriously the antilynching plays that African Americans wrote in the midst of mob violence (that is, before 1935).

The dramatists insisted upon the body's inability to represent the horror of lynching. Rather than describe the crimes perpetrated on America's trees, telephone poles, and bridges, the genre takes us inside black homes where widows and orphans survive only to suffer. Thus, it is clear that the violence continues long after the corpse has disintegrated and that the home itself is a lynched body. When a father is torn from the family, the household is "castrated" and its head removed. (None of the plays mentions women lynch victims.)

Yet, the scripts do not merely protest racial violence; they also affirm racial pride. African Americans understood that black identity was vulnerable to the power of representation, especially when technology was making the distribution of negative images more efficient. At the turn of the century, blacks proclaimed themselves sophisticated, modern citizensand they knew that mainstream messages to the contrary frequently caused--but more often did more damage than--physical assaults. So, even as recorded lynchings declined in the 1920s, black-authored lynching plays proliferated, in order to address the dehumanizing violence inherent in how the race was represented in America.

In five chapters, this project examines why lynching drama emerged, develops a theoretical framework for understanding the plays, offers close readings of ten plays by black women and three by black men, grapples with the fact that most black-authored lynching dramas were not professionally produced, and argues that appreciating the genre requires complicating our understanding of theatrical value.