Race, Rape, and Lynching: The Red Record of American Literature, 1890-1912.
In this literary study of racial violence, Sandra Gunning explores the work of both black and white writers as public discourse influencing the construction of racial, gendered, and national identities. Focusing on late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century texts by Mark Twain, Thomas Dixon, Charles Chesnutt, Ida B. Wells, Pauline Hopkins, Kate Chopin, and David Bryant Fulton, Gunning reveals how their work both reinforced and resisted prevailing "malignant images of black masculinity" and thereby contributed to the continual re-negotiation of the terms and boundaries of a national dialogue on racial violence. Gunning uses the idea of the black male brute as the initiating concept for her study, since she sees the "hypersexualized and criminalized" black male body as "a crucial and heavily overdetermined metaphor in an evolving national discourse on the nature of a multiethnic, multiracial American society."
Gunning's method of analysis draws from the previous scholarship of Trudier Harris, Hazel Carby, Elsa Barkley Brown, and Claudia Tate as she integrates the categories of race, class, and gender to reveal complex and at times contradictory readings that locate the selected texts in a dialectical relationship to each other. Moving beyond critical approaches that categorize texts as "racist or anti-racist," she seeks out moments of conflict around gender and racial identities in the interest of providing a clearer understanding of turn-of-the-century literature on racial violence.
Gunning argues that Thomas Dixon's popular race novels are mostly expressions of "a profound anxiety over the maintenance of a stable white identity" and less a register of popular white supremacy triumph over African Americans. Although Charles Chesnutt wrote in opposition to the white supremacist forces represented by Dixon, Gunning argues that Chesnutt's redemption of blackness occurs at the expense of women and that his adherence to the values of male heroism are built on a pattern of female silencing. While Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) challenges white supremacist discourse on rape and white womanhood, it simultaneously sustains the stereotype of black female promiscuity. Kate Chopin's work challenges white supremacy, "but only enough to liberate her white heroines." The breadth and depth of Gunning's analyses result in refreshing readings that reflect the complex relationship between race and gender in American literature.
The works of Wells, Hopkins, and Fulton are seen as initiating an alternative dialogue that addressed the rape of black women in the political context of Post-Reconstruction and the narrow interpretation of mob violence as solely the lynching of black men. These works also reveal both the unity and conflicts that emerged within the black community in attempting to confront lynching and rape. While Fulton's 1900 novel Hanover celebrates self-sacrificing black females, Hopkins's Contending Forces, from the same year, demonstrates that patriarchy is not exclusively white. Wells's famous anti-lynching pamphlets, such as A Red Record (1895), which Gunning's title purposely echoes, are examined as important contributions to a redefinition of virtuous black womanhood that included social activism as well as political statements against lynching. Through her readings Gunning suggests ways in which the study of both race and gender can be integrated within the framing of racialized culture as well as women's literature.
Despite the book's title, Gunning spends very little time dealing with representations of rape and lynching but focuses instead on the literary reinforcement of, or alternatives to, the stereotypes (black male brute, helpless white female victim, promiscuous black female, white male avenger) that commonly supported white mob violence against African Americans. These constructed identities that facilitated lynching were repeated or refuted by both black and white writers who influenced public discourse on race and worked to reinvent ideas of "blackness" and/or "whiteness" at the turn of the century.
Gunning's innovative interpretations are fascinating to read and well-argued. She bases her readings on structural elements such as patterns of characterization and plot devices as well as on postmodern approaches that identify moments of conflict and contradiction within and between texts.
Gunning ends her book with a plea for expanding the dialogue between African Americanist and Americanist scholars who, with a few exceptions, she sees as currently inhabiting separate camps. She proposes a project of "interrogating whiteness and complicating blackness" in which scholars may begin to conceptualize a national history and literature as "multiple narratives in simultaneous operation." This is certainly a worthy project, as long as those engaged maintain a consciousness that is aware of both the danger of diluting the African American political project (and literary/artistic criticism's place in that project) and the necessity of understanding "race" as a social construct in the United States. I would add that dramas and performances which address race and racial violence should be included in such a project.
Overall, Gunning's book is a valuable contribution to the study of race and racial violence in American literature. The book relies on the language of poststructuralism but uses it in an accessible way and, thus, is valuable for both faculty and students in African American Studies, American Studies, Women's Studies, and Cultural Studies.
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|Author:||Stephens, Judith L.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
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