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Deadly Theatre: Ethnicity as a Script for Violence
Unformatted Document Text:  might also use their pages to criticize law enforcement for the lack of timely response to the alleged crimes committed . At the appointed hour, people would gather by the hundreds and even thousands at a carefully chosen site. Some in the crowd would make room so that women and children could get a good view. The line between spectator and participant might sometimes blur, as when crowds demand certain actions, such as burning the victim alive slowly, or when spectators themselves take part in the activities, by helping to feed the fire, for example, so it does not go out, even after the victim has died. After the victim’s death, the body might be hung up on a tree or left at the place of the lynching. Spectators then scramble to cut off body parts to take home as treasured keepsakes or to hawk as valuable “souvenirs.” 4 As this sketch indicates, it was not enough simply to kill the victim; lynchings often entailed much more than the physical murder of the victim. Applying a performative lens helps us to resolve this puzzle. As the following analysis shows, killing was not enough because the power of lynching did not reside in the larger purpose the violence served (to effect social control, for example); it also lied in the power of lynchings to express and generate specific ideas about what it meant to be white” and “black.” A performative lens does not assume “white” and “black” as givens, but treats them both as contingent categories that actors act out through different performances. Like all social categories, “white” and “black” did not exist as timeless and stable categories, but remained open to reinterpretation and reformulation. Emancipation and reconstruction threatened to upend the system of white supremacy that formed the basis for these categories. During this period of profound change, actors used violence to instantiate new ideas of what it meant to be “white” and “black” and to make those ideas real. 4 For an analysis of the practice of souvenir taking by spectators, see Young . 14

Authors: Fujii, Lee Ann.
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might also use their pages to criticize law enforcement for the lack of timely response to
the alleged crimes committed . At the appointed hour, people would gather by the
hundreds and even thousands at a carefully chosen site. Some in the crowd would make
room so that women and children could get a good view. The line between spectator and
participant might sometimes blur, as when crowds demand certain actions, such as
burning the victim alive slowly, or when spectators themselves take part in the activities,
by helping to feed the fire, for example, so it does not go out, even after the victim has
died. After the victim’s death, the body might be hung up on a tree or left at the place of
the lynching. Spectators then scramble to cut off body parts to take home as treasured
keepsakes or to hawk as valuable “souvenirs.
As this sketch indicates, it was not enough simply to kill the victim; lynchings
often entailed much more than the physical murder of the victim. Applying a performative
lens helps us to resolve this puzzle. As the following analysis shows, killing was not
enough because the power of lynching did not reside in the larger purpose the violence
served (to effect social control, for example); it also lied in the power of lynchings to
express and generate specific ideas about what it meant to be white” and “black.”
A performative lens does not assume “white” and “black” as givens, but treats
them both as contingent categories that actors act out through different performances.
Like all social categories, “white” and “black” did not exist as timeless and stable
categories, but remained open to reinterpretation and reformulation. Emancipation and
reconstruction threatened to upend the system of white supremacy that formed the basis
for these categories. During this period of profound change, actors used violence to
instantiate new ideas of what it meant to be “white” and “black” and to make those ideas
real.
4
For an analysis of the practice of souvenir taking by spectators, see Young .
14


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