Manhood Matters: Lynching and the Politics of Constructed Masculinities

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Title: Manhood Matters: Lynching and the Politics of Constructed Masculinities
Author: Wilder, Blake Aaron
Advisors: Jon Thompson, Committee Chair
Anne Baker, Committee Member
Milton Welch, Committee Member
Abstract: This study utilizes lynching as the focal point of a methodological approach to re-examine the language of American culture and several canonical works of literature from the lynching era. The emphasis on symbolic values of the ritualized lynching event organizes theories of race, gender, and violence and provides an approach to decode the social constructions and literary representations that are based on the structural consequences of the ideological usage of lynching as a force of terror. The lynching era, the ninety-year period from 1877 to the mid-1960s, begins with the collapse of Reconstruction that allowed lynching to emerge as means to reaffirm the destabilized white patriarchal power of slavery and ends when the Voting Rights Act finally reversed the direct political disenfranchisement that was, perhaps, the most restrictive social consequence of the violence of lynching. The direct connection between lynching and the destabilized power structures of slavery is often overlooked because the rise of lynching is commonly associated with the great surge of lynching murders in the 1890s and separated from slavery by the intervening period of Reconstruction. Looking at key works of American literature, through the interpretive lens of lynching as a metaphor, can serve the double purpose of illuminating the history of lynching in American culture and of uncovering a deeper meaning within the texts themselves. Chapter one approaches Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with a theoretical understanding of lynching as an ideological terror that is both racial and sexual to reveal a reflective historical trajectory embodied in the fluctuating masculinity of Jim. Moving from the subordinate masculinity of slavery to a full character of fatherly affection and protection on the river, Jim’s forced return to the minstrel caricature under the romantic machinations of Tom Sawyer connects slavery to active re-imposition of racial hierarchies through the symbolic masculinities created in the ritual of castration and lynching. Chapter two examines the intricate narrative juxtapositions and an exponentially complex use of symbolism of William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses to foreground a vast potential to expose and critique the lasting effects of the lynching era. Born in 1898, just one year after Plessy v. Ferguson and the institutionalization of “separate but equal†gave legal credibility to growing racial segregation, William Faulkner grew up in a world of indoctrinated racial difference and the continued presence of lynching, and much of his fiction is concerned with understanding the roots of Southern racism. This study utilizes lynching as the focal point of a methodological approach to re-examine the language of American culture and several canonical works of literature from the lynching era. The emphasis on the symbolic values of the ritualized lynching event organizes theories of race, gender, and violence and provides an approach to decode the social constructions and literary representations that are based on the structural consequences of the ideological usage of lynching as a force of terror. The lynching era, the ninety-year period from 1877 to the mid-1960s, begins with the collapse of Reconstruction that allowed lynching to emerge as means to reaffirm the destabilized white patriarchal power of slavery and ends when the Voting Rights Act finally reversed the direct political disenfranchisement that was, perhaps, the most restrictive social consequence of the violence of lynching. The direct connection between lynching and the destabilized power structures of slavery is often overlooked because the rise of lynching is commonly associated with the great surge of lynching murders in the 1890s and separated from slavery by the intervening period of Reconstruction. Looking at key works of American literature, through the interpretive lens of lynching as a metaphor, can serve the double purpose of illuminating the history of lynching in American culture and of uncovering a deeper meaning within the texts themselves. Chapter one approaches Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with a theoretical understanding of lynching as an ideological terror that is both racial and sexual to reveal a reflective historical trajectory embodied in the fluctuating masculinity of Jim. Moving from the subordinate masculinity of slavery to a full character of fatherly affection and protection on the river, Jim’s forced return to the minstrel caricature under the romantic machinations of Tom Sawyer connects slavery to active re-imposition of racial hierarchies through the symbolic masculinities created in the ritual of castration and lynching. Chapter two examines the intricate narrative juxtapositions and an exponentially complex use of symbolism of William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses to foreground a vast potential to expose and critique the lasting effects of the lynching era. Born in 1898, just one year after Plessy v. Ferguson and the institutionalization of “separate but equal†gave legal credibility to growing racial segregation, William Faulkner grew up in a world of indoctrinated racial difference and the continued presence of lynching, and much of his fiction is concerned with understanding the roots of Southern racism. Chapter three looks to James Baldwin’s 1965 short-story, “Going to Meet the Man,†to illustrate not only the social constructions that were spawned by the rise of lynching but also the dynamics that allowed them to be so long misunderstood. By employing a sequential structure of retrospective investigation, Baldwin is able to trace the rigid racial categories of the segregated society back to lynching as the symbolic representation (as well as the physical manifestation) of the desire to destroy black masculinity and empower white patriarchy. Most importantly, by featuring a literal lynching event and incorporating the coded symbolic values of the segregated society, “Going to Meet the Man†becomes a representational illustration of the structures and consequences of lynching.
Date: 2008-12-05
Degree: MA
Discipline: English
URI: http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/resolver/1840.16/1506


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