|Although the violence depicted here seems all in jest, it echoes the very real and widespread use of lynching in post-Civil War America. Lynching served as a form of terrorism to enforce white supremacy well into the 20th century. While such lynchings occurred outside the legal system, that system proved either unwilling or unable to stop them or to prosecute those guilty of murder by lynching. In large part, this was because the white communities involved often supported this activity and would not assist investigations and would not testify or convict the perpetrators in a jury trial. |
For a powerful photographic history of lynching in the late 19th and 20th centuries, see the book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, by James Allen. The Without Sanctuary project also has a website exhibition of its photographs. What this work demonstrates is that for several generations, the extraordinary brutality of lynching was openly embraced by much of society: by the late 19th century, when snapshot cameras became common, onlookers would take photographs that were turned into picture-postcards that they would send to friends and family. Lynchings were therefore a kind of terror as entertainment. For that reason, the image we see here, even although made "in fun," participates in the same discourse where the violent subjugation of Blacks could be seen as a form of amusement. When extraordinary injustice can be seen as funny, that assists in the perpetuation of the injustice, because it means that the community does not take it seriously as the outrage it is.
A question worth asking here is, to what extent do fun and play contribute to systems of injustice? In the 19th century, and well into the 20th, when there was no radio or television, amateur theatricals ― in which student, family, and community groups would put on informal (and sometimes quite formal and elaborate) performances ― served as a form of popular entertainment. Such "plays" allowed participants to transgress traditional roles and ordinary behavior, such as we see here: the men playfully dress as woman, while at the same time they playfully hang a Black man. So, does such play undermine the norms, by allowing participants to imagine roles beyond the norm, or does it reinforce those norms by showing how ridiculous it is to imagine things being any other way than they are?