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The practice of lynching could be considered one of the worst acts committed by the citizens of the United States. Ralph Ellison describes this practice in his short story “A Party Down at the Square.” This paper will cover the history of lynching, how it is reflected in the short story, as well as how Ellison portrays lynching. It is important to understand the origins of lynching to accurately analyze this story. Subsequently, the central claims in defense of lynching will become apparent. In this short story, Ellison shows how neither of the usual defenses of lynching has anything to do with reality, as well as how the environment around the person can shape their beliefs and morals.
A History of Violence
To properly examine Ralph Ellison’s story, it needs to be put into the historical context. The short story does not state when it takes place, but by the technology seen throughout the story, it can be assumed that it takes place in the early 1930s. The main hints are the silver airframe of the plane and the relatively high availability of cars among the population. This date would place the events at the end of the period of extreme racism in the United States of America. Many writers argue about the exact endpoint of this time, but it is often placed from 1877 until the late 1930s. This period is seen as the worst period of racial discrimination in America since the civil war. Although this period is associated with the overall discrimination of non-white Americans (especially African-Americans and Chinese-Americans), its most horrific events focused on the practice of lynching. This term comes from the concept of “lynch law,” which was practiced during the Revolutionary war. It is most associated with the militia of Bedford County, Virginia. This militia was commanded by Colonel Charles Lynch. In 1780 he and his men captured three people that they described as “insurgent” Tories. They proceeded to whip two of them and have later hanged the third one. These actions were done without any tribunal or trial. This incident would later be justified by Colonel William Campbell by saying that it was done “I believe with the joint consent of near three hundred men” (Rushdy 23). Although Lynch and his militia were acting as an organized unit, this quote foreshadows the mob rule mentality that would be synonymous with the practice of lynching. Moreover, the actions of Colonel Lynch were originally targeting the minority Welsh population of the area. The wife of a Welsh miner wrote in her letter the following: “there is a misunderstanding between Colo Lynch and the Welsh in General” (Rushdy 25). This quote suggests that even in its earliest form, lynching was used to suppress the minority population.
The term “lynching” would become a part of the American print culture during the rule of President Jackson. Using the language of populism, vigilante justice would be shown as “the will of the people.” Practitioners of lynching claimed that the law institutions were not able to perform their duty, and because of that, the people had the right to enact their own justice. One of the primary ideas behind it was that this is a form of justice that was not corrupted by the formal constraints of the judicial system, as well as a way to uphold communal values (Rushdy 27). These beliefs would lead to many sadistic acts performed by the people involved in the practice of lynching. The victims were skinned alive, burned alive, decapitated, whipped, raped, stabbed, and shot. Their remains would often be desecrated and then hung or nailed to a tree (Rushdy 33). One of the most disturbing events involved the murder of Mary Turner. After her husband was lynched for alleged association with a criminal, she publicly spoke out against it. This action made her a target for the mob and would lead to her death. Mary Turner was pregnant during the lynching. Her stomach was cut open. The mob tore the child from her stomach and killed it. Subsequently, she was hung from a bridge and burned (Armstrong 214). This event happened in 1918 but was almost forgotten until the 1990s (Armstrong 208). This is only one murder that occurred during this period, with many others being similarly forgotten in time.
The portrayal of Lynching in the Short Story
Ralph Ellison chose to tell the story from the perspective of a teenager. This choice lets the reader experience the event from a fresh perspective. However, at this stage of his development, the main character of the story is very influenced by the authority of elders and is unable to process this event from a critical standpoint. The author shows this through the following quotes: “It was my first party and my last“ (Ellison 5). This quote shows that the main character was unfamiliar with the practice of lynching, and it was his first experience with it. Perhaps, lynching has not happened in this town for a long time, or it is possible that the main character only recently moved in with his uncle. Either way, he did not know about this practice. The second quote related to the age of the main character is the following: “I could taste the blood in my mouth as I ran over. I guess that’s what made me sick” (Ellison, 3). These lines are said after he witnesses three truly grotesque scenes. First, he sees the abuse that the victim of lynching experiences before the flames are lit. Then he sees how the man is burning in flames. Finally, he witnesses a terrifying scene of a plane crash that knocks over electric poles that proceed to shock people in the crowd to death.
These events are described viscerally and in great detail to emphasize the horror of the situation. Yet the main character is unable to process them as horrific, even though his body is making him throw up from seeing these things. This could signify the presence of the bystander effect. Even though the main character does not yell at the victim, and does not actively participate in the lynching, he is still a part of the crowd. He is young, so seeing everyone he knew in town act this way makes him believe that this is a normal occurrence, and nothing is wrong. Even after people in the crowd are dying because of the plane crash, the lynching does not stop. After a little bit, everybody just goes back to see the man burning as if nothing happened. The main character never addresses the victim as a person, using a racial slur instead. He does not say anything negative about the man, in fact, he only remarks on how tough he was during the lynching. Nevertheless, it is clear that the surrounding influence dehumanized African-Americans for the main character.
Looking at the short story from a religious angle, it is possible to see how the author portrays lynching as a sinful act. With no opposition to lynching from the people of the town, we can see that nature itself is against this event. Throughout the story, nature is shown as a catalyst for multiple disasters that befall the people performing the lynching. The main character describes how the storm is forcing the pilot to look for landmarks: “Maybe he thought the fire in the Square was put there for him to land by” (Ellison 2). Because of poor weather, the pilot almost crashes the plane, and his landing wheel knocks over a few power lines. The wind picks up the wires and makes the whip around electrocuting people almost as a direct protest against the lynching. However, it does not stop it. In perhaps the most chilling line of the story, one of the instigators responds to the victim’s plea for a quick death by saying “Sorry, but ain’t no Christians around tonight. Ain’t no Jew-boys neither. We’re just one hundred percent Americans” (Ellison 3). This line is spoken not long after the power line incident and could symbolize how the instigators are not concerned about God or nature. Lynching is shown as a communal act where people have to go against their faith to execute the so-called “will of the people.” With this line, Ellison brings up an important contradiction between the practice of lynching and the religious beliefs in the American south.
Religion plays a big part in the everyday life of the South. Often people from these states make decisions according to the Bible and have great respect for the members of the church. Why were such acts performed by people who otherwise treat the Bible with reverence? Perhaps, it shows the hypocrisy of these actions. The people who were involved in these actions would have to put their anger and hate before their beliefs. It could also be another example of how a mob mentality leads people to commit horrible acts without a second thought (Rushdy 25). The story shows only one character that does not fully see this as a good practice but only in practical terms. This hypocrisy leads to not only the death of the victim but multiple deaths from electrocution, caused a fire that burned down a house, as well as the death of another African-American who was killed due to association with the original victim. The latter was a common occurrence in the event of lynching. Often people who had connections with the person being lynched would also be abused and killed the same night (Rushdy 29).
Another important aspect of lynching that Ellison shows in the story is how the main character does not know why this is happening. The first line of the story is “I don’t know how it started” (Ellison 1). This line is essential to the story both as a narrative device and as a statement. As a literary device, it prevents the reader from experiencing sympathy with the crowd by painting the victim as a dangerous criminal. Even if it were done in character, there would be a risk for accidental sympathy. Also, it lets the reader experience the confusion that the main character feels during the lynching. As a statement, this lines makes it clear that it does not matter why this is happening. No matter the crime that this man might have committed, there is no justifiable reason for this type of response. Often, to justify these acts people claim that the justice system would not be able to sufficiently punish this person. But the author shows the opposite “The sheriff and his men were yelling and driving folks back with guns shining in their hands” (Ellison 3). Not only is the man already caught and immobilized, but the law is also fully aware of this happening and seems to be supporting it. This, coupled with the previous disregard of religion by the community, completely dismantles the claims defending lynching. If this practice were truly the “will of the people,” it would not go against their beliefs. If it were the only way that the person would be punished, then the law would be trying to prevent people from committing vigilante justice. Moreover, one of the instigators plans to run for sheriff in the future. Showing how the law is on the side of lynching. This foreshadows that no one will ever be punished for these events, and as the case of Mary Turner and many others no one will even know about them until it is too late (Armstrong 216).
Ralph Ellison’s short story covers a horrible practice with visceral detail. He shows how the main arguments for lynching contradict the reality of the situation. In just a few pages he creates startling scenes that at first might seem gratuitous. Unfortunately, as the history shows, they are almost tame when comparing them to the real events. These events happened much more recently than many people think, and it is important to realize that.
Armstrong, Julie Buckner. “Mary Turner’s Blues.” African American Review, vol 44, no. 1, 2011, pp. 207-220.
Ellison, Ralph. Flying Home and Other Stories. Random House, 1996.
Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. American Lynching. Yale University Press, 2012.