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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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3 books reckon with lynching in U.S.


Shockingly, it took until 2022 for Congress to pass an anti-lynching law, something you’d assume had been ratified centuries earlier. Or maybe it’s not so shocking, since several books —including this week’s “In the Pines” — insist that lynching is very much with us.

I thought a lot about that when I read Cynthia Carr’s 2007 “Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town and the Hidden History of White America.” It’s about the 1930 murder of two Black men who were (wrongly, probably) jailed in Marion, Ind., on suspicion of murder and rape.

There’s a famous photo of the killings. As Carr scanned onlookers depicted in the photo, she realized she was looking for her grandfather. Much like Truman Capote, Carr goes to the town to gather stories from survivors and, much like Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” her book is a riveting account of a crime and a reflection on memory and meaning. Many of the people Carr interviews are white, which unbalances the book, but she puts James Cameron — a third youth, who survived the lynchings — at its center.

Carr is not the only granddaughter re-examining her ancestor’s role in a lynching. In “In the Pines,” Grace Elizabeth Hale questions her sheriff grandfather’s presence at the 1947 murder of a Black Mississippian named Versie Johnson. Like Carr, Hale, who is white, is uncomfortable about writing about actions that affected Black people more significantly than white people. Her book, subtitled “A Lynching, a Lie, a Reckoning,” grapples with that.

Hale writes, “If being able to understand yourself as living free of the past is a foundational part of white supremacy, then putting your own family inside the stream of history is a part of the project of dismantling it.” Her book wrestles with loving her late grandfather, who was almost certainly a white supremacist and murderer.

Aware that some will say this is not her story to tell, Hale puts the man who was lynched at the center of “Pines.” Her study of Johnson is stymied by sketchy records, but Hale learns as much as she can — lamenting that Johnson’s descendants didn’t respond to her.

Hale uses a practice employed in Harvard historian Tiya Alicia Miles’ “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake” (about the centuries-old belongings of an enslaved woman). She uses context clues and historical records to suggest what may have happened in specific situations.

Where “In the Pines” is strongest is in conveying the atmosphere that made a lynching possible, in front of multiple witnesses. Hale also reminds us that history often ignores the powerless and disenfranchised.

There’s probably no better way to underscore that than to read Mamie Till-Mobley’s 2003 “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America.” Although it was published decades later, she writes about son Emmett Till’s life and death (in 1955) with near-total recall.