Review of Lynching (Ore 2019)
Author(s): Jason Michálek
Jason Michálek is a Ph.D Candidate in the rhetoric program at Indiana University where he
teaches composition, public speaking, and professional and technical communication courses. He
received his Master’s in American Studies from The George Washington University. His
research interests include multimodal and semiotic communication as well as digital ontology
and the culture of technology; his dissertation project theorizes the rhetorics of belonging and
alienation as situated in a grounded cases study that takes up a controversy surrounding people
Lynching: Violence, Rhetoric, and American Identity. By Ersula J. Ore. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019. Pp. ix–xx + 175, acknowledgments, author’s note, preface, notes, index. $30, paper)
As I wrote this, Bloomington, IN was in the midst of cultural unrest surrounding what even the news media recognized as “an attempted lynching” in an incident perpetrated against a Black man on July 4, 2020. Having read Ersula Ore’s text, I could viscerally witness the civic justifications of the white, male perpetrators against a body representing a cultural other in the filmed discourse on social media. Even as reports have been made public, the language of the legal documents lays bare the performance of denying agency to a Black, male victim while simultaneously alleging charges against him as an aggressor for attempting to engage in mediation. In July 2021, charges were filed against Booker for being the assailant, and the case continues to remain unresolved. This represents what Black Feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw has identified as an intersectional collapse of race and gender as a motive for integrating injustice into regular practice, potentially obscuring one or both. As she says, “Black men and women live in a society that creates sex-based norms and expectations which racism operates simultaneously to deny; Black men are not viewed as powerful, nor are Black women seen as passive” (156). Thus discourse and acts of lynching is not just a threat of bodily violence against a race but can also serve as the regularization of legislative justification, strengthening an us/them supremacy against the archetype of threat to White, patriarchal order.
From cover to close, Dr. Ersula Ore’s Lynching provides a harrowing revelation of racialized violence, one enacted through language that functions through an us/them dialectic, reducing some peoples—some bodies—to the status of lesser humans. Situating foundational concepts from Kenneth Burke’s scholarship to frame the historical trajectory of anti-blackness in America, Ore constructs a rhetorical frame with which to interrogate critical race relations as discursively entangled in the American demos. Given this historic political trajectory but also our current moment of reinvigorating social justice movements, this text is not just theoretical, but imminently informative in terms of everyday racism and discursive anti-Black violence. Beginning in an embodied tell-all, Ore’s Preface and Postscript emplace her within a compelling anecdotal account of the effects of her own racial targeting, based in hierarchical justification for dehumanizing racial bodies as sub-human. Detailing a prolonged account of warrantless detention and the juridical ramifications that followed, Ore’s personal narrative creates a context for the exploration she engages. In text and in body, then, Ore performatively demonstrates how Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification can inform our understanding of language as an everyday structure of oppression. This recouperation of well-known rhetorical scholarship answers Lisa Flores’ 2018 call for more racial rhetorical criticism can be deployed through firsthand accounts, cultural history, and current political contexts.
To build her anecdotal experience into American society, Ore’s approach employs discourse analysis to show how language doesn’t just say things: it does things. One of her first examples makes this point clear in the way that—in legal proceedings—a sentence that affirms the killing of a person has lighter social connotations than convicting someone of murder. Ore uses the contrast to focus on how racially motivated dehumanization is discursively performed by calling a lynching a “killing” rather than a “murder,” metonymically resisting a diverse citizenry as lynching “became rhetorically constitutive occasions in which American civic identity was affirmed through antiblack violence” (19-20). By limiting both the social and legal definitions of what constitutes lynching, Ore argues that a black victim can be denied agency of victimhood through legislation while simultaneously being inscribed with the agency of aggressor through social mediation. And yet, deploying the term lynching in the present can serve as a linguistic memorial that metonymically links current black violence to historical acts and justification.
Chapter one calls upon the dialectic made possible in the Burkean concept of identification as merger/division, demonstrating that the basis of American identity ensured a violent rebuke of British rule that was recast onto a black citizenry. As a “call to communion,” lynching further functioned historically as a way to distinguish “those who belonged from those who did not [belong],” uniting both perpetrators of the acts and its spectators through epideictic rhetoric that “instructed citizens… while simultaneously maintaining and reproducing white supremacy as the democratic norm.” Ore explains how a national narrative of a “citizen race” was constituted through this codification and enactment of lynching as a form of communion: a “doing of citizenship.”
Chapter two advances the civic education of lynching as an image of epideictic rhetoric—a symbolic gesture of how “separate but equal” is enacted to separate “them” citizens who were out of place from both polity and vitality. Ore shows viscerally how lynching provides “political iconography that inculcates citizens to the practice of white democracy by way of modeling antiblack violence as a customary, natural, and revered practice of white civic identity” (56). As a resistance, such imagery was also reclaimed and reframed by anti-lynching activists to inscribe alternative lessons of racial terror and black death, as in the case of the anti-lynching efforts of Crisis, the Chicago Defender—particularly in the historic fervor surrounding Emmett Till.
Chapter three shifts the epideictic discourse into a modern context of museum curation, offering spaces to see and experience division and resistance by strategic tactics of alternative messages. Ore uses instances of historical and present dehumanization of black persons as ritualized transformation of black bodies into Burkean “equipment for living” in the progress narrative of the American polity. As a performative answer to the invective of, Crenshaw “…If we can’t see a problem, we can’t fix a problem. Together, we’ve come together to bear witness… to move from mourning and grief to action and transformation.” (Crenshaw 2019). Crenshaw’s original article about intersectionality emphasized the elision of Black women in the default collapse of Blackness as a masculine threat—which as Ore’s analysis rehashes is a primary driver of lynching.
However, though I contextualize the story of Vauhxx as intersectionally justified by his assailants and public discourse, I want to avoid re-covering an elision of feminine attributes—particularly since the allegations against him resulted from his attempt at civil discourse which has been characterized as “entrapment” and “provocation” since Black males are not allowed in hegemonic narratives to be “soft spoken.” Just as Ore explores how anti-lynching activists transformed visuals into an antiracist civic lesson, her rhetorical analysis of the discourse of lynching allows us to label and acknowledge the intersectional violence of our present cultural narratives against Black bodies.
In similar Burkean fashion of language as symbolic action, Ore rounds out her analysis with “Lynching in the Age of Obama,” This fourth chapter situates the historic trajectory of embodied and symbolic lynching in the presidency of Barrack Obama as further rhetorical divisions of “one of them” who had to constantly account for his blackness. Analyzing discourse around the Obama presidency and the symbolic acts of lynching performed during his presidency, her culminating analysis demonstrates the symbolic interactions of the polis with discursive and symbolic antiblackness reified the nation’s present expulsion of blackness as “out of place” in the American imaginary. More than just dynamic political debates, the everyday nature of such discourse shows that lynching discourse is not just reserved for instantiations but rather it is ingrained in the national narrative that mobilizes the us/them dialectic.
Ore concludes her analysis aptly by depicting how white supremacy operates through suppression of anti-black sentiments. Shifting back to her own anecdotal experience of systematic oppression, she explains how her own perpetrator was entwined in legislative forms of signifying black bodies as a scourge in contrast to white bodies as effectively in need of correction. Juxtaposing herself and another black victim with a non-black suspect stopped by the officer who arrested her, she exemplifies how discursive and legislative lynching is systematically ingrained in the present enactment of American citizenship through anti-Black policing.
Ultimately, Lynching provides a topical frame in which to deconstruct how historical oppression of black bodies is presently legitimated to sustain a national sense of an “us” citizenship through discursive and legislative violence against “them.” In the spaces between her words, one can hear the echoes of Achille Mbembe’s necropower in the way discourse repeats the sentiment of letting live while threatening to make die. Also, the embodied aspect of discourse rings of George Lakoff’s Political Mind in how describing racial bodies as lower can neurolinguistically program the delineation of white bodies over non-white subjects. And returning to the bookend of an uncertain outcome, Ore’s own account evidences the ongoing subjugation of them humans from us humans with no hope of unification.
As a discursive analysis, Ore’s account is compelling, vivid, and multimodal in showing the ways that lynching has continually transformed through American culture, recursively transforming the culture itself. It’s no wonder why this was the winner of the 2020 Rhetoric Society of America Book Award since it performs the intertextual linkings of indisciplinarity. Complicating notions of who counts and is counted in “we the people,” Lynching is not a pessimistic reading of historical progression, but a consciousness raising effort that troubles the progress narrative of what is past/passed.
After reading the text myself and sitting with my own understanding of the stories and analysis it contains, I had the gracious opportunity with my program cohort to join a Zoom call and talk to the author herself. As Dr. O expounded upon the contextual decisions and constraints around the publishing decisions, I realized exactly how much ontological persistence is involved in speaking truth to power. I was reminded of Robert Reid-Pharr’s description of the constraints of Black American autonomy: “…Within even the most rigid social hierarchies there nonetheless exist those many folds, tears, points of peculiarity and funniness that might be put to the service of both master and servant, man and woman, white and black.” (Reid-Pharr 2007) It helped me realize that this is not just a message to be understood, but also a telling to be circulated widely.
As a restituation of rhetorical framing, Ore’s project opens up engagements with interdisciplinary critical race scholarship—particularly afropessimist thinkers like Sadiya Hartman and Frantz Fanon. Additionally, the historiographical work of Ibram X. Kendi would contextualize the broader historical movements of black identity in America to the present. With Ore’s thorough contextualization of the rhetorical foundations of lynching, it provides a solid foundation for extension in these directions, so I would urge more exploration of where it can be taken up next.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, 1989, p. 139-168. HeinOnline.
Reid-Pharr, Robert. Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual. NYU Press, 2007.