(Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Edward J. Blum, who is Professor of History at San Diego State University, co-author with Paul Harvey of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012), author of W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (2007), and Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (2005), editor of the Christian Century’s Then & Now blog, and an invited plenary participant at the 2014 S-USIH conference held in October in Indianapolis.)
I felt confused and slightly angry. My lungs seemed to tighten. After Dr. Kathryn Lofton’s fascinating USIH keynote address on the playful inscrutability of Bob Dylan on “religion,” a question from the crowd gripped my conscience. It went something like this, “should we lynch him?” I cannot recall Dr. Lofton’s answer, perhaps because it seemed the air had been sucked out of the room. Perhaps the questioner meant it sarcastically. Perhaps it was a joke or a provocation. On their face, the words were a threat of violence, but the person certainly did not mean we or anyone else should end Mr. Dylan’s life. The darkness I felt seemed yet another extension of the lynching tree’s long shadows.
I had spent weeks preparing my USIH remarks for a panel the next day on “What is U.S. Intellectual History.” I was going to argue, first, that U.S. intellectual history should not emulate some path-breaking religious historians who tend to make universal claims about human nature with archival sets conditioned by race and gender. I was going to suggest that Charles Taylor’s Secular Age is not only a segregated text at times haunted by race, but also a segregating work because of how scholars have embraced and debated it on its terms. I was going to ask how George Marden’s recent Twilight of the American Enlightenment would look different if he included African American writers more seriously as critics of 1950s American culture. “[I]t is human nature to look back on an earlier era, especially the days of one’s youth, as being more coherent than the disruptive times of later years,” Marsden writes of his childhood, although he fails to acknowledge his privileges of being white in that United States. I was prepared to ask those at the conference “for children who witnessed lynchings and then, in their adult years, remember that world as hellish, such as is the case of theologian James Cone, are they somehow not in line with ‘human nature’? Is the problem with them or with Marsden’s personal and scholarly imagination?” After that, I was going to suggest that perspectives from material culture could be layered into U.S. intellectual history for great impact. My example would be Henry Box Brown and the many boxes of his world – the literal one that carried him to liberty, the figurative ones in visual culture, and the ways Frederick Douglass used Brown’s box to suggest that there could be power in keeping some ideas secret. I wish now that I had used lynch ropes as my example.
Ideas of nooses have been tied to realities of their uses, and those of us at the conference in Indianapolis did not have to look far for an example. The history was there, right under our feet. The conference hotel stood beside the city’s railroad depot. More than eighty years before this lynching reference in 2014, local residents had boarded trains and traveled eighty miles to Marion, Indiana to help, watch, photograph, and be photographed at the lynching of Tom Shipp and Abram Smith. One photograph has become iconic. In it, a couple holds hands. One man points to the background, where the bodies of two African American young men hang.
In the place we now sat and heard a scholar reference lynching, eighty years earlier women and men chatted about sandwiches and seating arrangements. They paid their fares and off they went. Knotted together were the quotidian and the dramatic, the physical and the intellectual, the social and spiritual. The space we occupied in 2014 was a place, for me, touched by these painful legacies.
How could “lynching” be a joke, or sarcastic statement, or provocative posturing at this conference? Was it symptomatic of an approach to intellectual history that is not only disembodied but also callous? How should the community of scholars respond, if at all? Should all ideas and comments be entertained in the spirit of free inquiry? Or, in an effort to have the organization be a safe space for those from diverse backgrounds, should members of the community challenge this kind of rhetoric? Universities have their heritage of racial injustice; intellectual history played its role in establishing and upholding racial structures; some scholars reinforce past injustices with their intellectual choices and executions today. Personally, I am less inclined to attend conferences where racially-charged concepts like this are put to work as sarcasm, jokes, or provocations. I am a firm believer that if desegregated societies need desegregated scholarship and desegregated syllabi. But then again, I’ve never termed myself an “intellectual historian.”