On June 3, 2020, Senator Rand Paul single-handedly thwarted passage of the Emmitt Till Anti-Lynching Act to extend a longstanding Congressional tradition of obstructing the passage of anti-lynching legislation since 1918. Despite his (fallacious) protestations to the contrary, we are grateful that we can reference anti-lynching plays written by Harlem Renaissance era playwright Georgia Douglas Johnson (1877?-1966) in which she effectively documents a cross-generational, whiteness tradition of anti-lynching legislation obstruction.
In Preaching the Blues: Black Feminist Performance in Lynching Plays (Routledge, 2020), I conduct close readings of two of Johnson’s plays related to anti-lynching legislation, And Yet They Paused (1938) and A Bill to Be Passed (1938). Johnson, anti-lynching drama’s most prolific author, depicts Congress’ unwillingness/inability to pass anti-lynching legislation, including the strategies (i.e. filibustering, stalling and breaking for recess) by which white men stall the process. Through her plays, Johnson also documents a 1936 lynching in Duck Hill, Mississippi, in which two black men were tortured to death using flamethrowers, an event which occurred at the exact same moment that Congress met to consider anti-lynching legislation presented by Joseph Gavagan (D-New York). The concurrent scene depicted by Johnson repeats itself when Paul delivered his Congressional filibuster during the exact same moments as George Floyd’s high profile memorial services. Bystanders recorded a Minneapolis police killing Floyd by excessive use of force, sparking international #blacklivesmatter protests.
Johnson’s plays also provide critical perspective from Black church officials who observe that the white Congressmen avoid passing anti-lynching legislation out of their desire to get re-elected as opposed to facilitating American justice. These Congressmen know that their constituents expect a quid pro quo exchange of their votes for impunity in lynching Blacks. In fact, in other anti-lynching plays, government officials and their constituents formed bonds over performing lynching together. In this way, Johnson ties lynching directly to Americans politics even though rhetorical performances such as Senator Paul’s seek to obscure a connection.
In contrast to unethical whiteness performances, Johnson depicts Black church members strengthening their community ties by singing traditional “ring shout” hymns in which they invoke Biblical images such as Joshua and the Battle of Jericho and Moses versus Pharoah. Black American citizens sustain their (long-suffering) belief in a possibility of justice through their culturally specific Christian practice.
Anti-lynching plays clarify lynching as a complex of interrelated whiteness performance practices used to deny Black Americans their full citizenship. Together, lynching and politics work as extralegal means by which white politicians and their constituents bond. Although Rand Paul’s illogical explanation tries to mask a longstanding whiteness tradition of obstructing passage of anti-lynching legislation, Georgia Douglas Johnson’s plays effectively document the practice for our reference more than eighty years later.