Maria Seger, “Deferred Lynching and the Moral High Ground in Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition” (pp. 94–118)
As a literary trope, deferred lynching can attempt to establish lynching as a moral act: the deferral implies that mobs never lynch innocent men or that they always allow the law to take its course under normal (unexceptional) circumstances. But in some canonical literature at the end of the nineteenth century, the deferred lynching instead serves to critique this alleged morality of lynching. Throughout these texts, the persistent underlying threat of extralegal violence is revealed to undergird a system of exploitation on which racial capitalism depends. Taken together, then, this body of work featuring deferred lynching suggests how racial capitalism has managed to escape blame for extralegal violence for so long: by constructing its own generosity as the reason for lynching’s deferment rather than recognizing its structural role in inspiring and profiting from lynching violence. In Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), the deferred lynching of a black servant, brokered through a gentlemen’s agreement between elite white men, demonstrates that the forces encouraging the mob are not motivated by doing the right thing but instead by economic and political gain. But by deferring the lynching instead of executing it, the white elite maintains its claim to the moral high ground while still reaping the economic and political benefits that executed lynchings provided. In exposing the paradoxical rhetoric of lynching in this way, Chesnutt’s novel attends to the parallels between the white elite’s justification of lynching and the defense of unequal personhood and uneven risk under racial capitalism.