The 1935 drawing “To the Lynching!” by artist Paul Cadmus was for New York audiences a call to action. Completed for the NAACP-sponsored exhibition An Art Commentary on Lynching, the work moved beyond much of the era’s socially conscious art that advocated progress in response to adversity broadly defined in favor of protest art that demanded a direct response to explicit acts of injustice.
Cadmus’s drawing challenged pictorial conventions of lynching in the 1930s. Lynch violence, a brutal and ritualized form of public prosecution, was a prominent artistic theme during a period when American artists engaged a range of long-standing social and political abuses. A general escalation of lynching activity and specific, well-publicized incidents like the Scottsboro trial of 1931 accented the ways in which racial violence had made casualties out of Americans who were not Christian, affluent, “native” born, or of northern European heritage. In the lynching imagery that emerged, the repeated use of specific visual details such as a gathered crowd, a rope attached to a tree limb, or a hanging African American figure in stasis, emphasized the aftermath of violence. Audiences were kept at an emotional and experiential distance as they were left to assess what had been done to the black body and by whom. Through such a framework, lynching activity could be cast more readily as a social problem that required, in part, legislative changes or more passive forms of intervention over immediate mobilization.
Not so Cadmus’s image in which the contest between the black and white figures is presented as the lynching’s singular moment. This is a fight for survival, the work asserts. Limbs contort and fingers gouge with figures clawing at the black male who battles to free himself. The bestial underpinnings of human behavior are on display as the drawing’s tight framing dramatizes expression and gesture, compressing action to articulate the conflict’s urgency.
Importantly, this protest image transforms the black body into an agent of resistance. Gone is the black martyr archetype whose noble victimhood referenced African American disenfranchisement through an iconography of religious suffering. He has been replaced by a brawny, bare-chested opponent who refuses to accept passively the inevitability of death. His vulnerable pose competes with the fierce manner by which he strains against the control of three attackers. He embodies fear and rage, and through the composition’s subjective arrangement, audiences are obliged to react as forcibly as the white men’s quarry. Black physicality becomes a necessity of political resistance, and the black body is re-imagined as an emblem of masculine strength rather than racial threat.
“To the Lynching!” identified its victim, vilified perpetrators, and gestured to a racial violence that was coded as rural and regional for New York patrons. Yet it also affirmed the agency of the black body beyond such confines. It advocated a countermovement of resistance, suggesting that the greater struggle against oppressive institutions lie in action. Lynching must end, Cadmus proclaimed. And this required one to fight.
Carmenita Higginbotham is Associate Professor of Art History and American Studies at the University of Virginia. She specializes in American art of the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries with an emphasis on urban art, critical race studies, and American popular culture of the 20th century. Her recent book, titled The Urban Scene: Race, Reginald Marsh and American Art (Penn State UP, 2015), examines African American representation in the 1930s.