Lynching in Ellison’s “A Party Down at the Square” Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Sep 12th, 2020

Literary critics commonly suggest that for a particular short story to represent much objective value, it must be capable of enlightening readers on the previously overlooked aspects of the theme, concerned with the story’s subject matter. Moreover, it must also contain some in-depth insights into what should be deemed the discursive significance of the issue, around which the story’s plotline revolves. The short story A Party Down at the Square by Ralph Ellison illustrates the validity of this suggestion. The reason for this is that A Party Down at the Square does not only allow the readers to experience the unsightly authenticity of one’s “Southern living” in America during the 20th century’s first half (the period through which the described lynching-event supposedly takes place), but it also provides them with a better understanding of the innermost essence of White racism as yet another extrapolation of people’s deep-seated bestiality. This particular quality of Ellison’s story is best explained with regard to the fact that just about every scene in it is highly allegorical. Hence, a certain paradox – despite the story’s fictional character, it is nevertheless thoroughly accurate, in the historical sense of this word. What is even more – because of the story’s allegorical clues, concerned with the author’s portrayal of “Bacote nigger’s” burning by the crowd of White Southerners, readers are hinted at what may be the ultimate consequence of the fact that many White people continue to experience racial prejudices towards African-Americans, as well as to the representatives of other racial minorities in this country.

Before proceeding to discuss Ellison’s story, we need to outline the main qualitative aspects of lynching, as the method of applying the concept of extrajudicial justice in practice. Even though the origins of lynching in America can be traced back to the American Revolutionary War, it was specifically through the Reconstruction Era (1861 – 1865) that the concerned practice has attained its notoriety. After having sustained a considerable decline in popularity during the 1870s – 1890s, lynching once again began to exert a strong influence on the public domain in the South since the beginning of the 20th century well into the 1930s. In fact, there have been some isolated incidents of lynching as recent as through this century’s sixties. The term refers to what used to be the practice of catching a presumed perpetrator of a particular unsolved crime (most commonly an innocent Black man or woman) by the angry mob of self-proclaimed “vigilantes,” dragging the person to the place of execution, and killing him/her in broad daylight by either hanging, drowning or burning. Back then, lynching used to be commonly discussed in terms of “civilized, restrained, God-fearing people taking decisive action to restore social and moral order” (Adler 308). It is understood, of course, that such a point of view on lynching did not have anything to do with the reality while helping the affiliated individuals to escape punishment for having committed the most heinous crimes imaginable, such as the burning of “Bacote nigger” in A Party Down at the Square.

It is estimated that close to 3.500 African-Americans fell victims of lynching, even though the exact number is most likely to remain forever unknown. As of today, the practice of lynching is considered the ugliest symbol of White racism, in general, and of the Southern “redneck mentality,” in particular.

Probably the main thing that comes in sight of a reader through the story’s initial lines is the sheer casualness of the described lynching event – at least as perceived by both the narrator (a young White boy) and his family members. Apparently, public lynchings in the Southern states at the beginning of the 20th century were indeed a commonplace occurrence – not the least because they used to provide people with entertainment: “A bunch of men came by my Uncle Ed’s place and said there was going to be a party down at the Square” (Ellison 1). This suggests that, contrary to the early proponents of lynching who used to justify the application of extrajudicial punishment as the effective method of combating crime outside of the formal law’s reach, the concerned practice could not result in enforcing justice by definition. Instead, it served as the instrument of ensuring the “collective dominance” of White people, as something that had the value of a thing-in-itself. In this respect, it would prove impossible to refrain from quoting George Orwell: “Power is not a means, it is an end… The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power” (Dilworth, 302). Apparently, the representatives of the Homo Sapiens species are indeed nothing but “hairless apes,” preoccupied with trying to attain domination within the environmental niche that they share with others (in time free from spreading their genome and ensuring that there is plenty of nutrients).

What this means is that White racists (who did the bulk of lynchings through the mentioned historical period) could not be possibly more wrong, believing that they were more “civilized” than Black people and therefore “superior” to the latter. In fact, as it can be inferred from the story, one’s willingness to take pride in his or her “Whiteness” while willing to dehumanize African-Americans is, in fact, reflective of the concerned person’s intrinsic barbarianism. The rationale behind this specific suggestion can be shown regarding the story’s scene in which “Bacote nigger” begs for someone to do a “Christian deed” and spare him of the fiery torment by cutting his throat, only to be told: “Sorry, but ain’t no Christians around tonight. Ain’t no Jew-boys neither. We’re just one hundred percent Americans” (Ellison 2). It appears that such a reply, on the part of Jed Wilson (narrator’s uncle), was meant to be taken reflective of the very essence of White people’s life-philosophy – especially of those who are being commonly referred to as WASPs (White Anglos-Saxon Protestants). After all, mercilessness, lies, cynicism, hypocrisy, and extreme cruelty have been an integral part of how these people proceeded to conquer the New World.

In fact, the mentioned psychological qualities continued to exert a strong effect on what could be deemed the Anglo-Saxon “existential distinctiveness” well into the 20th century’s sixties. At the time when the USSR had the first man in space, orbiting the Earth, there was still an ongoing debate among politicians and social scientists in the American South as to whether African-Americans can be considered fully human. Even today, the sheer hypocrisy appears to be the main quality of the Anglo-Saxon stance in the arena of international politics – the US, Canada, Australia, and Britain continue to impose sanctions against Russia on account of this country having prevented the genocide of two million Russian-speaking people in Crimea at the hands of the Ukrainian Nazis (Hopf 245). Apparently, the term “White devil,” coined up by African-Americans with reference to a racially prejudiced White person, is not quite as irrational as it may seem at an initial glance.

The above-stated gives us a certain clue as to the meaning of one of the story’s most powerful allegories – the one concerned with exposing the ambivalent quality of the Black character’s suffering. Initially, he is shown shivering from cold – only to be set ablaze a few minutes later: “Take your hands out of your pockets, nigger, we gonna have plenty heat in a minnit” (Ellison 1). Given the story’s subject matter, the most discursively appropriate interpretation of this allegory can be formulated as follows: In the aftermath of having been set free in 1865, former Black slaves did not attain any factual freedom. In fact, the advent of the Reconstruction Era made things much harder for many of them. After all, it is specifically the historical period in question that marked the founding of the Ku-Klux-Klan – the group responsible for organizing the most vicious lynchings of African-Americans by the crowds of racist rednecks. Hence, the allegory’s implicit connotation – for as long as American society remains de facto Eurocentric (despite the governmentally endorsed policy of multiculturalism), Black people in the US will continue to be subjected to the different forms of racial discrimination. This simply could not be otherwise – figuratively speaking, many White politicians/governmental officials in America are, in fact, the “spiritual descendants” of the character of Jed Wilson – even if they proved themselves perfectly capable of indulging in the politically correct rhetoric. The fact that this is indeed the case can be illustrated with respect to the upsurge of the indiscriminate shootings of innocent African-American men by White cops that have taken place in the last few years, which can be referred to as the modern form of the “good ole’” lynching. The reason for this is apparent.

As was implied earlier, this despicable practice never served the purpose of restoring justice (extrajudicially) when there is the absence of law. Far from having been a “spontaneous expression of people’s collective anger,” all lynchings used to be well organized and efficiently carried out – something that hints at their essentially institutionalized nature. Their main objective was to keep Black folks experiencing an irrational fear of a White man, which in turn was supposed to make the country’s population of African-Americans much more manageable (as assessed from the WASP perspective): “The niggers weren’t there. Not a single nigger was there except this Bacote nigger… On Saturday, there’s as many niggers as white folks” (Ellison 1). In a similar manner, the police brutality towards Black men is expected to intimidate them to the point when they would be willing to turn a blind eye on the fact that American Eurocentric society continues to marginalize them in a number of implicit and explicit ways.

Nevertheless, it is specifically the “bad luck” motif, concerned with the chain of unfortunate events triggered by the lynching sub-sequential burning of “Bacote nigger”, which appears to define the story’s overall discursive sounding. This motif has kept reemerging through A Party Down at the Square since the death of a White woman due to the incident with the TWA plane: “I could smell the flesh burning… I got up close, and it was a woman… She was lying in a puddle stiff as a board, with pieces of glass insulators that the plane had knocked off the poles lying all around her” (Ellison 3). Ever since then, the things get ever more “sour” for the described community of White racists, as if nature itself was taking revenge on them for having acted towards the unfortunate Black person as some inhumane beasts, totally deprived of any sense of compassion. As the narrator pointed out: “First it was the nigger and the storm, then the plane, then the woman and the wire, and now I hear the airplane line is investigating to find who set the fire that almost wrecked their plane” (Ellison 5). There can be only a few doubts that by exploring this specific motif through the story’s second half, the author strived to promote the idea that regardless of how “White devils” may go about trying to maintain their hegemonic grip on American society, they are predetermined to sustain an utter fiasco at the end. Given the current demographic dynamics in the US, which suggest that it is only a matter of another decade before Whites find themselves in the position of a racial minority, one can doubt very little the plausibility of such an eventual development. I believe that this conclusion is fully consistent with the earlier deployed line of argumentation, regarding what should be deemed the foremost discursive implications of Ellison’s short story.

Works Cited

Adler, Jeffrey. “Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940.” Alrabama Review, vol. 63, no. 4, 2010, pp. 307-309.

Dilworth, Thomas. “Erotic Dream to Nightmare: Ominous Problems andSubliminal Suggestion in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Papers on Language & Literature, vol. 49, no. 3, 2013, pp. 296-326.

Ellison, Ralph. “A Party Down at the Square.”MC World Literature, 2013. Web.

Hopf, Ted. “‘Crimea Is Ours’: A Discursive History.” International Relations, vol. 30, no. 2, 2016, pp. 227-255.

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