Twain’s Covert, Overt Discussion of Racism

Mark Twain

Twain brings up an interesting conundrum in “The United States of Lyncherdom.” When considering the rise in lynchings, Twain writes, “Is it because men think a lurid and terrible punishment a more forcible object lesson and a more effective deterrent than a sober and colorless hanging done privately in a jail would be?” (Twain 194). Twain describes a lynching as lurid and terrible and a state sanctioned hanging as sober and colorless. If Twain is using the dictionary definition of the word lynching, he is making a strange statement by describing a hanging in contradictory terms. However, he does make this contradictory statement after giving the example of the Pierce City lynching that made little sense because the man that they lynched would have hanged anyway if he had gone to trial (Twain 194). After this example, Twain’s contradictory statement about lynching can be read as an unstated indictment of the racism inherent in the justice system itself. Twain hints at the problem of racism when he writes, “… There are but few negroes in that region and they are without authority and without influence in overawing juries (Twain 194). He only goes as far as to say that the black people in the area have no influence on juries and does not explain why they had no influence.

Twain writes his contradictory lurid, colorless terrible, sober linchings in the form of a question. Asking the reader to decide whether or not a mob run lynching is a more forcible punishment than an inevitable legally run hanging also gives the reader the time to contemplate just how different the two types of execution are. Also, When Twain compares two forms of execution that are essentially the same, only differing in who is carrying them out, but describes them with opposite adjectives, he is giving the reader the chance to think about the differences between the people that comprise the mob of lynchers and the jury. A mob of lynchers would typically be comprised of the local adult males that are chomping at the bit to hang the man that the sheriff has in custody, and a jury would typically be comprised of the local adult males that are chomping at the bit to hang the man that the sheriff has in custody. Therefore, even though Twain did not have the word racism set into type, “The United States of Lyncherdom” is a serious writing directly discussing the problem of southern racism.

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