By Paul R. Mullins, author of Revolting Things: An Archaeology of Shameful Histories and Repulsive Realities
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On March 16, 1922, the body of an African-American man was found in the woods in a riverside park in Indianapolis, Indiana. The young man “was suspended from a tree by a rope around his neck and with his hands tied behind him,” and the Indianapolis Star acknowledged in a front page headline that the death was a lynching. The victim’s pockets included payroll receipts from an Indianapolis glass factory identifying him as George Tompkins. The 21-year-old had been quietly living in Indianapolis with his aunt and uncle since about 1919, and his uncle emphasized that Tompkins “never was in trouble and never arrested.”
The murder of George Tompkins is part of a shameful history that is nearly beyond our imagination and comprehension a century later. Revolting Things: An Archaeology of Shameful Histories and Repulsive Realities examines places like the Indianapolis riverbank where George Tompkins was murdered nearly a century ago. Lynching sites, Confederate monuments, and urban renewal landscapes are among the material examples of difficult heritage examined in Revolting Things. The book illuminates the most unsettling material dimensions of dark heritage that tend to hover at the boundaries of articulation and assesses how our experiences of such things and places reflect deep-seated contemporary anxieties. George Tompkins’ lynching provoked such anxiety in 1922 that a day after the murder the Indianapolis police resolved that his death was actually a suicide. The city’s dismissal of the lynching now seems a shocking denial of its existence, but it was part of a national evasion of deep-seated structural racism that allowed such racist violence to be rationalized and effaced. Lynching is simply a marked example of the histories that provoke such revulsion that we uneasily admit them publicly, ignore them entirely, or grossly distort their memory. However, the material world insistently compels us to confront shameful histories, repulsive realities, and unpleasant things.
Revolting Things is an archaeological analysis that uses documentary evidence and materiality to contextualize the dynamic heritage of a broad range of statuary, architecture, and spaces. Today the site where George Tompkins died nearly a century ago is a forlorn city park. Tompkins is not memorialized at the site, but the grove of trees where he was found harbors a Civil War monument commemorating the 11th Indiana Volunteer Regiment. In September 1914 the monument was dedicated by 42 surviving members of the regiment who had camped at the site in 1861. The boulder with a brass plaque today sits almost completely unnoticed in dense woods where some of the soldiers who fought for African-American freedom have ironically been effaced alongside George Tompkins.The site where George Tompkins was murdered is part of a landscape that sits in our midst hazily acknowledged, grossly misrepresented, or altogether forgotten, effaced, or unseen. Racist violence like lynchings was long consigned to the fringes of historical narrative and subject to suppression, shallow interpretation, or evasion. That heritage was never truly forgotten, but lynchings tend to be dismissed as isolated aberrations from American ideals even as they persistently capture our imaginations. Many communities have long struggled to ignore the material places where racist violence occurred, and in the twenty-first century some of those communities are beginning to memorialize the victims of lynching and examine how the heritage of anti-Black violence shapes contemporary life. Revolting Things aspires to contribute to these public discussions of the heritage of inequality by dignifying the life stories of people like George Tompkins, admitting injustice into public historical memory, and illuminating the effects of inequality and injustice in the contemporary world.
Places like the park are part of a breadth of material culture that should provoke novel reflection on the historical roots of contemporary atrocity, structural violence, and dehumanization. Confederate monumental landscapes, for instance, long masqueraded as expressions of Southern heritage while aspiring to rationalize the rebellion’s grief and defeat and resurrect White racial hierarchies. In the early twenty-first century that landscape is a contentious battleground over public memories of the Confederacy and their persistent connections to anti-Black racism. Much of the materiality of difficult historical experience remains largely unexamined, but material things can provide critical and sober narrations of shameful and traumatic histories that shape contemporary social life. Revulsion can be a politicizing sentiment, and Revolting Things uses things to illuminate our apprehensions and frame a critical picture of material heritage.
Paul R. Mullins is a professor of anthropology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. He is the author of Revolting Things: An Archaeology of Shameful Histories and Repulsive Realities and The Archaeology of Consumer Culture.