Friday, March 13, 2009

Rosewood, gender and domestic violence (by Suzie)

            This post relates to the one below. A white mob attacked the black residents of Rosewood in 1923. Historians have documented the deaths of six African Americans and two whites. The remaining residents fled, and the mob burned the small town. This was part of a wave of terrorism against African Americans after World War I.
         If you’ve never heard of Rosewood, or if you only saw the fictionalized movie, I encourage you to read the excellent report that led to the Florida Legislature awarding compensation to victims and their descendants in 1994.
         Unlike other lynchings, the Legislature considered Rosewood unique in Florida because state authorities had ample time to prevent crimes, but failed to do so and then failed to prosecute. 
         I did a lot of reporting on Rosewood in the 1990s, and I saw a parallel with domestic violence. Authorities have often known that crimes were being committed, but they failed to intercede or prosecute. Some women fled their homes, taking only their children. They struggled financially, as did the Rosewood descendants.
         But violence that happens in the home is often seen as a personal matter, and the public may not understand the scale of it. Similarly, more people are injured in accidents in the home than they are in plane crashes, but the scale of the plane crash and the public spectacle guarantees more attention. (I don't mean to imply that attention is always good. For starters, it can increase the terror and the spread of misinformation.)
         Domestic violence may have played a role in Rosewood. The violence started when a 22-year-old white woman was beaten in her home in a nearby town, and the woman said a black man attacked her. African Americans say the culprit was a white lover, and she lied to protect herself. They say the white lover was a Mason and he asked for protection from his black male comrades. Meanwhile, whites suspected an escaped black convict, and they thought Rosewood residents were hiding him.
         The state report rarely mentions gender, but we can assume most of the journalists – the people who helped form public opinion – were male. The white mob, law enforcement and other government officials were all, or almost all, male. Black women and a few white women helped protect black residents, especially children.
          On both sides, people believed that men proved their manhood by fighting the enemy. Men had to protect women and their communities. They had to maintain their dignity.
           Of course, I think the white vigilantes were wrong, and African Americans had a right to defend themselves. But who is right and who is wrong is not so clear in many other conflicts. That's why we need to analyze how notions of manhood and womanhood fuel violence.