Resistance, Racialized Violence, and Database Design (Part 2)

My work creating a relational database on incidents of racialized violence in the postemancipation South has involved a great deal of thinking about how we define violence and resistance. Too often these terms are loosely defined – if they are defined at all – making it difficult to engage in a systematic investigation of how racialized violence shaped the daily lives of African Americans. Previously, I wrote a blog post for the Sherman Centre detailing how I code methods of resistance within my relational database. This post was complemented by a talk entitled “On Violence: Analyzing the Experiences of African American Women in the Postemancipation South.” As I’m now writing my dissertation, I find myself thinking again about how to define violence.

There is a rich corpus of scholarship on racialized violence in the United States. Most works, however, assume a common understanding of what constitutes violence. In other words, scholars expect that their readers will be able to identify and understand incidents of violence without significant explanation. A physical attack, for example, is a seemingly obvious form of violence. Merriam-Webster echoes this sentiment, defining violence as “the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy.”[1] Violence becomes racialized when it is motivated by, or enacted through, race. Indeed, this seems to be the basic definition underlying most scholarship on racialized violence, particularly those works that consider violence narrowly in the context of race riots and lynchings. The problem, however, is that considering violence only as it relates to physical force ignores the full assortment of injuries that humans find consequential.

Philosopher Joseph Betz insisted that an act must impinge upon a victim’s body to qualify as violence.[2] Hiram Rhoades Revels, a black senator from Mississippi, seemingly agreed. In his autobiography, Revels described his time as a religious teacher and educator in Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri. He was met with significant opposition from white Southerners and, in 1854, Revels was imprisoned for preaching to African Americans. Yet immediately after revealing this fact, he stated that he was “never subjected to violence.”[3] This raises important questions about how we define violence. Can an act that causes psychological trauma – fear, anxiety, anguish, shame – be considered violence? Can an act that causes material consequences – destruction of property, loss of earnings – be considered violence? And can an act that has social outcomes – public humiliation, stigmatization, imprisonment – be considered violence? It is clear that Revels equated violence with physical force. But his imprisonment for trying to “improve the moral and spiritual conditions” of African Americans should also be understood as an act of violence.[4]

I find the equation of violence with physical force to be wholly unsatisfactory because it ignores the psychological, material, and social consequences of violence. Not every act of violence results in physical injury, nor does every physical injury result from the use of physical force. For the purposes of my research, a broad definition allows for the analysis of the diverse forms of violence that characterized the interactions between African Americans and white Southerners in the late antebellum and postemancipation South.

Newton Garver offered a comprehensive definition of violence.[5] Challenging the equation of violence with physical force, he argued that violence should be more closely connected with violation: “What is fundamental about violence … is that a person is violated.”[6] Every person has certain rights which are undeniably connected with being a person. When these rights are violated, an act of violence has been committed. Although broad, this definition of violence is useful in the context of the antebellum and postemancipation South where the rights of African Americans were violated on a daily basis in myriad ways.[7] By defining violence more broadly as the violation of a person and their rights of body, dignity, and autonomy, I can analyze acts of violence that result from asymmetrical power relationships, including threats, intimidation, and neglect.

Below I have included a selection of keywords used in my database to code types of violence. This list is not exhaustive and it is subject to revision and expansion as my research progresses.

  • Nightriding – Under the cover of darkness, disguised men frequently targeted the homes of African Americans. The Ku Klux Klan, in particular, used whippings and torture to intimidate formerly enslaved people. In addition to physical trauma, nightriding caused psychological trauma. The testimony of African Americans reveals that many decided to sleep outside for months at a time to avoid becoming the victims of nightriding.
  • Lynching – Like nightriding, lynching is the practice of inflicting punishment upon victims without regard to law in the service of justice, tradition, or race. But unlike nightriding, lynching always results in the death of the victim. Although sometimes considered to be analogous to nightriding, I have chosen to code lynching as a unique variant. It is important to stress, however, that lynchings were not merely extralegal murders; they were incidents of ritualized violence that held a singular psychological force. Lynchings not only caused physical trauma to the victim, but also psychological trauma to the entire black community who became witnesses to widespread violence at the hands of angry mobs.[8] Lynchings might involve hundreds of people, photographs might be taken and circulated as souvenirs, and sometimes the bodies of the victims were left on display as a warning to other African Americans.
  • Sexual Assault – Black women were frequently subjected to unwanted sexual contact. Slaveholders had long exerted their power by sexually assaulting enslaved women. After emancipation, as white Southerners attempted to enact a prior racial hierarchy, many men continued to sexually assault black women. Not only did this allow white men to subjugate and degrade the virtue of black women, but it also undermined newly formed black families. After emancipation, black men asserted their manhood by acting as the protectors of their wives, daughters, and sisters. When white men sexually assaulted black women, they sought to enact a fantasy of subordination in which black fathers and husbands could not prevent the violence against their family members.[9]
  • Deprivation/Neglect – For many African Americans, after emancipation, the hallmark of freedom was to retain the rewards of their labour. Yet many were targeted by unscrupulous white landowners and forced into unfair labour contracts. Many former slaveholders even tried to deny their former labourers their freedom. In an effort to retain their workforce, slaveholders would actively suppress news of emancipation. This type of violence is perhaps less obvious, as it did not always involve the application of physical force ,but the trauma caused by deprivation and neglect is undeniable, as African Americans struggled to define the meaning of freedom as their rights were frequently violated. Many African Americans found themselves in precarious positions suffering from social and economic dislocation.
  • Verbal Abuse – Acts of forceful criticism, insults, or denunciation were often directed by white Southerners against African Americans. Accorded little respect by the white community, verbal abuse served as a reminder of the inferior status imposed on African Americans.

As scholars, we make important decisions about our data: what sources to include, what geographic regions to sample, and what information to highlight. But often this mediation is not transparent. Although a database is a mediated construct, the necessity of consistency and concrete definitions ensures that the mediation is transparent. Reading my primary sources with the intention of inputting them into a database has forced me to carefully consider what constitutes violence. All of the incidents recorded within my database must meet the definition that I have outlined today. The examples I have provided represent only a glimpse into the various ways that I have coded types of violence.


[1] “Definition of Violence,” Merriam-Webster, (accessed 14 February 2019).

[2] Joseph Betz, “Violence: Garver’s Definition and a Deweyan Correction,” Ethics 87, no. 4 (July 1977), 341–45.

[3] George P. Rawick, ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Supplementary Series 1,Volume 9, Part 4 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1972), 1825. All references to the Slave Narrative Collection have been taken from George P. Rawick, ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1972 and 1977). Future references to these volumes will include volume number, part number, and page number. Either supplemental series will be distinguished by the notation S1 or S2 in front of the citation.

[4] Ibid. On the use of the penitentiary as a means of subjugating African Americans in the South, see Barry A. Crouch, The Dance of Freedom: Texas African Americans During Reconstruction, ed. Larry Madras (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), chap. 8.

[5] Newton Garver, “What Violence Is,” in Philosophy for a New Generation, ed. James A. Gould and A. K. Bierman (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970), 353–64. Recent scholarship in the field of anthropology has embraced this broad definition of violence. See Mary R. Jackman, “Violence in Social Life,” Annual Review of Sociology 28 (2002): 387–415; Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois, “Introduction: Making Sense of Violence,” in Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology, ed. Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois, Blackwell Readers in Anthropology (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004), 1–31; Jane Kilby, “Introduction to Special Issue: Theorizing Violence,” European Journal of Social Theory 16, no. 3 (August 2013): 261–72.

[6] Ibid., 355.

[7] While I find Garver’s definition useful, others have criticized its breadth. Betz, for example, argues that Garver’s definition is too broad. Forcing Garver’s definition to its logical extreme, and thereby rendering some of its uses absurd, Betz contends that if violence is the violation of a person’s rights of body, dignity, or autonomy, then lying, gossiping, and embezzling must all be understood as violence. Yet Garver provides the most complete definition of violence; a definition that adequately captures the terror inflicted upon African Americans. Betz, “Violence,” 341.

[8] Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 2.

[9] Feminist historians have often struggled with how to understand rape as an act of violence targeted at men through their wives, daughters, and sisters. On this see Hannah Rosen, Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence and the Meaning of Race in the Post-Emancipation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), chap. 5.

Sarah Whitwell is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at McMaster University. Her research explores the efforts of black women to resist racialized violence in the postemancipation South. You can find her on twitter: @whitwese

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