The ethics of writing history in the traumatic afterlife of lynching

‘The Ethics of Writing History in the Traumatic Afterlife of Lynching’ raises questions about the ethical obligations of historians who write about historical traumas like lynching, in particular when the subjects of their histories cannot give consent for their violent and deeply personal stories to be published in books and articles. This essay argues that, though historians are charged with unearthing the ‘truth’ of the past without whitewashing or tempering violence, bigotry, and the like, we also have an obligation to preserve the dignity and privacy of the victims and survivors of historical trauma. Some stories (or certain parts of stories), like those of Black women who were raped as part of a lynching ritual, may be legitimately unspeakable, especially given the real potential to veer into the gratuitous and threaten to re-objectify victims and retraumatize survivors. Expanding upon an essay by Teju Cole, ‘Death in the Browser Tab,’ that critiques the ease with which anyone can access videos of police shootings, this essay proposes strategies for forging ethical relationships with these historical subjects and navigating these difficult writing choices.