This paper is about the law and visual culture. Its centerpiece is Parson Weems’ Fable (1939), a painting by the American artist Grant Wood (1891-1942) that depicts the apocryphal story of George Washington and the cherry tree. At first glance, Wood’s image appears to celebrate an enduring myth of American virtue, namely Washington’s precocious inability to tell a lie. Studying the picture more closely, however, one finds a pair of black figures, presumably two of the Washingtons’ slaves. Stationed beneath dark storm clouds and harvesting cherries from a second tree, these slaves invoke yet another national myth, that of the domestic serenity that supposedly reigned on Virginia’s colonial plantations. In the process, they quietly invoke the country’s grievous history of racial oppression, coercion, and brutality.
This isn’t the only place where Woods’ painting speaks of racial violence. To the contrary, Parson Weems’ Fable also raises the specter of lynching. Examining the shadows directly beneath the Washingtons and their fabled tree, one discovers a hanging black body. Intentional or not, this dangling corpse conjures the spectacular acts of theatrical violence that mobs of Euro-Americans inflicted on African Americans during the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. By the 1930s, heated protests emerged against lynching—in popular songs, magazines, and art exhibitions, as well as more traditional political arenas. Unlike the painters most closely associated with him, Wood didn’t participate directly in such moments of artistic protest. Nonetheless, he would have been exposed to them as he painted Parson Weems’ Fable in the winter of 1939.
Regardless of Wood’s intentions, the work he created persistently connects the country’s origin myths to the murderous violence the U.S. has repeatedly inflicted on persons of color. Moreover, as the painting itself seems to realize, the law and culture forged by colonial Virginia planters like George Washington eventually morphed into a collective white psychopathy that found vicious expression in the practice of spectacle lynching. This colonial legal regime was deeply visual—a fact that accounts for not only its power, but also for the fundamental influence it continues to exert on current American conceptions of race.
A deep reading of Parson Weems’ Fable in the context of both its time (1939) and its setting (1736) reveals the extent to which the law is visual and the visual is legal. Indeed, the painting gives us a valuable lens for perceiving the pervasive connections that run between the two. Our thesis is that the profoundly visuo-legal nature of the country’s racial foundations helps explain the lack of progress the nation has made in dismantling the color line. As a result, the impulse to join the seemingly unrelated disciplines of legal study and art history isn’t an academic gimmick, but rather a necessity. For centuries, images have worked in tandem with statutes, judicial decisions, and various forms of legal (and illegal) punishment to indelibly imprint a logic of racial violence in our collective mindset. In order to fully excavate this logic, we need scholars who can analyze pictures as well as the law.
In terms of structure, we begin by introducing the painting and our analytical framework and method. After that, we explain the theoretical foundations for studying law and culture in this context. Finally, we connect colonial Virginia’s legal and cultural landscape to the traumatic racial violence that continues to haunt our national mythology.
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