Black Excellence

The Willie Lynch Letter: History or Hoax?

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Is the Willie Lynch Letter real or just another fictitious document about the African American slave experience? There have been various schools of thought about the authenticity of this letter purportedly written far back in 1712.

For several decades now, the Willie Lynch Letter’s content has formed the basis for discussions at conferences and at various gatherings of activists. The literary and entertainment industry is not left out as Willie Lynch’s letter turns up in songs, movies, sermons on television, and blog posts.

Today, the ‘Willie Lynch Syndrome’ has become a notable lexicon in the black community.  But the big question is; how factual is the Willie Lynch Letter? Is it a contraption created by scholars to buttress the ugly past of slavery and the perceived psychological state of Blacks in the days of slavery?

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Historical Background about the Willie Lynch Letter

Before delving into whether Willie Lynch letter is real or not, let’s look into what it is.

Willie Lynch Letter refers to a speech given by a slave owner detailing how Virginia slave owners can better keep their slaves under check using divisive psychological means. The supposed William Lynch is a white Jamaican slave owner from the 18th century.

In 1712, Lynch traveled from the British West Indies to hold a summit at the banks of the James River in Virginia, where he taught white slave owners how to repress black slaves.

Black slaves were said to be rebellious and fight for their freedom at all costs. But white slave owners want to keep them at all costs too. Therefore, the purported letter was meant to be a “how-to” guide to create division and psychological warfare in the black slave community to keep them under control.

The document has been available in print since the 1970s, but it was not until the 1990s that it became popular. It was made available online through the efforts of a reference librarian at St. Louis, University of Missouri, Kansas City.

Since then, discussion on the letter has gathered momentum.

However, how genuine is the Willie Lynch letter?

Reasons to Believe the Willie Lynch Letter is a Myth

Many historians believe the Willie Lynch letter is a hoax. Here is why:

Choice of Lexicon

One of the critical indicators of how untrue the Lynch letter is has to do with the lexicon’s choice. The period in view falls under the early 18th century, where the Elizabethan English was the prevalent manner of expression. But the choice of words in Lynch’s letter fit into the 19th-century modern English language.

Controversial Words in Willie Lynch’s letter

  • Lynch referred to foolproof, re-fueling, and indoctrination. But these are words that were introduced into the American lexicon in the 20th . Therefore, there is no way Lynch could be using those words in the 18th century. Re-fueling came into the English dictionary in 1811.
  • Indoctrination shared its current connotation as used by Lynch in 1832, not 1712. All these occurred at least one century after the said speech was allegedly given.
  • In the first paragraph, Lynch referred to the word program. Lynch promised that ‘Ancient Rome will envy us if my program was implemented”. As at the time it was allegedly used, the term referred to a written notice used during theater events. It took until 1837 for ‘program’ to take on the meaning ascribed to it today.
  • In the third paragraph, Lynch used the word, ‘outline’ in the phrase, ‘give an outline of action.’ Although the word outline existed barely five decades to the time of the event, the meaning was not the same. The word had no relation to steps to follow but concerns making a sketch. The current definition of outline came into existence in 1759.

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Characterization

Lynch sounded more out of touch with the times in certain aspects of the letter. For example, when he repeatedly referred to ‘Slaves,’ it would have been more appropriate to use ‘Negroes’ because that was the term used for the slaves in the times under review.

In the letter, Lynch typified or used ‘B’ in the uppercase when referring to blacks. He must have been living way ahead of his times because the word never referred to African Americans or blacks as an ethnic nationality until two centuries afterward.

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Series of Disclaimers

As if the above points do not sound convincing enough to put a hole in Willie Lynch’s letter, let’s look at some hard facts.

Anne Taylor

Anne Taylor is another notable figure in the Willie Lynch’s letter escapade. The letter was uploaded to the University of Missouri, St. Louis site in the early 1990s. Being a researcher at the Thomas Jefferson Research Center of the university, Anne set out to discover the veracity of the claims.

She stumbled on the letter while reading the St. Louis Black Pages and decided to upload it to create engagements and academic discussions.

Anne concludes that there has been no basis to confirm whether the Willie Lynch letter is factual. However, from discussion with historians and other experts, she has found that the letter is only a hoax. She says in particular that “the use of the language during those days was closer to Elizabethan English in its construct and spelling.”

Mark Adams Side of the Story

When Mark Adams of the Baltimore Sun stumbled on Willie Lynch’s letter in 1998 on the St. Louis Black Pages, he contacted the publisher, Howard Denson. However, Adam’s mission was to ascertain the publication’s authenticity, but Denson didn’t provide any claim in defense of the magazine.

Denson said the publication attracted far more attention and responses than they had experienced but nothing to substantiate the letter’s veracity.

Demographic Dividers and Arguments

Willie Lynch claims that age, color, and gender are three factors that could help keep slaves under perpetual control for centuries does not provide a basis to believe the letter was genuine.

Williams Pierson, Professor of History at Fisk University, noted, “His old vs. young and dark vs. light divisions would be most peculiar among early 18th century African Americans (in both the West Indies and Virginia). People who did not have such color gradations as in our time and still maintained the near absolute African respect for age.”

However, such a divisionism tendency might be more accurate of the generations in the late 18th to 19 century. Meaning the letter could only have come from a later period than the set time and is, therefore, a fabrication.

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Absent in Popular Media or Black Literary History

Media was full of publications and programs detailing almost all the significant newsworthy occurrences before, during, and after the slave era. But this document purported to be of importance to the propagation of slavery did not pop up until the 1970s.

There have been no actual means or basis for verification of the Willie Lynch Letter. There are no official document or historical basis to verify any details.

Famous black scholars, activists, and writers, from the past and present, not one of them referred to the Willie Lynch letter. Writers like Olaudah Equiano, Booker Taliaferro Washington, and Frederick Douglas should have had reasons to condemn the antecedents of Lynch Letter. But because it never really existed, there was no need to fault the content of this address.

 

Did Willie Lynch Ever Exist?

I have tried searching for tales about a Willie Lynch, but there seems to be no link to his days before and after the purported letter. Nothing exists pointing to his background, such that it would be okay to say William Lynch never existed.

Even the likes of Lupe Fiasco, Talib Kweli, Nas, Kendrick Lamar have taken turns to name-drop him in their music. Denzel Washington quoted the letter copiously in the 2007 film ‘The Great Debaters’ .

College students, activists, and more refer to Willie Lynch letter from time to time. The political class also have not been spared from this upheaval as a black House of Representative member referred to the letter on several occasions.

So, why is this fake document so appealing to many?

The Appeal of The Willie Lynch Letter

Howard Denson of the St. Louis Black Pages said, “What’s more critical is understanding the forces that enslaved black minds and their bodies.” The letter might be a lie, but the experience was real.

Every word written in the document is like a dagger in the heart of anybody who understand what the consequence of slavery is to the modern day Black community.

Colorism, broken families, sexism have one time or another prevailed or continue to prevail in the Black community. Slavery passed the baton to Jim Crow, Jim Crow passed the baton to more mass incarcerations and The War on Drugs, and…

Then one might be led to believe this letter is factual. Look how they used it on us to divide our communities! Like the letter says, they want our bodies but not our minds.

But in this case, it is the case of art imitating life.

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Vwede Ohworho

Brings 10 years of journalism experience