Eula Biss’s essay “Time and Distance Overcome”, focuses on the historical coincidence of the installation of telephone poles with lynching. List the ways Biss connects the topics and discuss the merits of the juxtaposition. How does she make the coincidence into something meaningful?
Week 8 Discussion: “Time and Distance Overcome”
Eula Biss in the essay “Time and Distance Overcome” examines the connection between the creation of telephone lines and the violence induced on Black people (Biss, 337). Eula Bliss in the beginning recounts how the spread of telephone lines was met with violence by people, as they viewed this ‘progress’ as threatening. In the essay, Bliss slowly shifts the subjects of the violence to Black individuals. At first, the violence was inflicted on people who were bringing this progress, and the medium, the poles were also being attacked. This violence and attack were done because people did not understand this change, they did not feel familiar with these agents of change. They considered them different and alien. Since the individuals bringing the change were alien to the dominant social order, as well, the violence inflicted on them was never dealt with fairly by the judiciary. A similar treatment can be noted for the Blacks, where people committing the lynching were never punished. The judiciary in both cases was in the favor of the perpetrators. In both cases, the media reports were overwhelmingly in favor of the perpetrators. Biss reflects that the reasoning behind the violence against Black people was this aspect of dissimilarity. The senseless reasons, because of which people were uprooting the telephone poles, in the author’s opinion are comparable to the meaningless reasons behind the violence against the Black civilians. In both cases, people’s obsession with ‘purity’ was making them mercilessly attack others. They were scared of change even if it was humane and for their benefit. In both cases, there was a fear of an old order being harmed, with the concept of telephones and Black people no longer being slaves. She gives the example of a telephone game, in which as the message gets transferred from one ear to another, it eventually gets distorted. The people were inflicting violence on people erecting and establishing the telephone poles, as well as the Black people without any honest reason, they were doing these attacks out of a belief that has been transmitted from one source to another and has lost both validity and meaning, in this transmission. The difference between the eventual acceptance of telephone lines and the continued violence against Black people was the institutional and social support. Eventually, the attack on poles and the people working on them was considered a punishable crime, but the anti-lynching legislation continued to fail in the Senate. Even after the attacks against the telephone poles were considered punishable some people continued to inflict disruption and violence, but the presence of a regulation that declared the existence of telephone poles as valid, aided in its safeguarding. On the other hand, it took many years for Black people to gain that valid value associated with their lives.
Biss doesn’t accuse the telephone poles, by her they just served as easy tools to hurt Black people (Biss, 340). Unfortunately, the association that Black people gained with the telephone was a tragic past, while others garnered a marker of progress. America vehemently denies that lynching as a criminal practice was peculiar to their country, but are quick to accept the credit for Telephone. Both of these are disputable facts but considering how the civilians inflicted violence on both of them and used one to hurt the other, creating such an intense connection, it is only fair that America also takes credit for the lynching. In these ways, Biss connects the topics.
There are various merits to this juxtaposition. This juxtaposition is reflected in the way Biss describes how she researched this essay. Initially, she wanted to discuss the telephone poles and telephone, but after stumbling upon an article titled, “Colored Scoundrel Lynched,” and then another headlined “Mississippi Negro Lynched,” and then another headlined “Texas Negro Lynched,” she decided to inculcate lynching in her search (Biss, 342). This search showcased, that both of these phenomena were intimately connected. The manner in which people reacted to both the telephone poles as well as black people. The only difference present is that people eventually attached value to the telephone poles though they still refuse to do that with Black people, because of which racism is still prevalent.
The coincidences that the author showcases between the telephone poles and the lynching of Black people are made meaningful by the author, by reflecting the damage done to both of them. It becomes meaningful as it is evident that by denying themselves the advantages offered by the telephone poles the humans were hurting themselves in the path of progress. They were denying themselves the fruits of technological advancements. If they had continued their delusion and violence, then ultimately it would have led to a huge loss of human civilization. In a similar way, this perverse mentality that is so hellbent on eradicating Black people and hurting them ultimately is doing no good to the whole human civilization. In doing so humans are taking away a group’s basic right, to be treated as humans. Ultimately this will result in horrid consequences, for the entire humanity, as just like Black people are not provided the rights that they should be given because of being born as humans, by the grace of god, because of racial politics, a change in world affairs could lead any other group of humans into a similar predicament. Therefore, these coincidences are meaningful as they serve the author as a reminder to humans that they should never violently attack anything or anyone just because they do not understand it or feel dissimilarity towards it. Therefore Bell ultimately asks Mr. Watson to come as he ‘needs’ him, because as humans it is paramount that people support and care for each other as no one can support or understand humans better than they. It is important that humans empathize rather than attack to safeguard their place in the world community.
Biss, Eula. “Time and Distance Overcome.” The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction, edited by Melissa A. Goldthwaite et al., shorter 15th ed., W. W. Norton, 2020, pp. 337–42.