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deliberations on lynching photography examine racial and historical
other things, these pictures ask how this torture could be committed
by people who in other aspects of their lives were reasonable,
Bauerlein, Professor of English
is far easier to view what is depicted on these pages as so depraved
and barbaric as to be beyond the realm of reason.
Academic Exchange The
advisory panel was mostly faculty, implying
that this decision was an intellectual process. Was it?
Natasha Barnes If
it hadn't been for a few voices on that committee, it would have
been precisely that: an intellectual committee considering arcane
questions, which, actually, I'd like to do. I think that's probably
needed here. But there were strong voices for making this a community
process, leading us to host the public forums. They were concerned
about how the exhibit would affect black people negatively and
make them feel disempowered. That's what those pictures do. You
really feel like a victim.
These images bring up such visceral feelings that there's almost
too much emotion brought to bear on actually seeing them. Too
often, we're not really having the right kinds of conversations
in this shared moment of seeing those pictures. We're dwelling
too much on the horror. I think much more work needs to be done.
AE Such as?
NB I want to see follow-ups on
some of the more interesting and complicated notions around lynching.
There's something about certain notions of crime and justice,
about social disorder and how it must be contained, that really
fascinates me. There were intraracial lynchings--blacks lynching
other blacks. What does that say about crime and punishment and
New social beginnings and crime are also interesting. [These
lynchings are happening] roughly the Þrst generation after
slavery. The reviewer for the LA Times brought up the very controversial
idea that people who were lynched were usually (but not always)
men sort of unfettered by family, strange men in new places.
People wrote in saying this sounds like blaming the victim, but
I'm interested in teasing out what we do about crime. The naacp,
which was behind one of several anti-lynching efforts, didn't
always get involved in these things, because they wanted to Þnd
out if these men were guilty or not first. In South Africa, which
is also in a moment of new social beginnings, there's a huge
problem with crime now.
Comparative analysis is also promising. A famous Africanist told
me that in Africa there were similar kinds of colonial pacification
of certain tribes and similar kinds of photographs around the
same time, doing the same kinds of social things. I'm also interested
in Jewish/ Holocaust comparisons, too, in terms of iconography.
People's lives are changed for the most part by experience. I
think you're going to believe in brutality if you see your friend
get beaten up by the police. Those are moments that have the
potential to transform. I think the exhibition should make us
realize that we are all capable of brutality. What would have
prevented me being in a mob, if I'm angry enough about something,
in another place, in another time?
AE What do you think was the
most compelling reason for showing these images?
NB This is part of our history,
part of American culture. And as an educational institution,
we have an obligation to be part of the conversation--scholarly
or otherwise--about the legacy of this and what it means. There
is the possibility of a Truth and Reconciliation-type framework,
some kind of forum for survivors or children or children of survivors
to come and testify, and maybe the people who were perpetrators.
If people can prove they had to leave in the middle of the night
or that a farm was confiscated and taken over, then they should
be able to build up a record, and it could lead to some kind
AE What were the most compelling
arguments against the exhibition?
NB It's going to be different
from viewing these images in New York. I know Southerners feel
very defensive about being stereotyped as sort of ignorant and
crude and dangerous. Those [feelings] are real. This happened
in our landscape. I know that was a concern that a lot of people
had. If you're African American you're going to go away feeling
angry and victimized at worst, but you're not going to feel your
family members were murderers. I think a lot of Southern whites
are going to feel really implicated.
[Another danger is] cheap conversations about race relations,
whether it's a "We're being lynched today" narrative
or a "we're really past that now, it's history." Those
objections aren't really strong enough not to have the exhibition,
but to me it would be a waste of resources for the conversation
to fall into those predictable categories. It's very easy to
indulge in metaphor and feel victimized, helpless, cursed. That's
why it's important that we not set up a kind of voyeuristic viewing
of the bodies in various stages of disarray, but that we present
the history of the fight against lynching, all the legal maneuvers,
whether it's the Communist Party or the naacp, Ida B. Wells,
Walter White--that education has to take place. The model is
the Holocaust museum. One of the things Holocaust survivors said
was they didn't want to be seen just as victims.