HISTORY, HORROR, HEALING

The images bring up such visceral feelings . . . , we're not really having the right kinds of conversations in this shared moment of seeing those pictures.



Natasha Barnes, Assistant Professor of English


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History, Horror, Healing
Faculty deliberations on lynching photography examine racial and historical understanding

Among other things, these pictures ask how this torture could be committed by people who in other aspects of their lives were reasonable, law-abiding citizens.
Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English

Lynching in America
Selected Resources

It is far easier to view what is depicted on these pages as so depraved and barbaric as to be beyond the realm of reason.
Leon F. Litwack

The Academic Exchange The advisory panel was mostly faculty, implying
that this decision was an intellectual process. Was it?

Professor 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 vigilante justice?

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 of reparations.

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.