HISTORY, HORROR, HEALING

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


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

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

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 What is the significance of the 1906 Atlanta race riot?

Professor Mark Bauerlein It is something of a watershed in U.S. history. It helped shift the African-American community away from Booker T. Washington's accommodationist, conciliatory attitudes toward the white community, and toward W.E.B. DuBois's more militant, separatist attitude. The gubernatorial campaign that year became one of the first real race-baiting campaigns in America. Both candidates exploited white fears, fabricating a depraved, degenerate, itinerant, vagrant black male who, they suggested, would rape every white woman he could find, because that was his instinctual inclination. That's the discourse. Candidate Hoke Smith said, "We will control the Negro peacefully if we can, with guns if we must." He argued that the only way to do so is to take away the vote: " Either ballots now or bullets later," his campaign slogan promised. This was a double stigma. On the one hand, the black male had to be controlled because he was an inferior, uncivilized creature; on the other hand, he had to be controlled because he was a calculating, political creature. In the first case, sexual assault was motivated by savage lust. In the second case, sexual assault was motivated by political ambition, for what he really wants is equality, and the surest way to gain equality is through miscegenation. The result was "negrophobia."

On the day of the riot, four reports of assault of black men on white women hit the newspapers. But the newspapers were competing for readership, and the best way to sell papers was sensationalism. White men and boys raised an outcry, "We've got to fight back." They took over downtown; they started destroying property and beating black citizens. The tensions, fears, and race hatreds exploded in anarchy.

AE How does your work on the riot connect to the lynching postcard and photograph collection?

MB I use one image from the collection in my book. It shows an almost unrecognizable body hanging from a makeshift gallows in Georgia. One leg is burned up to the knee. On the reverse it says, "Warning--The answer of the Anglo-Saxon race to black brutes who would attack the Womanhood of the South." It shows that at least in this time and place, lynching was a form of race terrorism.

AE What do you think these images can contribute to scholarship?

MB An understanding of the social climate in which these things could take place, to say it's not just simply a matter of rabid whites wanting to kill blacks. The act of lynching stands at the center of these historical documents and materials. Among other things, the pictures ask how this torture could be committed by people who in other aspects of their lives were reasonable, law-abiding citizens. That is what needs to be understood. I think that would be a kind of community historical service the exhibition could provide.

I think the lynching episodes need to be described: who these victims were and what happened to them. Simply telling people's stories is a necessary form of inquiry into these events. I was reading an article called "The Anatomy of Lynching" by Robyn Weigman. She begins by proposing to discuss the sexual/ gender dynamics of lynchings around the turn of the century. She refers to Ralph Ellison talking about a lynching, Richard Wright talking about a lynching. And then she refers to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. She doesn't refer to a single historical episode of lynching. In other words, she has a lot of abstract theorizing about what goes on in lynchings without any efforts to historicize or humanize these processes. That happens way too often in academic discourse, in part because in order to tell these stories you have to travel to archives and dig through obscure documents. It's much easier and faster to generalize. And I think that does nothing to enhance the historical understanding of something like lynching.

AE What is your definition of lynching?

MB Lynching is execution without due process. Which means it's different from murder. Usually, there is some kind of allegation, and the suspect is executed. That's important, because it brings into question issues of community--community values, community sense of justice, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. These are all implicated in any act of lynching.

AE Do you think there was a compelling argument against showing them?

MB There are reasons not to. One might be the belief that this will only sow racial discord. Another reason would be that James Allen has purchased these images; people have made money off of them, and Emory University would not want to seem to be in the business of trafficking in relics of racist violence. I think one should respect those positions, but for me they are outweighed by the importance of showing how people who otherwise believed in basic democratic principles turned into self-exonerating murderers.