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deliberations on lynching photography examine racial and historical
images bring up such visceral feelings . . . , we're not really
having the right kinds of conversations in this shared moment
of seeing those pictures.
Barnes, Assistant 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.
What is the significance of the 1906 Atlanta race riot?
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.
your work on the riot connect to the lynching postcard and photograph
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
What is your
definition of lynching?
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.