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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
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.
need only glance over the collection of photographs and postcards
depicting lynchings in late nineteenth and early twentieth century
America to recognize their power. The grisly images show corpses--mostly
African-American males--hanging by the neck from tree branches,
bridges, lampposts, and other makeshift scaffolds. Some are dismembered
and burnt beyond recognition. The perpetrators and spectators
(including children) in the photos often appear proud, even gleeful.
Their faces suggest a festive, carnivalesque atmosphere. Adding
to the brutality are the messages scrawled on the cards: "This
is the Barbecue we had last night"; "The answer of
the Anglo-Saxon race to black brutes who would attack the Womanhood
of the South".
The emotional force of those images and words lies at the heart
of nearly all of the anxieties surrounding them since their owner,
collector James Allen, deposited them in the special collections
department of Woodruff Library three years ago. Emory has handled
these 140 postcards and photographs gingerly, as if no one is
quite sure what to do with them. But after six months of community
deliberation and sometimes painful self-scrutiny, President Bill
Chace announced in March that the university would sponsor an
exhibit of the Allen-Littlefield Collection of Lynching Photography.
A date and a venue for the show, expected to be sometime next
year, have not yet been determined.
The idea for such an exhibition first gained steam early last
year in discussions among library staff and administrators. These
efforts slowed considerably, however, when several faculty and
members of the President's Commission on the Status of Minorities
raised concerns about potential misunderstandings of such a show.
In late summer 2000, Chace appointed a committee primarily of
faculty to consider the issue more closely and advise the administration--could
such a show foster understanding and healing, or would it exacerbate
racial tensions around Emory and Atlanta?
The advisory committee hosted six forums--three by invitation,
three public--last fall, testing community anxieties about the
images, some produced as locally as Marietta. Attendees overwhelmingly
agreed that Emory should proceed with the exhibition. "People
in the mostly black crowd of 60 or so spoke quietly but eloquently,
with pain, anger, anguish and conviction," reported the
Atlanta Constitution on a public forum held at the Auburn Avenue
Research Library. "In essence, they said: Show the photographs.
Let the truth, however dark and appalling, come out. The truth
Ironically, the long period of public discussion made not exhibiting
the images almost impossible. As Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish
History and Holocaust Studies Deborah Lipstadt, an advisory committee
member, said during one of two academic panel discussions held
on the subject last autumn, "We [at Emory] are so beyond
ready for it. Why are we even still asking? We are overdue it,
in my mind."
In mid-December, the advisory committee presented a recommendation
to Chace that the university "sponsor an exhibition of the
Allen-Littlefield collection of lynching photography." Working
with the Atlanta History Center and the Auburn Avenue Library,
he is now planning how that exhibition can best be coordinated
with those two other institutions.
In the meantime, the images become increasingly woven into public
consciousness: two exhibitions in New York last year; a book,
Without Sanctuary, edited by Allen and published a year ago;
national and international publicity alongside the book. Several
of the images even appeared in Ken Burns's latest documentary,
While four faculty members on the
advisory committee declined to be interviewed for this article,
everyone who did offer comment was hard-pressed to come up with
a compelling reason not to host the exhibition. "[One of
the dangers is] cheap conversations about race relations, whether
it's a 'We're being lynched today' narrative or a 'We're really
past that, it's history,'" says Natasha Barnes, an assistant
professor of English who also served on the committee. "Objection
to those kinds of conversations really isn't strong enough to
argue against having the exhibition, but to me it would be a
waste of resources to fall into those predictable categories."
Another committee member, I.T. Cohen Professor of International
Law and Human Rights Johan van der Vyver, observes, "I think
those who had reservations thought Emory should not be the institution
to host this exhibition. In the minds of some, Emory has the
image of an elitist, predominantly white institution, and there
seems to be some tension between the university and the black
community of Atlanta. My immediate response was that if there
is such a tension and distance, this exhibition can be an instrument
to break that down and bring that community and Emory closer."
Randall Burkett, the African American studies bibliographer now
overseeing the collection, adds, "Some fear this will only
create greater division, that young black children looking at
these images could feel nothing but hatred and fear of white
Americans." But like Barnes and van der Vyver, Burkett feels
the exhibition's potential far outweighs those reservations.
"These images document the reality and depth of racism that
have been a central dynamic in American history. We are not unlike
the rest of the world in our ability to perpetuate violence,
though we imagine ourselves exempt from this evil. I want this
exhibition to be catalytic of understanding, change, and healing."
Burkett's powerful argument for
the exhibition, however, points to one of the greatest disagreements
about it. "I think it's utopian, the belief that these photographs
might be a great, cathartic moment," Barnes argues. "People
will see them and be moved, but really, they will go back to
their lives. 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."
Van der Vyver also expresses some skepticism about the exhibit's
role in racial reconciliation. "It might be that an exhibit
like this is not going to be seen by the people who need to see
it, but there's nothing we can do about that. You cannot take
someone by the throat and say, 'Go and look at this.' But if
it touches the mind and heart of one person, then it will already
be worthwhile." Professor of English Mark Bauerlein, whose
book Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906 was released
in March, believes that overemphasizing the emotional may "perpetuate
a lot of false impressions about lynching--like not understanding
lynching in terms of historical conditions at the time."
Bauerlein argues that lynching and the 1906 Atlanta race riot
were both part of "a wave of 'negrophobia,' as it was called,
the widespread white fear of the savage,
carnivorous, primitive instincts attributed to black males."
He suggests that focusing on the postcards' emotional power may
also work against the best reasons for exhibiting them. "The
fear that presenting these images reproduces the spectacle of
the lynching itself and puts today's viewers in the same role
as the historical spectators is an unfortunate interpretation.
"It prevents the images from being historical material,
forming an important part of U.S. history. It was a common topic
of debate at the time, and it would be a failure of free inquiry
not to be able to do that today. We should not prevent people
from making up their own minds about how they wish to understand
the images." A.O.A.