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


Return to Contents

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

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

One 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 will heal."

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, Jazz.

Fears and reservations
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."

The wrong conversations?
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."