Natasha Barnes teaches a class this semester that meets twice a
weekTuesdays and Thursdaysat 2:30 p.m. It is supposed
to hold a maximum of 25 students.
More than 50 are signed up.
The subject matter is definitely something that has the ability
to raise a few eyebrows, as well as draw a crowd. The course atlasnot
always the most colorful documentwarns that the classwork
involves handling toxic material. But Barnes is not
a chemistry professor, nor a faculty member in the School of Medicine
or the Rollins School of Public Health.
Barnes is an assistant professor of English, and her class, ENG
389/AAS 270, is titled Lynching in America.
The course is designed to prepare students for the exhibit of lynching
photography that will be displayed at the Martin Luther King Jr.
National Historic Site in May, an exhibit Emory is co-sponsoring.
In her class Barnes explores not only depictions of lynching in
photographs and in print but also the sociological aspect of the
subject. Lynching remains a difficult thing to discuss, and Barnes
chooses her words carefully.
Its important that we do our best to understand what
motivates people to do what they did, Barnes said. And
not necessarily to pathologize them, but to understand the deep
sense of racial, community justice around what they were doingbecause
they felt they were punishing people who had done something wrong.
Barnes said the vigilante aspect of this type of justice
is something that is very American, and not always cut and dried.
For instance, if we knew that Osama bin Laden is in the courtyard,
wouldnt we want to get him? Absolutely. Barnes said.
Violence is very much at the core of Americas sense
Barnes said viewers want to believe the lynched person must have
done something to deserve his or her fate. The alternativethat
the person didntis horribly difficult to come to terms
with, which is part of what makes the subject so tough to handle.
As a low-key opening act to the May exhibit, a small exhibit containing
three lynching photographs debuted during King Week as a part of
the opening of the larger exhibit A Dream Deferred in
Woodruff Librarys Special Collections.
The lynching exhibit, which recalls some Georgia lynchings (including
that of Leo Frank, a white man who was lynched in Marietta), incorporates
the reactions of several members of the Emory community at the time
and is located in Pitts Theology Library.
While the photographs of lynched human beings are shocking, there
is no denying their historical relevance. One of the great difficulties
in displaying photographs of lynching is to show them without being
I think that the exhibit at King Week probably would never
have happened two years ago, Barnes said. It reflects
a certain sort of comfort that faculty, administrators and students
are now having over this issue, but there has been a lot of conversation.
The eventual goaland the King National Historic Site is part
of thisis to display the photographs in a museum. The Pitts
exhibit actually is an excellent example of this on a small scale.
The large-scale model being looked at is the United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum in Washington.
That museum is an example of a proper way to document a horrible
occurrence. But while it serves as a good model for a museum exhibit
on lynching, it isnt perfect.
One thing the Holocaust Museum allows is for Americans to
externalize that evil. That cant be done in terms of the telling
of African American history, Barnes said.
While Barnes, who is a core faculty member in African American studies
and associated faculty in womens studies, has without question
dove headfirst into her current research and classroom work on lynching,
she is actually a Caribbeanist by trade.
Her mother is Jamaican and her father is Trinidadian, and Barnes
speaks with the unmistakable, enunciate-every-syllable-properly
accent of the West Indies. While she considers her home to be the
Caribbean and herself an American, Barnes actually is a Canadian
citizen. She was born in Ottawa while her father was attending graduate
school. She grew up in the homelands of both her parents, as well
Barnes earned her bachelors degree at York University in Toronto,
and after receiving a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, her first
teaching job was at the University of Toronto.
There is a rich cultural and social history with the Caribbean,
Barnes said. Everything we think about when we think about modernity
coalesced there. It was the first landscape in the 16th and 17th
century where we see the first investigations of capitalism. We
see the import of huge bodies of peoplethats putting
it benignlyto work on sugar cultivation, and I believe that
the sugar plantation was the first instance of modern capitalism.
The history is fascinating. Its the entire world in a very
It is this amalgam of influences that makes the region so attractive
culturally to Barnes.
The literature was born out of a need to create a distinct
literary trajectoryone separate from the European traditions.
All of the countries there are former colonial territories. When
my parents went to school they never knew anything called Caribbean
literature. They studied Shakespeare and Milton.
What I think is interesting is that tension between trying
to fit European literary models and categories to a kind of Afro-
or Indo-Caribbean experience.
Barnes future areas of research are much more innocuous than
the contents of her current class, and they fall into an area she
is quite interested in: popular
I love popular culture, and I love to see how it develops
and changes, Barnes said. But its difficult because
things shift so quickly. Once youve gotten your research,
youve talked to enough people and youre ready to write,
everything is different.
A lifelong music enthusiast, Barnes would like to investigate rap
lyrics as a professor would look at poetry.
Its difficult to think of them that way, Barnes
said. They are too much in the popular arena. They are too
enmeshed in controversy, homophobia and misogyny. But Id like
to think about what the stakes are.
Barnes also wants to explore the cultural history of hair and hairdressing
styles, specifically in relation to Africans and African Americans.
In Africa, Barnes said, having American hair is a prized
thing. Even in Atlanta, hairstyles for African Americans and African
immigrants can be a very important cultural signpost.
You can go to southwest Atlanta, and there are women who come
as spouses of students or other immigrants, and they are the major
breadwinners because they can [style] hair out of their homes,
Barnes said. Friendship and community can be formed over hair.