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February 11, 2002

The broad side of Barnes

By Eric Rangus,


Natasha Barnes teaches a class this semester that meets twice a week—Tuesdays and Thursdays—at 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 atlas—not always the most colorful document—warns 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.

“It’s 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 doing—because 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, wouldn’t we want to get him? Absolutely.” Barnes said. “Violence is very much at the core of America’s sense of self.”

Barnes said viewers want to believe the lynched person must have done something to deserve his or her fate. The alternative—that the person didn’t—is 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 Library’s 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 disrespectful.

“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 goal—and the King National Historic Site is part of this—is 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 isn’t perfect.

“One thing the Holocaust Museum allows is for Americans to externalize that evil. That can’t 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 women’s 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 as Canada.

Barnes earned her bachelor’s 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 people—that’s putting it benignly—to work on sugar cultivation, and I believe that the sugar plantation was the first instance of modern capitalism. The history is fascinating. It’s the entire world in a very small place.”

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 trajectory—one 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 it’s difficult because things shift so quickly. Once you’ve gotten your research, you’ve talked to enough people and you’re ready to write, everything is different.”

A lifelong music enthusiast, Barnes would like to investigate rap lyrics as a professor would look at poetry.

“It’s 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 I’d 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.”