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July 8, 2002

Exhibit has special meaning in the South

Natasha Barnes is assistant professor of English.

Although I’d bought the book some weeks before, it took me a while to muster the courage to turn the pages of Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, the best-selling book reproducing some 100 lynching postcards collected by Atlanta resident and self-describer “picker,” James Allen. The Allen-Littlefield collection is a traumatic record of a national shame.

As a scholar of 20th century black life, “lynching photography” was the genre of photojournalism I became vaguely familiar with from the pages of the NAACP’s flagship magazine, The Crisis. I had always imagined them furtively snapped by lynching opponents and displayed as desperate testimonials against the barbarity of the practice. What else but outrage would have prompted Emmet Till’s bereaved mother to allow Jet magazine to publish the gruesome photographs of the body of her murdered 14-year-old son, lynched in Mississippi for saying “Bye Baby” to a married white woman.

Without Sanctuary bears witness to a more ominous utility of lynching photography: one of commemoration and ceremonial display. That lynching images took the form of memorial postcards, produced for and circulated among the crowd of taunters and torturers, seems a uniquely American example of what historian-philosopher Hannah Arendt, describing the sociology of Holocaust atrocity, famously termed “the banality of evil.”

Without Sanctuary depicts scenes where evil was not just banal, but downright festive. “This is the Barbecue we had last night,” is the scrawled caption handwritten at the back of the postcard depicting the gruesome remains of Jesse Washington, a retarded 17-year-old black laborer tortured and murdered in Waco, Texas, in 1916. “[M]y picture is to the left with a cross over it your son Joe. [sic]”

Some of the photographs are retouched in the charming turn-of-the-century habit of colorizing photographic scenes. Lynching postcards weld together two products of American modernity in a macabre mise-en-scène: kitsch and racial terror.

Although the Littlefield-Allen collection was publicly exhibited with record-breaking attendance at the New York Historical Society in 2000 and more recently at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, its current showing in Atlanta—at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, running through Dec. 31—has special significance.

Historical records support the fact that Georgia was second only to Mississippi as the state with the highest number of recorded lynchings. If James Baldwin described the South as “the scene of the crime,” then the hosting of the exhibit in Atlanta recalls the many lynchings in our own state: Marietta, 1915, the site of Leo Frank’s hanging death at the hands of a mob that included some of our most illustrious citizens; Bainbridge, 1905, where Augustus Goodman is pictured lynched from a sturdy tree whose trunk is decorated with a broadside advertising “rugs, mattings and linoleums” from the Bainbridge Furniture Co.; McDuffie County, 1960, where an unidentified black male hangs in an autumnal background of foliage and bramble. Witnessing the “strange fruit” of these bucolic scenes is to call to mind everything that is uncanny about race, identity and belonging in the American South.

But the metaphor popularized in Billie Holliday’s famous song also describes the gamut of meaning that can accompany the visual effect of the photographs today. These photographs impel us to place ourselves, for better or worse, in their polarized semiotics. And where we figure in those scenes depends on who we are.

For Hilton Als, an African American staff writer at The New Yorker, viewing these postcards is akin to watching his own self-immolation: “I looked at these pictures, and what I saw in them ... was the way in which I am regarded, by any number of people: as a nigger. And it is as one that I felt my neck snap and my heart break, while looking at these pictures.”

For Emory’s Special Collections archivist (and my colleague) Randall Burkett, who is white, the “we” of the photographic gaze is different: “White Americans just cannot imagine that we would do to our fellow citizens the kinds of things we have done. We just can’t imagine we could do these things week after week, year after year, decade after decade. When white folks look at those pictures, they have to wonder where they fit in.”

It is because these lynching photographs, picture after grotesque picture, conjure up an America where being black is always to be hunted and slain alive and being white is always to be a sadist and torturer, that the exhibit may have the danger of reinforcing the moral imperatives that compelled the production of lynching photography in the first place.

To be sure, the showcasing of America’s terrorism against its black citizens is an important and timely reminder of the grisly violence that is still so close to our collective ideology of justice and retribution. (I, for one, cannot help but shudder when hearing President George W. Bush swagger on the subject of “smoking out” Osama Bin Laden; it’s the rhetoric I imagine I hear mouthed from the “good ole boys” in the 1899 manhunt for Sam Hose, in the 1915 mob that was determined to “get” Leo Frank, in any number of manhunts organized to avenge the hurt and outrage of a community.)

But the photograph as a testimony to the truth value of a traumatic historical event involves its viewers, as images of Holocaust atrocity remind us, in a contradictory and sometimes prurient exchange. In a culture where violence is so sensationalized that it is normalized, perhaps seeing “too much” of these images means seeing nothing at all.

Moreover, any social historian of African American life knows that the full toll of racial violence in America can never be told through the postcards of the Allen-Littlefield collection because so much of that violence was too ordinary for photographic commemoration: the hundreds of lynchings that were the result of Ku Klux Klan-orchestrated “drive-by” shootings, and the scores of race riots that erupted all over the United States and left countless African Americans either dead or interminably terrorized.

Lynching photographs, of course, recall a certain truth about the relations of black and white in our country, but they never tell all of that truth. What they do not show is the history of African American affirmation and resistance against the meanings imposed on blackness through lynch law.

The photograph of Leo Frank’s dead body does not speak to the dignity of his life as a Jewish American family man and factory manager, caught in the vortex of poverty and anti-Semitism that exposed the contradiction of racial solidarity in the Jim Crow South, where sanctity was to be accorded to all with white skin. Nor does the postcard of Laura Nelson’s death in an Oklahoma town in 1911 give homage to the extraordinary humanity of her example as a mother and protector of the teenaged son whose body hangs beside her.

It is not strictly the photographic recall of these postcards‚ the surface truth that inspires us to ponder the lives of the Laura Nelsons, Leo Franks and Emmet Tills, but the dynamic way in which these snuffed-out lives live in our psychic and cultural consciousness.

Novels, plays, films and documentaries bring Leo Frank back to life in a way his murderers could never have imagined. Judging from the interest that is currently being generated from the Laura Nelson lynching, it is only a matter of time before this frail and fierce black woman is resurrected from the dead through music, art and poetry.

Indeed this is what is most morally salvageable about the project of “Without Sanctuary”: It is the opportunity toredevelop the photograph so that the atrocity it documents emerges less as realism but as a palimpsest, out of which we can imagine a different, if difficult, national conversation about the past that, to paraphrase another kind of “good ole boy,” William Faulkner, “is never past.”