Although Id 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 NAACPs 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 Tills
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
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 Atlantaat the Martin Luther King Jr.
National Historic Site, running through Dec. 31has special
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 Franks 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 Hollidays 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 Emorys 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 cant 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 Americas 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; its 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 Franks 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 Nelsons 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
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
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