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September 23, 2002

Uncomfortable Learning

Rudolph Byrd is associate professor of American Studies

As chair of the “Lynching and Racial Violence in America: Histories and Legacies” conference committee, I have had the great privilege to collaborate with individuals from offices and departments across campus: anthropology, English, the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts, history, the Institute of Women’s Studies, the Program of African American Studies, theater studies, Special Collections, the Office of Religious Life and the Office of the President.

All of these colleagues have demonstrated their unwavering commitment to create a conference of depth and seriousness that complements “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” the national exhibition on display at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site until Dec. 31. Guided by the highest standards, members of the conference committee have created a conference that accomplishes, we believe, several goals.

The first is to provide a thoughtful and rigorous framework for examining the realities of lynching and other forms of racial violence in the United States, not only for Emory students and alumni, but for their counterparts at neighboring institutions in Atlanta and the region.

These are realities that most Americans would deny or turn away from, but through the plenary addresses, panels and a newly commissioned theatrical production featuring Emory faculty and students—as well as other scholars and activists from the United States and abroad—I believe we have provided an educational framework for engaging these realities, thereby providing a means to engage more productively the complex histories and legacies that inform the lives of each American.

In the planning and organization of this conference, I have grown more appreciative and aware of the many strengths specific to a research university, strengths that have enabled us to mount an impressive gathering of scholars, representing many disciplines and fields, who will join us in our ongoing efforts to interrogate the dark realities of lynching and racial violence through our own teaching and scholarship.

My colleagues and I on the conference committee take pride in the fact that Emory will host this event, for our location in the South—a region with its own very particular history of racial violence—positions us to provide leadership in shaping the national and international dialogue on this controversial topic. Certainly, it must be recalled in the weeks before the conference that the leadership on this vital matter was provided at every turn by President Bill Chace.

Of course, at each stage in our deliberations members of the conference committee had always as our touchstone the exhibition itself. After successful runs at the New York Historical Society and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, “Without Sanctuary” opened in May with a beautifully choreographed ritual of remembrance that involved not only many Emory faculty, but also religious leaders representing Atlanta’s many faith communities. The exhibit has attracted large audiences; July attendance exceeded 100,000 visitors.

Keenly aware of the national interest of this exhibition, curated by Joseph Jordan of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an additional goal of the conference committee was to collaborate with Frank Catroppa, superintendent of the King National Historic Site. While we understand that it is best for others to determine how successful we will have been in realizing this goal, I can state that we entered into the process of collaboration fully and completely, with the objective of organizing a conference that is in conversation with the exhibition and that examines the many difficult themes and questions that the exhibition, with all its force and power, continually and relentlessly poses.

The conference committee’s second goal of planning a substantive collaboration between Emory and the King National Historic Site has expanded to include colleagues from the Atlanta University Center, Georgia State University, the University of Georgia and the High Museum of Art. In other words, the conference has become a site of collaboration with many of Georgia’s most important educational and cultural institutions, along with the several communities they represent. These are communities in which Emory endeavors to be a conscientious and contributing member, and the international conference on lynching and racial violence will be an occasion, I predict, for reaffirming our ties and responsibilities to these communities.

Of course, the conference committee had several other goals, but the two I have mentioned here are perhaps most important. In necessarily focusing upon the goals of the conference, my colleagues and I also have reflected upon the effects beyond these rather praiseworthy goals—that is to say, the hoped for consequences of such an ambitious and controversial undertaking.

Certainly, it is our hope that the conference and the collaboration with the King National Historic Site represents something approaching continuity in our institutional commitment to explore seriously the processes of reconciliation, a commitment and concept that formed the basis for considerable dialogue among and between the University’s many programs, departments and schools not so long ago. More, it is our hope that the conference will enhance Emory’s reputation and standing in the region and the nation, for we are, as a university, no longer the insular and (some would charge) unreconstructed institution we once were.

Above all, it is our hope that this conference—to date the only conference associated with the exhibition in any of its iterations—will demonstrate again the commitment we share as members of a research university to creatively deploy our considerable talent and resources to interrogate horrendous, unspeakable realities that we look away from at our peril.

All great universities are always about the difficult and unpopular work of uncomfortable learning, by which I mean the examination of positions and texts which challenge and defy our core beliefs. The subject and focus of this international conference is an instance of uncomfortable learning.

Finally, while intent upon realizing our charge as a committee, my colleagues and I have been conscious always of the genesis of the work we agreed to undertake on behalf of the Emory community, the communities of Atlanta and the dead whose images rise before us in each photograph in “Without Sanctuary.” The genesis of our work began with the commitment of James Allen and John Littlefield to assemble, through their collection of lynching photographs, a record of a national crime by which we are still plagued.

For the Allen-Littlefield Collection—currently on loan to Special Collections—and all the many instances of teaching and learning that flow from it, the exhibition and now the conference, we shall be always indebted to Messrs. Allen and Littlefield.