When it comes to certain segments of American history, it seems that our collective memory tends to sputter, spark and then short-circuit. Suddenly no one seems to quite remember the way things really were. And yet, America manages to maintain a full supply of historical rewrites and edits designed to make such distasteful episodes as slavery — and many of the ugly ensuing historical and current episodes that slavery has spawned — go down a little easier. When Disney wants to build a theme park designed to “teach” us all about slavery — yes, this is a true story — then you know something is wrong with this picture. Imagine Mickey Mouse belting out “Old Man River” while Minnie Mouse struggles to pick cotton and you get the idea.
So when exhibitions such as “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” are thrust into the public consciousness, complete with graphic photographs of often-mutilated black men swinging from trees or being set on fire, amid crowds of smiling white folks dressed up in their Sunday finest to view what was sometimes referred to in those days as a “barbecue,” the response from many of those viewing the evidence of such an unbelievable truth goes beyond shock and horror to a distant point of numbness. For others, the feeling of revulsion is too powerful to stomach, and the question is raised of whether such a display does more harm than good.
In a New York Times editorial opinion column earlier this year, Brent Staples begins by saying, “Most of us have witnessed things that we would be better off never having seen.” This simple declarative statement sets the stage for Staples’ argument that the horror exhibited in these photographs is so extreme that there is a risk of creating an unintentional level of comfort with these particular demons of America’s past. Rather than pounding home the truth, Staples seems to worry that the pictures will cause a sort of system overload among viewers that will cause them to reflexively protect their psyches by any means necessary from what they have seen:
The photographs mainly depict black men with hideously elongated necks, swinging sometimes in threes and fours at the end of ropes tied to light poles, trees or gallows. One of the most frightening pictures shows hundreds of well-dressed men in a field, pressing forward for a better view of a naked black man who has just been hanged and is now being mutilated and burned on a pyre. ... I reached my “limit” quickly and left the room. I returned briefly to take some notes and was on my way, never to return. There is an unbearable measure of horror here that I have no interest in learning to endure.
After viewing these photos, it is certainly understandable that someone would feel this way. Being bombarded with the reality of human brutality at an “exhibit” might seem a bit over the top, and it’s definitely not the kind of display that most folks would care to take in during lunchtime in the same way they might break for a stroll through a nearby art exhibit. Still, fortunately, there are those who have visited the Web site — either in addition to or instead of the museum exhibit Staples saw in New York or the book issued by Twin Palms Publishers — and have taken the position opposite Staples’. Despite the ugliness of the subject matter, a large number of the responses posted on the Web site seem to indicate that the raw nature of the display just might be having its intended effect. For example, here’s what a woman named Diane Hall had to say:
“As I sat watching the photos, my mouth opened in horror. I could not believe the carefree attitude of the lynchers and the cruelty they inflicted just because the color of someone’s skin is different from theirs. I was truly horrified and glad Mr. Allen (the author-collector behind the book) took the time to share this part of history.”
And then there’s Patricia Wright:
“I am just speechless. I too feel a sense of denial when I see these pictures. I also see my family being lynched and hung and maimed. People staring at the people being lynched with hands in their pockets. It’s unreal but it is real. My God they could not have been human. They could not have. Taking photos of them and making postcards out of them. God have mercy on their souls and mine.”
“I am ashamed. Not of my race, but of my species. How could someone’s suffering and pain bring pleasure to another? Only the human race could be so horrible. I have a dog with more compassion.”
And Donald Teel:
“The images disturbed me, yet I could not avoid examining them in detail. It’s easy to condemn the ghoulish nature of the bystanders in each scene, but I know that they’re not so different from us. What bothers me is the certainty that within each one of us some vestige of that cruelty dwells.”
And an unnamed entry:
“Quite a few of my friends and relatives cannot bear to watch this exhibit; the pain goes too deep and the anger and rage surfaces much too fast. But for those of us who need to bear witness to the horrors of the past, present, and future, thank you for showing guts in bringing this exhibit to light. It cannot be said anymore, ‘Oh! that never happened.’ We now know with certainty that it DID happen!”
And Doria Johnson:
“My great-great grandfather is in your book, Anthony Crawford. ... Thank you so much for including my ancestor in your book. His story needs to be told. Very moving book. I had tears in my eyes and cannot digest it all in one sitting.”
And, finally, Anthony Damonse:
“As sad and offensive as the photographs and culture that created them are, it has not ended. Blacks still get tied behind trucks and dragged, homosexuals still are tied to fence posts and beaten to death and there is still a culture that supports this.”Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org