The Fear of Myself: Determining Audiences for Lynching Exhibitions

“It wasn’t the corpse that bewildered me as much as the canine-thin faces of the pack, lingering in the woods, circling after the kill.” [1]

~James Allen, collector of lynching postcards and photographs

Lynching is an extremely tough subject to discuss.  Looking through the online exhibitions Without Sanctuary and Erased Lynching this week made me think about my hometown in South Carolina and what could have happened there in the Jim Crow era. After examining the online exhibitions I wondered, what audiences are exhibits about lynching meant to reach?  What do we as viewers gain from seeing images of victims from heinous acts of racial violence?

Perhaps it is the image of the crowd gleefully witnessing the horrors of lynching that should startle modern audiences and cause us to reflect on how the crowd allowed these acts of racial violence to happen.  Not every person witnessing the lynching participated in killing the victim but they perpetuate racial violence by participating in the spectacle of the event. Seeing the crowd of white faces viewing acts of lynching leads me to question why no one in the audience challenged these acts. Furthermore, these images make me wonder what acts of racism I see today that I watch as a bystander without question. Ken Gonzales-Day and James Allen depict the audiences viewing lynchings in differing ways in their online exhibitions and confront modern audiences with the question of how we contribute to racial violence and racism today.

Without Sanctuary is a large collection of lynching postcards and photographs James Allen collected over the years. The crowds surrounding the hanging bodies suggest the general acceptance of the event by the white population.  An image depicting the lynching of nineteen-year-old Elias Clayton, nineteen-year-old Elmer Jackson, and twenty-year-old Isaac McGhie in Duluth, Minnesota shows three shirtless African American males hanging from a pole while a crowd of white faces turn toward the camera and look, almost as though the photographer called the attention of the audience.  These images immortalize the anguish of lynching and make us wonder why anyone would want to witness such an event or carry a piece of paper commemorating it.  Seeing the crowd watching the lynching at times can be as uncomfortable as seeing the victims.  As James Allen says in his commentary, “In time, I realize that my fear of the other is fear of myself.” [2]  This statement suggests that as a white man he sees himself in the white witnesses and goes on to say the photos “become the portraits of my own family and of myself.” [3]  Being confronted with the totality of the scene, the bodies and the witnesses, causes the audience to think of how they see themselves in the image.  For a white audience this is a discomfort that should be confronted in order to better understand why racial tension is still an issue today.

Ken Gonzales-Day presents a different approach with similar images in Erased Lynching.  Rather than focusing on the victims depicted in lynching postcards, he removes them so that the focus is on the landscape and onlookers.  This approach draws attention to the ordinary in the photograph –to the landscape that perhaps remains unchanged today, to the people who committed the crime, and to the photography itself.  The image of East First Street in St. James Park shows a tree with a white audience dressed nicely in hats and suits.  A few spectators turn toward the camera and look at it straight on

East First Street (St. James Park), 2006
East First Street (St. James Park), 2006

while a man and woman walk by.  Without the body, the scene seems almost innocent, as though the crowd is congregating to listen to a speaker.  This suggests the acceptance of the event by these onlookers. Recognizing this culture of acceptance surrounding racial violence is discomforting. Gonzales-Day wants us to reconsider the history of lynching in America and racism today. [4]  Gonzales-Day’s approach may make modern audiences think of what racist events happen  that we observe or take part in without question. The absence of the victim also helps us to reconsider the numerous groups who have experienced acts of racial violence.  Gonzales-Day writes that he wants to draw attention to the races of victims who were lynched in the West –Latinos and Asians in addition to African Americans.  Expanding our definition of victims who experienced acts of racial violence in the past allows us to see those who suffer from racism today.Without the victim in the photograph, a white audience must turn their attention to the fact that, like James Allen suggests, we see ourselves.

[1] James Allen, “Without Sanctuary,” http://withoutsanctuary.org/main.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ken Gonzales-Day, “Erased Lynching,” http://www.kengonzalesday.com/projects/erasedlynching/index.htm.

17 thoughts on “The Fear of Myself: Determining Audiences for Lynching Exhibitions

  1. Thanks for the post Emily! I am always interested to hear your perspective about these issues! I agree with your assertion that the audience for these exhibitions are often white. I also understand that many people of color find these images exploitative, racial violence being something they do need to reminded of as they face it every day. Last week, we read about museum dialogue programs based on the idea that confronting power, oppression and privilege demands bringing people together from different perspectives into conversation. With this in mind, how can we have a truthful dialogue about racial violence when these lynching images alienate many people of color?

    1. I really like your question about how to have “a truthful dialogue about racial violence” without alienating people of color. If we are going to engage in a conversation about lynching and racial violence in the past and present the last thing I would think anyone would want is to have a one sided conversation.

      1. I personally feel like the exhibit, Erased Lynching, would be the closest we can get for that, Red. It’s a powerful tool to use to discuss racial violence. We know the violence is there even though we can’t see it. Although you could argue that by blocking out the only non-white people in the photograph then the conversation has no choice but to be one-sided. Maybe we could use it to inspire dialogue regarding racism today that is generally accepted by the majority? Something like the Stop and Frisk law.

  2. Very interesting post, Emily. Despite the extremely visceral and emotional nature of the readings and the photographs for this week, I’ve been struggling to find a way to put what I felt into words. Your discussion of the Southern perspective, though, made a few things click. When I talk about being from Richmond, VA, I often describe it as a city of dichotomies. The street I lived on, Davis, intersected Monument Ave, where the Jefferson Davis monument proudly overlooks the now famous avenue. The other end of my street, however, intersects Park Ave, where a church displays a banner with rainbow lettering, “for all God’s people.”

    Here’s a city that, for two centuries, was the epicenter of a nation founded on the basis that slavery was a legal- and natural- condition. We are still struggling to deal with these issues as a city. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t tried, though. Cultural and historic sites like Tredegar Iron Works, Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, and even the Museum of the Confederacy, are attempting to discuss slavery more. I love my city and I think things will change in time. But there’s still a lot of work to do.

    In the context of Allen’s commentary, it is plain to me that, when I see the onlookers in these photos, I see the creation of the culture that allowed their crimes to take place, a culture once represented by Richmond. By my city. And that really scares me.

  3. Emily, I had some similar thoughts. Despite being just south of the Pennsylvania border, my county and the area surrounding Baltimore was known for racial tension, almost more exaggerated than the tension in the city. I never really thought of lynchings as being close to home, but when I think about it, it’s a possibility. It would be an eye-opening story to tell for the suburban multi-cultural communities that are slowly working their way into Baltimore’s surrounding counties. On the other hand, it may not be my story to tell.

    1. Patrick I also never really imagined lynchings as close to me but looking through the exhibition “Without Sanctuary” I realized how many of the postcards were from states surrounding Iowa. I think many people in the state think themselves removed from the issues of racism, partly because of the population’s ethnic make-up, with 91.3% of Iowans identified as Caucasian in the 2010 census. However perhaps another factor is, as
      James Allen and Emily suggest, that by focusing on negative issues of racism we see ourselves and that is an uncomfortable reality for most.

      On a more positive note I did come across the African American Museum of Iowa, which I was previously unaware of. They are focusing on preserving African American heritage and reaching out across the state. Feel free to check them out at http://www.blackiowa.org/.

      1. I think geography plays a role in how we see racism and lynchings too. Northerners have a tendency to view the worst examples of racism as things confined to the South, but this is largely not the case. Many Northern states had slavery, even after the colonial period. They also had more lynchings than most people realize, and segregation existed above the Mason-Dixon well into the twentieth century.

  4. I tend to agree with you, Emily, that images and exhibitions of lynchings tend to serve a white audience. As you put it, “these images immortalize the anguish of lynching.” We had a somewhat related conversation last semester in AMC about a set of photographs documenting nearly nude African American slaves by their white master. The photos were used in a material culture article (the point of which I cannot remember at the moment-but I don’t think it was talking about the photos themselves) and we got to thinking about how uncomfortable the images made us. We wondered if by using the images the scholar was perpetuating the white gaze. I couldn’t help but think that if a member of my family was depicted in such an unwilling state, I might not want people to still be looking at that image 150 years later.

    I like the question Jillian posed. Are the images presented by Ken Gonzales-Day better because they force whites to gaze upon whites, rather than re-exploit the suffering of African Americans?

    1. As I was looking through all of those postcards, I kept wondering what the spectators at such lynchings were thinking. I have trouble in of itself just thinking about attending such an event. To stand there. The faces of the audience are as disturbing to me as the images of the lynchings themselves. Personally, I find the images of landscape years later almost equally haunting. To think of the things that transpired their over time is overwhelming. Those images seem almost as harsh with the juxtaposition of the peaceful scene with its violent history.

  5. I like the approach that Gonzales-Day uses – focusing on the crowd to evoke self-realization- because this allows us to explore modern race relations. These types of exhibits, I believe, should be for the people who would have not been a victim of these injustices, the ones who think that African Americans should “get over it” because its “over,” the ones who contribute to racial tension so we can challenge their beliefs and get them out of their comfort zones. The approach Allen uses could work if its not just exploitive pictures of what happened. It has to have a story, spark dialogue, challenge beliefs, pose questions and most importantly (I think) evoke emotion. This is just such a hard topic to talk about, I find.

    1. I agree, Araya. This is a really hard topic to talk about. I think you’re right about using these types of exhibits to start dialogue. I wonder about how these stories, images, and songs operate in our current society. I found these readings to be very challenging and I find it difficult to comment on these blogs. I wonder, then, how best to start these dialogues in a museum setting, to encourage people to work through the emotion and discomfort to productive conversation.

  6. I agree with you, Emily, that exhibitions about lynchings are mainly targeted at white people. I understand that the compilation of these images is supposed to serve as a reminder of the horrors that occurred in this country due to racism. However, I much preferred Ken Gonzales-Day’s approach. When the bodies were included, I felt almost like I was contributing to the spectating of this event. I thought the absence of the bodies showed how we have forgotten largely about the extent and gruesomeness of lynching in American history. So putting these postcards on display and raising awareness is important, I’m just not sure what way would best achieve the desired effect.

    1. I think you raise a very valid point, like many others, that the images in Without Sanctuary, can be exploitive. Your comment that you feel you’re contributing to the spectating of the event hits the nail on the head I think. That is an extremely uncomfortable feeling. Do you think it’s so distressing that it takes away from the meaning of the experience?

  7. Thanks for the post Emily. While I was looking at the Without Sanctuary gallery I tried to focus on the expressions of the crowd rather than the victims, but the intensity of the violence done to them usually forced my eye to rest on the victims first in most pictures. While the images in this gallery depict the stark reality of each lynching scene, I think that anyone who went through this gallery at a quick pace may lose focus on the lynch mob. I was also shocked by some of the writing on the post cards. Some of the images have been given copyright dates, which suggests that the lynching was a momentous occasion for which the photographer wanted credit. Another (The Lynching of William James: image 45) stated “X spot where Will James, body was riddled with bullets, after being lynched Nov 11th 09 at Cairo Ill.” This image suggests that the place itself had taken on the role of a memorial, even though the event was over. The fact that such post cards existed and were held as important by members of the lynch mobs serves as a chilling reminder of the acceptance of these crimes, especially when the criminals (some of whom must be proud members of the crowd in these images) went unpunished by the local law enforcement.

  8. I found Ken Gonzales-Day’s “Erased Lynching” project interesting. To focus on the white onlookers/perpetrators of the lynchings definitely brings you into the scene in a different way than seeing the photos with the lynching victims in them. It makes you think about what the spectators must have been thinking, as Kahla said, and what they were doing just before and just after the photos were taken. It makes me think about how angry and self-righteous they must have been, all the time, and how scary it would have been to know them, with their anger and hatred simmering perpetually just under the surface.

  9. Thanks for posting Emily. I definitely agree with the your statement that the intended audience for these exhibits is white; furthermore, I think it’s important that some have noted this intended white gaze may in and of itself be exploitative, even voyeuristic. Also, I really like the concept of Ken Gonzales-Day’s exhibit because of what you note–the focus on the ordinary and that racism occur in any setting. But, there is a postcard from Without Sanctuary that underscores why I think that exhibit is equally important. Photo 6 depicts two Italian immigrants who were lynched outside of Tampa. The exhibit attributes their lynching to American nationalism and economic factors (the immigrants were purportedly union sympathizers and local unions threatened a Tampa cigar manufacturer). I think it’s important to remember that lynching is not just a black/white issue.

    Case in point: Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent in Georgia, was accused of murdering a 14-year old girl who worked at his factory. The case involves anti-Semitism, race relations (the all-white jury accepted the testimony of a black janitor over Frank), media sensationalism, and was a factor in the creation of the Anti Defamation League. Here are some links:

    http://www.thebreman.org/exhibitions/seeking-justice-the-leo-frank-case.html
    https://www.pbs.org/thepeoplevleofrank/
    http://www.gpb.org/georgiastories/stories/new_south_and_leo_frank

  10. When the exhibition WIthout Sanctuary opened at the New York Historical Society there were lines around the block to see it. A large proportion of the visitors were African Americans. There was a large black audience for this exhibition because as disturbing as the images are, it is our history, as holocaust images are a part of the history of European Jews.

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