A Strange and Bitter Spectacle

The James Allen exhibit “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” which opened in New York in 2000 and is now touring the country, deserves more than the pious attention it has received to date. The show calls us to “witness” the acts of atrocity it documents. But this witnessing is a far more involving and contrary proposition than it first appears. It presumes an innocent viewer who looks on in judgment, when the photos themselves make such a position impossible. Those photographs are so much more extensively violent than they seem that it is difficult to say just where their violence stops. And the bludgeoned bodies, bullet-riddled carcasses, and charred corpses the photos frame front and center reverberate without end into the historical world the photos don’t show. If we come to “Without Sanctuary” to witness, we’d better know more about what it is we’re doing, with regard to photographic documents in which very little is as it seems.

It may seem odd that a modern technology should be brought to bear on such a pre- or anti-modern activity as lynching. Not so odd when you consider that these photographs are not mere recordings of vigilante violence but violent acts in and of themselves. That the camera is a kind of gun in a grand image-hunt is hardly a novel metaphor; that this analogy erupts in the context of pictures we’d rather not be implicated in is inevitable. In all pictures, but especially in these, there is something predatory, the medium of photography shooting the world, and behind picture-taking in general is an acquisitive drive that suffuses lynching photographs no less than lynching itself.

If this modern(ist) technology is thus recruited for apparently primitive activities, it may be that the activities are not the feudal throwbacks we suppose. C.L.R. James once remarked that modernity began on the great slave plantations of the American south and the Caribbean; lynching may well be modern U.S. society’s answer to the threat of African-American social desire. If lynching’s modern-ness lies partly in its unadorned attention to the black (usually male) body, it inheres too in the fact that lynching relies on photography not only to certify but to complete its act. In a very real way there is no lynching until there is a picture of a lynching. I’m not saying that frequent and random black deaths at the hands of white mobs aren’t real enough in themselves, that they don’t count for much, don’t amount to a pattern, don’t attest to a structure of white supremacy. It’s rather that until the lynching photo arranges the victim, the crowd, the scene into a lynching scenario, the lynching isn’t yet real—certainly not for the larger community of viewers of these photos, and perhaps for the lynching’s participants themselves. In an image-saturated culture like turn-of-the-twentieth-century America already was, the image has a strange way of preceding the reality it records. In other words, the lynchings seen in “Without Sanctuary” are less the cause than the effect of the pictures in the exhibit.

These pictures of lynchings, then, are better termed lynching pictures, pictures that participate in the act of lynching; this is true in another sense as well. Unlike painting, for instance, which in even its most realist impulses only approximates or recreates reality, photographs exist because what they show you actually happened, in just that way, at the moment a given picture was taken. They don’t refer to something that occurred but are marked by it; we in turn see the marks. These scenes of lynching have been conveyed to the camera by the operations of light upon them, which through the alchemy of photography act on our optical faculties. As Roland Barthes has it, “The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being . . . will touch me like the delayed rays of a star. A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.” Photos blur the difference between the picture and the picture’s subject, the picture’s subject and the viewer. Lynching photos extend the duration of the event (turned into postcards, they also obviously extend its geographical domain); they embody it, prolong its agony. They put before us a spectacle from which, the moment we look at it, we cannot escape: we unavoidably share a skin with both the lynchers and their victims in an ongoing horror.

In giving us a sense of what racist violence looks like, that is to say, these photographs make our looking violent. We help lynch: we gather round, we take away images, we ratify the lynching even if we recoil in horror; we are as silent in our looking as we would have to have been if we’d been on the spot at the time of the crime (otherwise our lives might have been in danger). At just this point, however, the “we” and the “our” break down. As the pretext of the pictures is to divide any American “we” into us-and-them, white and black, so spectators of them are positioned in turn. However forced we are by the photographic look to take up the stance of the satisfied white participant, this can’t but be interrupted by the apartheid intentions of lynching. White viewers see themselves—or maybe try not to, but should—in their lyncher-surrogates; black viewers see themselves, perhaps equally trying not to, in their surrogate sufferers. The pictures reanimate in the present the racial civil war they document. One irony of such pictures is that while they are taken by and for (and sometimes of) white people, their terrorist value depends on their being seen by black people. The terror they inspire relies on black viewers being placed in the minds of white lynching participants, seeing themselves with violent white eyes. In the act of empathizing with black folk found by whites to be walking a little too close to the color line, black spectators are subjected to the violence committed both in and by these photographs. Indeed in his essay for the catalogue of this exhibit, Hilton Als goes a great distance to refuse any identification with the lynched men and women on display here: which is only to say that there’s no single kind of “black” spectatorship. The whole purpose of lynching is to reduce African-American variety and distinctiveness to another “Coon Cooking,” as one caption put it in photos of John Lee’s 1911 Oklahoma lynching and burning. This is one more effect of these photos to be resisted.

If it’s crucial to recognize that there are many possible forms of African-American response to “Without Sanctuary,” it is no less important to acknowledge a temptation that faces white viewers. This is to assume a position of innocence I began by trying to trouble. Some rationalizations that just will not do: “I’m from the North”; “my ancestors weren’t even here yet”; “no member of my extended family was ever in Georgia”; “some of my best friends are Negroes.” You may have half a claim if your great-grandma was Jesse Daniel Ames and started a southern women’s anti-lynching society in the 1930s: but only half. And if you are Jewish, I concede that you’ll probably have a different relationship with the photos of Leo Frank, whose lynching is shown in figures 34 and 35, than other whites might. But given the structure of lynching and of photographs of lynching, there is no way for white spectators not to be implicated chin-deep. Of course we find these pictures horrifying; refusing a stance of innocence, we may feel ourselves profoundly guilty. I am nonetheless aware that in myself, such feelings take on a well-nigh self-absolving air, allowing me to miss other possible ways I am complicit with the spectacle of lynching. Take the eroticizing of black male torture in these pictures, which appears to have been a hugely attractive aspect of the lynching scenario to the white men who perpetrated it. Can we be sure that this doesn’t hold us still?

Why are the great majority of the black men in these pictures young, slim, athletic? Because this type is most predisposed to rape white women, which few of them did anyway? These photographs appear to fit a psychosexual profile that extends across U.S. culture in which black men figure as objects of identification and desire for white men, however much they may deny it. What sports sublimates into athletic appreciation, locker-room anxieties make more plain. White male fascination with black men’s bodies carries components of envy, solidarity, fear, guilt, and outright desire—an explosive mix however you stir it. The sadomasochistic torture scenes on display in “Without Sanctuary” dredge up cross-currents of live emotion lying beneath our recourse to shock or horror; their continuity with less violent instances of similar fantasies indicates how familiar still are the psychological and social designs that drove them. In this sense the exhibit reads like one long white-male couch session, in which the most buried secrets they share come forth. Look at the liberties taken with black men’s bodies in these pictures, the murderous intimacy they reveal. The bodies oiled, roped, undressed; suspenders undone, belts askew, crotches exposed, genitals cut out. The bold sexual transgressions of which these men have been accused become the bold sexual transgressions of the lynchers themselves: hard not to feel the charge of desire here, or white men’s sympathetic identification with black outlaws of their own imaginations. To be sure, these are rites of exorcism that attempt to banish the “shadow” of the black man. But this may be because black men are so intimately imagined in the first place—the lynching itself seems a way to convert interracial desire to disavowal. And anyway, one of the haunting aspects of these pictures is the shadow of the white male photographer that hovers just into a couple of them, an apt expression of who, after all, is shadowing whom.

If it’s way too easy to ignore our current complicity in these pictures, it may be because so much in these pictures constitutes shadowy evidence, to borrow from James Baldwin, of things not seen there. Photography is a surface art; it hides as much as it reveals. Their mystery consists in their holding so much that we cannot see beyond the flat picture surface. If I follow a detail in one of the photos—the precise parting of the hair of the dead George Meadows (fig. 95), for example—I can wonder but not finally know much about what this style conveyed in 1880s Alabama. Where did all the suit-and-tied white men come from who gathered around the burning body of William Brown in 1919 Omaha, Nebraska? Did they lynch this man in their Sunday best; lynch first, then dress up; allow the crowd to do the dirty work, only showing up for the picture? Why do the killers of Bunk Richardson hold handkerchiefs over their noses? Did this man, or that one, get killed not for rape but for interracial sex that white men were too threatened to acknowledge as consensual? Did any of them die because they protested a white man’s rape of a sister, or girlfriend, or wife? Are the white female faces that sneak into a few of the pictures the alleged victims that lynching was designed to redeem (the chivalry of which was in fact just one more way of keeping white women in line)?

Such questions may point to a final strain of violence in these pictures, that of imaging without context a theater of cruelty whose farthest reach can’t reveal itself but which touches us nevertheless. The racial structures of dominance that produced this historically new genre of photography and that the pictures reproduce have far-reaching consequences, certain ineluctable results. It feels obscene to speak of a lynching photo genre, as though to aestheticize all this misery, but doing so at least allows us to see that elements of war (particularly Civil War) photography are here brought together with crucifixion iconography in a way that reveals the social and religious passion that produced these crimes. By the same token, it is impossible to deny that these pictures, in figuring a black Christ dying for someone’s sins (cf. Langston Hughes’s “Song for a Dark Girl”), work in part against their intended terrorist effect. If these murdered people get burned in a symbolic hell, we can plainly see who’s set the fires. The horror at the center of these pictures extends to those who performed it. In any case, whether you like it or not, these white lynchers have helped decisively in creating the world you live in, that you profit from or most definitely don’t, according to racial walls they were instrumental in helping build.

Maybe the largest context everywhere evident but nowhere seen in these pictures is the whole regime of black bodily policing of which lynching is only a part. Not even the most spectacular part, and certainly not exceptional in the way these pictures deliver such exceptional visual impact (their biggest lie of all). African-American bodies were front and center in a southern labor regime that made physical coercion, subordination, pain, and the threat of more pain the routine of life for most black people. The terms of work were set by whites, though they were negotiated, sidestepped, and refused in the most imaginative ways by those who labored under them. If the negotiation got too fierce—if, say, somebody decided not to work—a vagrancy charge landed you on the prison farm which extracted your labor in the name of the state. Punishment, the criminal justice system itself, was set up to force as much labor as possible out of cruelly shortened black lives under the threat of pain and death. The legal hanging of a black person, with the usual mockery of a trial, was little different from a lynching; the “legitimate” jailhouse and scaffold that sit in the background of one of the lynching pictures suggest that the only thing separating legal and illegal hangings of blacks was a picket fence. Lynching may be the most photogenic aspect of this whole dominative machinery; it is, however, only one branch of business as usual. We’re still in the business.

From June, 2002