Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America

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A short flash movie about photos of real lynchings, featured in the book of the same name.
Found on the website http://withoutsanctuary.org/

The photographs of lynchings in James Allen’s book documents historical atrocities. Far more than a new addition to an encyclopedia of the Southern Gothic, WITHOUT SANCTUARY stands alone as a chronicle of shame and tragedy, one that controverts the received wisdom that most Southern lynchings were the sole work of the disgruntled “white trash” comprising the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, Klan members, masked and working under cover of night, are somehow less troubling than the “ordinary” white citizens of Dixie seen in these pages—men, women, and children who were photographed while participating, actively or complicitly, in the torture, mutilation, burning alive, and/or hanging of black citizens in broad daylight and in public.

Leon F. Litwak, whose prefatory essay in WITHOUT SANCTUARY summarizes the history of “extra-legal execution,” points to the numerous cameras visible in some lynching photographs as proof of the “openness and…self-righteousness that animated the participants.” The presence of cameras has also been noted in prose; Litwak quotes Thomas Brooks, a man who lived in Tennessee’s Fayette County in 1915: “Hundreds of Kodaks,” wrote Brooks, “clicked all morning at the scene of the lynching. People in automobiles came from miles around to view the corpse dangling from the end of a rope…. Women and children were there by the score. At a number of country schools the day’s routine was delayed until boy and girl pupils could get back from viewing the lynched man.”

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The photographs of white lynch mobs are deeply disturbing, but the photographs of lynching victims themselves are stomach-turning. Two plates display the charred remains of African American men whose legs were chopped off at the knee before they were burned beyond recognition and hanged. Nonetheless, a fathomless degree of horror—a horror more psychological, and thus perhaps more Gothic—is introduced with the “lynching postcards” that were made from such photographs. These postcards were initially sold at dime stores, and apparently there was plenty of demand: “Picture card photographers,” reported Litwak’s Fayette County witness, “installed a portable printing plant at the bridge and reaped a harvest in selling postcards showing a photograph of the lynched Negro.” Many of these postcards show the smiling faces of women and children on mobs’ outskirts; one is signed “Give this to Bud From Aunt Myrtle.”

When laws finally forbade mailing such postcards, an underground, hand-to-hand market sprang up, fed by the 1920’s resurgence of the Klan, which favored the postcards as a means of warning African Americans thought to challenge the status quo. One probable victim of the Klan was seized for wearing a silk top hat; perhaps he’d ignored a lynching postcard left at his home, its obverse reading “Warning//The answer of the Anglo-Saxon race to black brutes who would attack the Womanhood of the South”—a phrasing that suggests an additional twist to what we normally term Gothic. In short, Allen’s collection of photographs reveals lynching postcards to be racial pornography of the most extreme sort, equivalent to stills from racial snuff films.

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An important question about WITHOUT SANCTUARY is posed by Hilton Als: Why would any sane person perform the painstaking, and doubtless nightmarish, archival work that underlies the book? Perhaps because Allen is a self-proclaimed “picker,” a pejorative Southernism term applied to a man with no apparent job other than wandering the roads of his home state to acquire things deemed “telling.”

In Allen’s case, these things included “handmade furniture and slave-made pots and pieced quilt tops and carved walking sticks” and, eventually, lynching postcards. “In America,” he bitterly pronounces, “everything is for sale, even a national shame.” A comment a bit too editorial to have come from Flannery O’Connor’s pen, but Allen would surely be at home in one of her stories.

After all, it was O’Connor who noted of the Southern grotesque, in its human incarnation, the lack of mere humor or quirky diversion that characterized “Gothic” or “grotesque” elements in other regions’ literature. Folks whose lives revolve around such things as collecting lynching photos, O’Connor wrote, “carry an invisible burden; their fanaticism is a reproach, not merely an eccentricity.” A reproach indeed, one from which Allen does not exempt himself, one that seems to have issued directly from O’Connor’s own fierce, furious, and doom-bringing vision of the Old Testament Jehovah, accompanied not by sweet baby Jesus but Christ the Destroyer.

n.b. O’Connor, always smarter than I’ll ever hope to be, would have shared Melissa Harris-Perry’s view of the now commonly used term “lynching” in regard to political figures, which she invoked recently in the NATION, citing both Clarence Thomas and Herman Cain. Taking a broader view than I was able to find, Harris-Perry points out that the act was never about protecting vulnerable white women from “brute”–i.e. superior–African-American male sexuality; indeed, in it was a means of maintaining the social order and still is. How else did Thomas attain his appointment to the Supreme Court, and, for that matter, why hasn’t he been impeached? When, after all, did one ever hear of men of either color being lynched to protect vulnerable African-American women? What should have been obvious to me suddenly now is, and ironically so, since I located Harris-Perry’s essay on the Facebook page of Ron Wynn, a former colleague at the same alt-weekly where I wrote the original review of this book.

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Herman Cain: What High-Tech Lynching? |http://www.alternet.org/story/153155/…Despite the typically explosive alchemy of race and sexuality, the details of the charges against presidential candidate Cain seem to have elicited little more than a shrug.·

Diann Blakely: Very, very provocative. Reviewing WITHOUT SANCTUARY for the SCENE, which frightened me so badly I wrapped the book in plastic and left it on the Boss’s front porch–it seemed so evil I didn’t want it in my house, I explained, though I’m sure he thought I was crazy–but I’m going to post this with my piece on NBCC/Goodreads, for I’ve honestly never considered this POV.

Diann Blakely: So thank you, Ron and Ms. Harris-Perry! I’m very fond and always appreciative of people who make me think about items, particularly ones of such profound importance, in a way I might not have otherwise.

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