Picturing our violent past

Without Sanctuary casts America’s dirty little secret into the light

History has proven a flexible concept, easily shaped into the form nations prefer.

That malleability explains some of America’s failure to account for its own brutal past and preference for a more agreeable fiction. American history, from a black vantage and a white vantage can often seem like two separate, parallel histories. We occupy the same world, but our perceptions of that world are utterly different.

After much ado and debate, the exhibition of lynching photographs Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America has finally opened in Atlanta, at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site. Drawn from the photographic collection of James Allen and his partner John Littlefield, Without Sanctuary first appeared in 2000 as a book of the same name issued by the cutting-edge art publisher Twin Palms. Filled with images of the lynchings of men and women in America from 1882 to 1968, often surrounded by gleeful onlookers, the book made the brutality of history unavoidable in page after page of dead bodies.

At times the debate — of whether to show these images in Atlanta and how they should be exhibited — seemed less a gesture of sensitivity so much as paranoia, as if tensions in the South were so volatile, the images could provoke a race war. The endless academic cud-chewing seemed symbolic of how reluctant some Southerners are to address the issue, while others, such as the African-Americans whose input was sought at public forums co-sponsored by Emory (to whom the collection was loaned), seemed anxious to see Atlanta bear witness to the past.

Without Sanctuary in its MLK incarnation is curated by Joseph Jordan, former director of the Auburn Avenue library. The ambiance of the show is cautious, somber, respectful and speaks to the viewpoint of the King Center. There is an antechamber to the exhibition, which encourages a gradual immersion into the disturbing images, and a slow progression in the degree of violence depicted as viewers move around the room. Missing are the incensed, outraged descriptions of the brutal tortures acted out on lynching victims and the evocative context Pulitzer Prize-winner Leon F. Litwack establishes in his essay for the Twin Palms book. But the show’s obvious attempt to address a broad audience in a thoughtful way and to end on a positive note with images of anti-lynching crusaders like Ida B. Wells makes for a more conciliatory, if less urgent, tone.

The atmosphere of this Without Sanctuary is funereal and seems in keeping with the need expressed by many African-Americans to memorialize. The discussion surrounding the exhibition has often shown an uncanny similarity to the need expressed by families whose members have died violently, in the recent World Trade Center attack, for example, to find some way to commemorate and mourn when a body can’t be found. Without Sanctuary is about a mass African-American death, of spirit, of identity, of soul, that many Americans have refused to acknowledge.

Without Sanctuary is also a coming-to-terms with the intertwined nature of photography and self-identity in our culture. An aesthetic understanding of the medium and the past is drastically altered in looking at these images, which transform the filmy, warm sepias of old photos into muddy, polluted, execrable objects. Since its invention in the 1830s, photography has helped craft America’s sense of self often in ever-increasing pinwheels of denial and evasion.

As the reality of lynching was avoided in history books, it seemed to erupt in a secret, gruesome folk history, of traded mementos, postcards, bits of hair from a victim’s body, the wood from a lynching tree — items catalogued in this exhibition. While the subject was avoided in traditional histories of America, it was obsessively collected and catalogued like a religious relic by a white society that had created its own parallel mythos of widespread sexual attacks on white women by black men.

A feverish pornography evolved in which imagined crimes both titillated and allowed for troublingly cathartic, gruesome release in the mad mob violence of the lynchings themselves. How propaganda is made is no small part of this exhibition, which shows how the process of dehumanization involved in a lynching reinforced a sense that African-Americans were not human. The rituals of lynching — the burning, the nudity, the dismemberment of the bodies — was a process of stripping away every element of humanity, and that progression from sentient human to the charred head of Illinois lynching victim William James impaled on a stick completes a racist agenda.

One of the most troubling elements of the exhibition is the appearance of children in the photos and a routine trafficking in horrific images as seen in an image of a charred African-American corpse printed as a picture postcard mailed from a son to his mother.

The images displayed in Without Sanctuary recount not only a secret American history, they are part of a larger movement in a visual anthropology of America as more and more publications featuring medical, crime scene and homegrown images arise to confront the media manufactured onslaught. On one hand is a dark, violent and blood-drenched history, and on the other, a deodorized, sterilized artificial history. America is in many ways excavating its own past through the most powerful religion we know, the cult of the image, which gives us our evidence, our truth, ourselves.

Without Sanctuary: Lynching

Photography in America runs through Dec. 31 at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, 450 Auburn Ave. Daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Free admission. 404-331-5190.??