“I have seen a man hanged. Now I wish I could see one burned.”
So said a nine-year-old child to his mother, on his way back from witnessing a public lynching in the late 1800s, once upon a time in America.
Tonight I write the saddest lines. A book review, thrice begun, thrice abandoned. Naive fool I, I had hoped that the last abandonment would be the final one, but that is not to be. I now tell the story of an old book, about old crimes, from another place – Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.
It is a new year. 2019. Four days in, I read the newspapers, and my mind is wrenched back to images from the book that I first saw over 14 years ago in North Carolina. Black-and-white photographs of black bodies lynched, hanging from trees, from bridges, damning their lynchers, but also their entire nation, confronting all who view them with silent accusation.
The image is horrifying: it haunts us. But these are not our spectres. This public murder, perpetrated so far away from us in space and time, is not our crime.
And yet it is. Lynching – murder with public sanction and political backing – pits the powerful against the powerless; pits a teeming mob against individual bodies, where regardless of guilt or innocence, those bodies stand not a chance. Because of this fundamental asymmetry, it is an eternal claim that the victims of mob violence – people murdered by the public without trial, without appeal, without mercy, and without sanctuary – make upon us, an eternal claim for justice. This is why this picture catches us, and will not easily let us go.
Why the photographs?
Look more closely at the photograph, if you can, and something more terrifying still emerges. See the crowd all decked out? The men and women in their Sunday best? The dark-haired lady in her printed dress? The man pointing up at the body in the tree?
These are the crowds that would routinely come to view and participate in the lynchings of the time, creating an atmosphere that was cheerful, celebratory, festive. Between 1882 and 1968 an estimated 4,742 African Americans in the United States were murdered by lynch mobs.
Lynching was a way to keep blacks “in their place” through acts of public terror after the civil war and the ending of slavery. It was an extra-legal but socially-acceptable form of political violence adopted by a society on the churn, where fundamental social compacts – the basic orderings of society – were being overturned and reshaped.
In a climate where lynching was an acceptable expression of the hatred of a more-powerful community against a less-powerful one, viewing lynchings became another fun family activity, a festival of hate. A place to take your nine-year-old to see hangings and burnings and things further still.
At a moment when photography was just coming into its own, it was natural to want to document and preserve all that shared joy. To accompany the spirit of public lynchings then, people bought and sold and circulated picture-postcards of these lynchings, and sent them to family and friends accompanied by handwritten notes that said things like, “This is the barbecue we had last night.” WhatsApp messages of their time.
An undeniable history
It is a collection of over 91 such postcards that forms the crux of Without Sanctuary, framed by moving and profound essays by collector James Allen, historian Leon F Litwack, Congressman and civil rights legend John Lewis, and New Yorker critic Hilton Als. Each of these essays tells a different story, offering differing perspectives. Als, in a searing and legitimate critique of the entire project itself – objectifying as it is of the bodies of lynched African-Americans – finds himself ultimately “unable to determine the usefulness of the project”.
I thought of Als’s essay for a long time before finishing this piece, before choosing to refer to the image that I have, before exposing these bodies to another set of eyes in another place far away. Ultimately I was guided by Congressman Lewis’s claim that “...many people today, despite the evidence, will not believe – don’t want to believe – that such atrocities happened in America not so very long ago. These photographs bear witness to...an American holocaust.”
Sometimes we should look closely at that which we do not want to see. James Allen, the original collector of the postcards, and the curator of the project writes, “What is most disturbing about these scenes is the discovery that the perpetrators of the crimes were ordinary people, not so different from ourselves...; they were family men and women.”
Are we monsters?
Ordinary people, ordinary children, ordinary crowds, ordinary postcards, but when we look back at them now, they have the power to, as Allen says, “turn the living to pillars of salt.” Looking at this picture, looking at the rest of the pictures in the book if we ever do (something that most of us will never do, something that only some of us should ever do), thinking of that nine-year old child, the question we should ask ourselves is this: what does it take to become one of the crowd? What does it take to become monstrous to ourselves?
The answer may be, not very much.
To see the pictures and read the essays in Without Sanctuary is not to feel bad for the lynched, disgusted at the barbarity of the lynchers, and generally removed from it all – which is the way many of us have come to feel when we see now-routinised footage of mob violence onscreen. Sometimes a greater distance is effective in helping us to subtly shift perspective.
To view these images, at an even greater remove from us, is to feel complicity in our bones; to understand that there is no “them” when it comes to the lynching public, to understand that when public morality and political complicity allow for lynching to become a frequent and acceptable form of violence, we become the crowd. And this applies to elites as much as to the “uneducated mob” we may think of, in our ignorance, as the chief perpetrators of these acts. As James Allen says, in all these photographs, “…the communities’ best citizens lurking just outside the frame.”
Indeed, at times these “best citizens” chose to walk right into the frame; very often they set the stage. In a scenario that sounds deeply familiar, historian Leon F Litwack writes of this era, “Not only did distinguished public officials at all levels of government hesitate to condemn lynching, but some also chose to participate in lynch mobs.” Litwack further alerts us to the fact that lynchings became so acceptable that newspapers covering them began to differentiate between “good” and “bad” lynchings, describing one in Mastadon Mississippi as, “a most orderly affair, conducted by the bankers, farmers, and merchants of that county. The best people the country, as good as there are anywhere, met there and hanged Curl without a hint of rowdyism. There was no drinking, no shooting, no yelling, and not even any loud talking.”
Back to the future
Is this a place we could go, or a place we have already been? Perhaps over the past years some of us have wondered how a 14-year-old child could stand to film a murder as it was being committed by his uncle, and make of it a viral video on WhatsApp? Or how people could take selfies next to a bound-up adivasi man before he was beaten to death?
Without Sanctuary shows us that this has happened before, in another great democracy. And on a large scale, where lynching became normalised to the point where a postcard of a public hanging became something you might send your aunt to let her know you were thinking about her.
Rather than losing our stomach, we find new feet for lynching. As it becomes ever-more common, we may find ourselves, or our children, or our grandchildren, cheerfully circulating, on the social media of the future – selfie with lynchee.
Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, James Allen, John Lewis, Leon F Litwack, Hilton Als, Twin Palms Publishing.
Durba Chattaraj teaches writing and anthropology at Ashoka University. The views expressed are the author’s own. The author acknowledges that the third sentence of this review was wholly inspired by Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Tonight I can Write the Saddest Lines.”