Persons Unknown (originally published June 4, 2011)

The following is an essay I wrote for a writing class this semester.  It’s actually one of the harder essays I’ve ever had to write, though maybe not for the reasons you’d think.  I don’t want it to die with the school year, though, so here it is.

Like one of Billie Holiday’s strange fruits, a lifeless black man dangles from a tree, his hands tied in front of him, his neck canted at an odd angle.  Behind him stands a row of white people, including young girls.  One is looking up at the man, smirking, satisfied.

Layers upon layers of eyes haunt this photograph.  The empty eyes of the black man, whose name is Rubin Stacy; the satisfied, horrified, or blank eyes of the white spectators.  There is the eye of the photographer, setting up the shot, peering through the eye of the camera—the window between then and now.  This particular photograph, taken in 1935 in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, was one of 98 similar images that were gathered in an exhibition called Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America in 2000, as a grim and (it was argued) necessary reminder of the depths of the racism in America’s past.  This leads to our eyes, looking at the photo, whether in a book or on a website or a posh Upper East Side art gallery.  What’s alive in this photograph?  And what has died?  What is the greater story at work, beyond the edges?  Assuming that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the racism underneath it all has blown vapor trails into our present, then—the organizers of the collection believe—it is our duty as Americans to have some conception of the extreme reality under which black Americans lived in the early 20th century, a reality which was masterminded and constructed by white people—who had, in turn, constructed their own extreme reality in which lynchings were necessary to preserve order.

“America’s first disaster movie,” far from being a secret, shameful event, was openly photographed by white spectators or sometimes newspaper photographers as souvenirs and reproduced as postcards (Als 39).  Lynchings were ostensibly a punishment for blacks who committed crimes or stepped out of line, but once a mob got going, it didn’t much care about finding out if the man in question had committed the crime he was accused of, or even taking the time to confirm the man’s name.  In short, lynchings were not a form of justice, they were public events, a means of social, political, and economic oppression, meant “as a warning to all blacks,” particularly those who “dared to challenge white authority,”  (Litwack 16).  Lynchings are symbolic of a time when white supremacy was so endemic and unquestioned that white folks murdered black folks with something beyond even impunity, when—across a large swath of the country—the black community lived with the daily knowledge that their lives could be casually and brutally stolen.  In spite of the public nature of the lynchings, the fact that they were announced in advance, and general knowledge around town of who had participated, juries and medical examiners routinely reached a verdict of death at the hands of “a person or persons unknown,” and hardly any people were ever prosecuted—and even less served jail time (Litwack 16).

It is strange to think of lynchings, the most public of public deaths, as being forgotten by contemporary America, by white America.  Maybe we want to forget, to reduce these public sacrifices to private shame, or at least to cognitively separate ourselves from the perpetrators, to say, “Yes, this happened, and yes it was horrible, but I had nothing to do with it and at least it’s over now.”  We are reluctant to give the historic fact of lynching more space in our inner racial dialogues than we have to.  The organizers of the exhibit argue that, though the time of lynchings is past, the photos are not merely documentation of isolated, abberational events long ago.  These photos “should continue to tax our sense of who we are and who we have been,” because racism and white supremacy continue to inform our collective present (Litwack 34).  Perhaps we have an obligation to view these photos, to remind ourselves of what white supremacy and state-sponsored violence—taken to its logical conclusions—looks like.  But the process by which certain events become—and, more importantly, fail to become—part of our national dialogue is ongoing, and by no means straightforward.

Susan Sontag, in her essay “Regarding the Pain of Others,” agrees that photographs can document events of historical and social importance in a way that no other medium can.  Photographs don’t just tell the story of the moment when they were taken; they find their way into the multi-media narrative of how we document our history, how we document ourselves as humans.  A compelling photograph is capable of documenting so much more than just the event in question.  “Photographs of the suffering and martyrdom of a people are more than reminders of death, of failure, of victimization,” says Sontag.  “They invoke the miracle of survival,” (Sontag 87).  If a photograph is documented and preserved, or if a photograph captures the sentiments and mentality of a society, then it both documents our history and defines our conception of it.  “This is important,” a photograph says, “and this is the story about how it happened,” (Sontag 86).  Photographs uniquely preserve the more viscerally brutal moments in our collective history by keeping them immediate.  But photography also has its own contradictions and weaknesses—are these photographs exhibits of a collective experience, or are they exceptional?

Placing a photo in context—in its multi-media framework—is essential to a photograph’s ability to tell a story.  “Narrative,” argues Sontag, “can make us understand.  Photographs do something else: they haunt us,” (Sontag 89).  They can, perhaps, motivate us to investigate more.  A dead man in a tree is just a dead man in a tree—but a lynching, with all its social and racial implications, is more than man or a woman hung by the neck.  If lynchings are the end point of the depth of racism in the early 20th century, then a critical arc of the spectrum remains to be filled in.  We can all agree that racism is brutal and deadly, but what about the times when it is deceptively banal?  In a documentation of American racism, why photographs of lynchings?  Rubin Stacy can tell us what it was like to die under a racist regime; but what about his hanging body tells us what it was like to live under one?  Is that an important part of the story?

Between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 4,742 people were lynched—not an insignificant number of people by any means, but still, only a small fraction of the total population of the South during those eighty-six years (Litwack 12).  Basic arithmetic suggests that many, if not most, people of color in the South went their whole lives without ever seeing a lynching.  Lynchings were a threat hanging over the collective head of the black community, a warning of, “You will put up with whatever indignities we subject you to, because if you don’t, you know what will happen.”  The gruesomeness in Without Sanctuary, of threats executed, is exquisite and should, as Sontag argues, “help us understand such atrocities not as the acts of ‘barbarians’ but as the reflection of a belief system, racism, that…legitimates torture and murder,” (Sontag 92).  Without Sanctuary claims to document not just a single event or a single war, but to represent an entire era of bigotry, racism, and social terror; but when you give barbarity one face, then a thousand others are excluded.

Precious little is said about their lives of the victims other than their grisly deaths—their names, maybe, and the circumstances surrounding their lynching—but not much about what’s going on beyond the edges of the picture frame.   Did they have families?  Were they religious?  What sort of lives did they lead?  None of this information is preserved.  But as Sontag points out, “The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs,” (Sontag 89).  Photographs do not merely document events; they have the power to define what it is about events that we remember.

Consider, for example, the most familiar image of Martin Luther King, Jr.—a few possibilities come to mind, but near the top is King speaking to millions on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, triumphant and eloquent, capturing a dream of what America could be.   Nowhere near as familiar is the image of a black father and his young son—niggers in the eyes of so many—examining the remains of a flaming cross planted in their front yard.  It’s one thing to know that King risked his life to do the work that he did, and another to see him and his son confronting that danger on their doorstep.  The photographs of King in triumph hold even more of the weight of courage when juxtaposed next to the photos of King under threat.   Perhaps the horror of the lynchings would be more surprising, more terrifying, if the daily lives of those who were lynched (or those who, because of their skin color, ran the risk of being lynched) were more well known.  Perhaps we would have a better conception of racism today if we could see inside the heads of the white people in these photos, if we could see the ways in which they are not like us—and the ways in which they are.  Perhaps it is what is not in the photographs that holds the link between the act of lynching in 1935 to its legacy in the present day.

For Hilton Als, staff writer and theatre critic for the New Yorker, the legacy of pre-Civil Rights South is not the lynching, but the unphotographed moment before the it happens.  “The experience of being watched, and seeing the harm in people’s eyes—that is the prelude to becoming a dead nigger,” (Als 39).  There is a spiritual lynching that happens before the rope is ever brought out.  We no longer hang men and women from trees, it’s true, but Als can’t help but recognize himself in Rubin Stacy—just like he recognizes the “crazy looking white people” staring out of the photos, who still stare at him today, and see a nigger (Als 40).  To Als, it is not about being hung from a tree, not about losing his life.  It’s about being watched, the attention he attracts because he is one of the “others,” and the other thousands of tiny deaths he experiences every day.

Als admits that, in spite of the personal connection he feels to Rubin Stacy, even he has a hard time looking past the corpse and seeing the life that it had—until just prior to the photo—inhabited.  What can these photographs tell us about the lives of young black men today, in Atlanta, in Bed-Stuy, in New Orleans, in Denver, no longer under the shadow of the rope but still haunted by the eyes following them?  What do 5,000 murdered souls sixty years ago say about 815,000 black men in prison; 25% of black families living below the poverty line; or 9,000 blacks killed by homicide in 2006 alone (Sabol, DeNavas-Walt, US DHHS)?  When we see a sepia-tinted Rubin Stacy in his rural farm clothes, do we also see 16-year-old Derrion Albert, beaten to death on the south side of Chicago in 2009 in an after school meleé?  And what of the young white girls, in their Sunday best?  Do they look like me?  If Hilton Als can relate to the experience of Rubin Stacy, then who is it making him feel that way, and how do we make sure they they (we) don’t escape accountability, as their (our) progenitors did?  What does lynching look like, today, in 2011, when most black people are not murdered by mobs of whites, but by other black people?  If we’re going to fight racism in the 21st century, at some point we must address the ways in which racism today does and does not look like racism did in 1935—about the reasons why whites no longer have to murder black people, because we seem to have successfully engineered a society in which they will murder each other, and be forgotten in prisons.  And if we’re going to move beyond racism, we need (amongst many other things) to widen the collective representation of Afro-America to include more than just victimization, more than just crime.

Of course, exhibits like Without Sanctuary are far from the only representations of African-Americans available.  In fact, the fact that lynching photos are not part of the mainstream racial dialogue in this country is one of the reasons why Without Sanctuary was organized in the first place.  The organizers don’t advocate for its dominance in the landscape, merely that it deserves a place in our collective memory.  Photographs of lynchings serve as a benchmarks for all that the black community has overcome in the past fifty years, and are only one part of a much larger picture.  The dominant narrative (that lynching no longer exists) is subtly but obstinately entrenched.  Without Sanctuary is part of the rebuttal to that narrative, part of argument that contrary to what we have been told, “War has been the norm and peace the exception,” when it comes to race relations in these United States (Sontag 74).  But if eyes are going to continue to follow Rubin Stacy, Hilton Als, Derrion Albert, and generations of young black men not yet seen by anyone, then how that picture is defined and constructed, when it’s judged to be complete, and whose stories are part of that picture is of critical importance.

Works Cited

Als, Hilton.  “GWTW.”  Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Ed. James Allen.  Santa Fe, NM: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000.  38-44.  Print.

DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Cheryl Hill Lee.  “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2004.”  US Census Bureau/US Department of Commerce, August 2005.  Web.  1 May 2011.

Litwack, Leon F.  “Hellhounds.”  Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Ed. James Allen.  Santa Fe, NM: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000.  8-37.  Print.

Sabol, William J. and Heather Couture.  “Prison Inmates at Mid Year 2007.”  Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin.  June 2008: n. pag.  Web.  1 May 2011.

Sontag, Susan.  Regarding the Pain of Others.  New York: Picador, 2003.  Print.

United States.  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  “Health, United States, 2009: With Special Feature on Medical Technology.”  CDC/National Center for Health Statistics.  Web.  1 May 2011.

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