American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
POETRY, ESSAYS, MYSTERIES, PHOTOGRAPHY, THEATER, KIDS' BOOKS
Without Sanctuary: Voyeurs to Our Own History
Without Sanctuary by James Allen,
introduction by Leon Litwack, Twin Palm Publishers, 1999. Twin
Palms Publishers, 54 1/2 East San Francisco St., Santa Fe, NM 87501;
I looked through the book Without Sanctuary, a photographic exhibition of the lynching of blacks during the years after the abolition of slavery, with a fascination I'm sure I shared with many who saw the show in New York City or have read the book which accompanies the show. The images of hanged black men and women, like wilted flowers, strung on trees or lamp posts or bridges, is more than haunting. I am disgraced, and the shame of it crept over me as I read and stared at the images.
Without Sanctuary is a collection of postcards of lynchings. That people took pictures is difficult to believe, that they were made into post cards is almost unbelievable. So, I look on through the book, looking for an indication that this will never happen again, knowing that it will insome form here or somewhere else.
The woman who loaned the book to me said she couldn't read it right then because it was too much. The woman I loaned the book to at first repeated the same phrase before taking it home because, as she said, she needed to know.
These postcards and the notes on them detail the period of time after the 1880s up through the 1930s, during which time the lynching of blacks became increasingly prevalent, especially in the Southern states. The increase coincided with a growth in Southern blacks' economic power and a growing fear among Southern whites that they were slowly losing control. The photographs depict the ugliest side of this fear.
Most of the images are in a sepia tone although a few were hand painted in color. The originals range from three by five inches to page size, however a number of the smaller images have been blown up for the book. In the introduction to the website, there is a warning reminding people that the images they are about to see are disturbing. This is even truer for the book where the pictures are sharp and impossible to ignore. James Allen, the collector of these photographs, spoke on the radio about one particular image that haunted him. It is a picture in which a young man hangs from a tree in the foreground, and in the background, but very close, a girl stands looking up at the tree and smiling. The date of the photograph is 1935 and that young girl would now only be in her 70s.
What benefit is there to witnessing horrendous moments in time through photographs? What do we gain by seeing naked men burned and mutilated before being hung as a warning flag to any who would dare cross the boundary of race? Lest we never forget -- but, the truth of it is that many of us have forgotten or never knew. Never knew that this was ritualized murder intended to suppress a group of people. Never knew that lynchings were often announced in the papers, bringing up to 15,000 people to witness this symbol of their hatred and fear while eating lunch with their families. Never knew that there was a business of selling parts of the burned body or of post cards depicting the event.
I find that there is something disturbing about photographs that allow us to become voyeurs to our own history. We see images like those of lynchings and realize we are completely powerless over that moment. Yet, there is a desire to want to act, to change history. That is the burden of knowing and seeing history. It asks us to act, but then it is our choice what we do.
[The website for the book and show is <www.journale.com/withoutsanctuary/index.html>.
The show at the New York Historical Society in New York City has
been extended to August 15. For information on the show you can
visit <www.nyhistory.org> James Allen and Leon Litwack were
both interviewed on "The Connection" with Christopher
Lydon. The web address for the archived show is: theconnection.org/archive/2000/03/0320b.shtml]
Siri Colom, a former Peacework
intern, works in the education field with Latino high school students.