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Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America Hardcover – February 1, 2000
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These images make the past present. They refute the notion that photographs of charged historical subjects lose their power, softening and becoming increasingly aesthetic with time. These images are not going softly into any artistic realm. Instead they send shock waves through the brain, implicating ever larger chunks of American society and in many ways reaching up to the present. They give one a deeper and far sadder understanding of what it has meant to be white and to be black in America. And what it still means. --New York Times, January 13,2000
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Now, a week later, I am armed with this. This is exactly what I had hoped for: it took a great deal out of me to stomach these images.
The students may have understood the iniquity of lynchings with or without the photography. But understanding alone does not do the history justice for today's mentality; people really must realize its entirety to the furthest fathomable extent. That reality is captured within thousands of faces, and among all of them is absolutely no room for humor left.
Thank you for this. I can think of no greater honor for these victims than the reverent silence of a newly indignant youth. Though it hurts to let these burn into the memory, it's the most necessary dose of our history that I believe a student can walk away with.
I plan to use it well- if anyone has advice for this first-year teacher on how to best enact this material, please leave your suggestions as comments. They would be highly appreciated.
According to contributing author Leon Litwack, "in the 1890's, lynching claimed an average of 139 lives each year, 75% of them black ... Between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 4,742 blacks met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs. As many if not more blacks were victims of ...speedy trials and executions." Moreover, as further described by Litwack, "The story of a lynching...is more than the simple fact of [being] hanged by the neck. It is the story of slow, methodical, sadistic...forms of torture and mutilation. If executed by fire, it is the red-hot poker applied to the eyes and genitals...as the body slowly roasts over the flames and the blood sizzles in the heat. If executed by hanging, it is the convulsive movement of the limbs. Whether by fire or by rope, it is the dismemberment and distribution of severed bodily parts as favors and souvenirs to participants and the crowd." Additionally, contrary to general belief, lynching was not an exclusively "southern" phenomenon; particularly brutal and heavily-attended lynch mob activities have been documented in such northern states as Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska, Indiana, and Ohio.
'Without Sanctuary' exposes details of a dark history that is seldom discussed in educational settings; details that, had pictorial evidence not been preserved, would have been considered unfathomable in 20th century American society. As stated succinctly by John Lewis in the opening section of the book, "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. The photographs in this book make real the hideous crimes that were committed against humanity." He also asks the unanswered question "What is it in the human psyche that would drive a person to commit such acts of violence against their fellow citizens?" This question puts a shiver down my spine, and forces me to consider the thin veneer of our "civilized" society today. Many of the perpetrators involved with these grisly executions were described as "upstanding citizens" and leaders of their communities. In other words, many of these people were, for all intents and purposes, ordinary citizens not so very different from you and me today. This being established, do "ordinary" 21st century citizens have this same propensity toward barbarism versus jurisprudence? If a friend or family member was brutally raped or murdered, could I be incited toward "mob justice" against the perpetrator? While re-watching the NYC crowd footage following the announcement of the death of Osama Bin Laden, I tacitly wondered, if given the opportunity, would this enthusiastic mob of everyday citizens have wanted to torture and burn him on the spot in Times Square?
These are some of the difficult questions that resonate in my mind as I review the images and text in 'Without Sanctuary.' Moreover, wanting to have this book as part of my personal collection also imbues me with an uneasy sense of ambivalence. Do I feel the need to collect this work via some "voyeuristic appetite" (as described by Litwack)? Or do I wish to add this to my library because of its capacity to "bear witness" to what Lewis refers to as an "American holocaust?" My internal spectrum on this is not by any means black-and-white; like much of the information provided in the essays, there is a tendency toward equivocation and shades of grey. Perhaps, more than anything, this powerful-yet-problematic work makes its most salient contribution by exposing (what contributing writer James Allen refers to as) "the cold steel trigger in the human heart."
Cognizance of this extant human condition is requisite if we ever wish to truly transcend it.
Incredible book and should be in every school, college, University and Museums.