Bearing Witness | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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Bearing Witness

Joseph F. Jordan, director of the black cultural center at UNC-Chapel Hill, discusses his role in a controversial exhibition of lynching photographs

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There are other traditions we'd rather remember, here, in the South. Like the tradition of Southern hospitality; of neighbors who say "please" and "thank you"; of beautiful trees and lakes and open spaces. We'd rather not remember that as late as 1981, the date of what may be the last Klan killing, these same neighbors tortured and mutilated their fellow citizens, and that bodies often hung from these beautiful trees.

Since 1892, the peak year for lynchings (when Mark Twain called America "The United States of Lyncherdom"), thousands of men, women and children were hanged for daring to challenge the notion of white supremacy, and were mutilated for the enjoyment of white mobs who wore their "Sunday best" to watch a man burn. Lynchings were often treated as a form of entertainment, a family outing. In fact, there is speculation in the African-American community that the word "picnic" is a derivative of the term "pick-a-nigger," and many will not use the word to this day.

Lynching victims were photographed and collected: a swatch of hair, a knuckle, a sliver of heart, saved as keepsakes. Their images were also reproduced on postcards. "This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left, with a cross over it. Your son, Joe," reads the inscription on a postcard of the lynching of Jesse Washington, picture above right. Sam Hose was another victim. His story is related in the book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Twin Palms Publishers, 2000), which archives, in graphic images and text, the lives and deaths of many victims lynched publicly by ordinary citizens:

Sam Hose worked for a planter, Alfred Cranford. He asked his employer for an advance in pay (some reported he had tried to collect wages already owed him) and for permission to visit his ill mother. The planter refused, precipitating a harsh exchange of words. On the following day, while Hose chopped wood, Cranford resumed the argument, this time drawing his pistol and threatening to kill Hose. In self-defense, Hose flung his ax, striking Cranford in the head and killing him instantly. Within two days, newspapers reported an altogether different version. Cranford had been eating dinner when Hose--"a monster in human form"--sneaked up on him, buried an ax in his skull, and after pillaging the house, dragged Mrs. Cranford into the room where her husband lay dying and raped her. ... After stripping Hose of his clothes and chaining him to a tree, the self-appointed executioners stacked kerosene-soaked wood high around him. Before saturating Hose with oil and applying the torch, they cut off his ears, fingers, genitals, and skinned his face. While some in the crowd plunged knives into the victim's flesh, others watched "with unfeigning satisfaction" ... the contortions of Sam Hose's body as the flames rose, distorting his features, causing his eyes to bulge out of their sockets, and rupturing his veins. ... Shortly after the lynching, one of the participants reportedly left for the state capitol, hoping to deliver a slice of Sam Hose's heart to the governor of Georgia, who would call Sam Hose's deeds "the most diabolical in the annals of crime."

Without Sanctuary is the exhibition based on the book, which debuted in 2000 at the Roth Horowitz gallery in New York City and ran later at The Andy Warhol Musuem in Pittsburgh. Over a four-month period, more than 50,000 people viewed the New York show. Newspaper accounts described crowds both horrified and fascinated; England's Prince Andrew was unable to finish the tour when he visited with relatives of Martin Luther King Jr.

Neither the book nor the exhibit would be possible if it weren't for James Allen, a white Southerner from central Florida who began collecting, over a decade ago, the postcards, text and images that have become a provocative and disturbing record of hate crimes in America. Recently, Allen asked his good friend Joseph F. Jordan, the director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, to curate the current incarnation of the exhibition, which runs through Dec. 31, 2002 at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. The exhibit has drawn over 50,000 people in the past two months.

Jordan recently sat down with the Independent to discuss his role in the exhibit. The following represents a much-condensed version of that conversation, which took place at Jordan's Durham home.

The Independent: What inspired you to curate this particular exhibit?

Joseph F. Jordan: A friend asked me to do it, the gentleman who owns the photographs, Jimmie Allen. He was trying to find an appropriate place to do it and he asked if he found a place to do it, would I be the curator. And I told him I would certainly do it, but I would have to be given complete independence. Independence from him and independence from Emory University, where the photographs are held, and independence from the Martin Luther King site. So he granted that and I agreed to do it. But as a person who is interested in the relationship between civic responsibility and violence towards people of color--particularly African Americans, Native Americans, and sometimes immigrants--this was very, very much within the vision that I have of how we understand American societies, so I was glad to do it.

Why did it take a Southern white man like James Allen to get the nation to revisit this past?

The fact that Jim, as an itinerant trader, came upon these photos and understood their value is happenstance. I don't see anything untoward about it. I know that's not what you're saying, but I know some people have said, "Well, this is some white guy who doesn't care about black people." Well, you know, Jim is a Southerner. He's a person who struggles with the history and legacy of his ancestors, and if we had had a different kind of person, like these folks who got ahold of Malcolm X's stuff, what you would see is ebay and Christie's lighting up, as opposed to what you see now. And to his credit, he came to people and said, "How should I do this, how should we manage this?" And one of the things you'll notice is that he always demands that the black community be involved in setting this up, that professional black folk be involved with how this is presented and where it's going to go. The thing is, if we do the exhibit and black folk come, it has a lot of value. But if we do the exhibit and white folk come, that has even a little bit more value, because it means that they are looking. I don't mean that it's important because white people are more important than black people, but it means that this is a set of folks who have to bear a burden. Whether you believe in collective guilt or not--and I generally don't--I do believe in collective responsibility for not knowing.

What was your objective in curating Without Sanctuary?

This has been a small point of controversy, that I didn't work with objectives in mind. And this is the so-called "itinerant artist" in me. What I wanted to do is first of all trust the eyes of the people who would see this. And having done that, to paint a sort of portrait in time of what lynching looked like. And my feeling was that if I could do that, then people would see what needed to be seen. And therefore it meant that in presentation, I wanted people to see who was doing it. What lynching scholarship often does is let you see the victim, and it wants you to dwell on the horror of that scene. But oftentimes what it doesn't do is personalize. It says, "See what hate does?" "See what injustice does?" "See what intolerance does?" and I'm like, "See what people do!" You have newspapers that say so-and-so was the chief officer on duty when this person was taken, that this person was the governor who could have sent troops and didn't send any troops, or didn't send enough, this is the town that celebrated and these are the people's faces. So this is what I wanted to depict.

What were some of your thoughts and feelings as you went through each image and story?

First of all, that these people normally, in their depictions, are not given lives. They're given names, but that's it. You know, "so-and-so, killed so-and-so, such-and-such date, 1906." And it's left at that. But you don't hear and you don't see, "father of two, husband of so-and-so, worked in this particular place, was a member of this particular kind of church, always talked about, wanting someday to provide. ... " Those are the kinds of things that you will see in this exhibit. It's a little bit more extensive than how it's been mounted elsewhere. But that's what I saw when I saw the pictures. I saw people who had lives; that a person who is lynched at age 18 had 18 years of living behind him and who knows how many ahead of him. Those who were in their 30s or 40s were at the point in their lives where most people come into the full bloom of their abilities as adults. They know enough, they have a home, they have all of these kinds of things that many of these people did, and these are people who were cut down at that point. So there is a dull anger. There is an anger that boils up and is very sharp and very pronounced. But there's also a dull anger that sort of rises in you. And it rises in me not just because of things that happened at that point in time, but because there are people today who still deny that it happened, or still deny that it happened to this extent, or still deny--even though they acknowledge that it happened--that it was important.

Was it difficult for you to have to look at these photos as you were going through them?

I don't think that it was difficult for me to look at them and I don't know why that is. It was difficult for me to look at them and not be able to say more than what I already knew, or was going to have time to investigate before the exhibit opened. But as a person who was in African-American Studies and still is, these are not new photographs. I've seen them throughout my education, going back to my first year in college. The difficulty, I think, was in dealing with some of the attitudes that I know exist outside of circles of people who read about this, or who are immersed in it as their work. And that idea is expressed as, "How can these people say that we owe them something? I came here and I worked. My parents came here and I never owned any slaves." To which I say, "Well, you know, you're living on some land that was taken from a black man who was lynched, so that the land could be taken. You may not have participated in it, but you're living on it." So these are the kinds of things that make it difficult to look at the photographs. And then you want to say, "We need to take this photograph and go right outside of such-and-such 'Plantation Rd,' and put it on a post, and write, 'I occupied this land from then and then.'" But this is the kind of thing people don't want to hear.

What has been the public response to this exhibit, particularly in Atlanta?

I think you have a range of responses. You're gonna have the people who say that this is absolutely the worse thing that you could ever do, to talk about these kinds of things, that we are in a stage now where we can talk without having to highlight what was wrong. You have other people who have said to us that we need to put this exhibit up in the Statehouse of Georgia. But in any case, I think by and large the response has been positive. There are some folks who have problems with where it's being shown, and who is sponsoring it. You have all of these kinds of issues and that happens with anything of this nature. But for me it has been gratifying to see that when people come out of the exhibit they are capable of seeing the value of keeping these photographs in existence and making sure that they are placed in prominent places with dignity and with respect to the ones who were victims.

Georgia is the first Southern state that the exhibition has been shown in. Has there been a different type of response than when it showed in the North?

Well, I think there is a different feel for it, for people who are in the South, and people who see it in the South. The response in New York was tremendous, as was the response at the Warhol, where it was for over four months. When you do something and you do it in a place where it happened, it gives it more currency, a little more gravity, because it is in some ways bringing back voices that have been buried. And I think that's what the case is in Georgia. There is a haunting sensibility that comes when people are able to say, "This happened right over there, or this happened in Marietta, or this happened right down here in Thomasville." I would always say to folks, "OK, when you drive home now and you look over to the side of the road, you're not just looking at a patch of the Interstate, you're looking at a place where the grass is growing on somebody's body." In New York or in Pittsburgh, for example, you generally don't say that.

There are many who would say there is no need to keep bringing up the past and that the photos in Without Sanctuary are incendiary. What is your response to that?

Well, if you're cool with everything and you figure you know all you need to know about this and it's not important for you to look at this in order to go forward, by all means, don't look at it, but speak for yourself. There are a lot of people who, before they can be impelled to move forward, have to have something sort of placed in them to get them to understand. People learn in the way they need to learn. Some people may need to see it three times before it compels them to move on, and those are the folks that most likely we will try to speak to.

Does an exhibit like Without Sanctuary empower black people, and even beyond that, does it empower American people?

I think it equips them, and in that way, it may empower them. It may not necessarily play out that way, but if understanding and knowing and being able to critically approach a subject endows you with any kind of power, then I think that's what this would do for them. For instance, being able to say that the reason that blacks lost land at such an accelerated rate during this period of time is directly associated with the rise and the flourishing of this particular practice. And you might also come to understand even more that the traditional presentation of black men as rapists, for example, and the current incarceration rate and some of the current laws aimed at juveniles and other people are all predicated--as far as I'm concerned--on the same foundations of supremacy and hatred. The rate of killing and the charges that were made in those years in many ways are indicative of how supremacy was able to express itself. It's very difficult to do that now, but it's not difficult to pass some of these 3-strikes laws, to pass some of these laws that allow you to try juveniles as adults, all of those kinds of things which, again, strike at the supposed problem, but in reality are expressions of the animosity and the antipathy that people feel toward black men.

Why has it taken so long for Americans to revisit this history? Why does it take an exhibition like this one to open up discussion?

Because it blows the cover off the idea of white supremacy, for one. Secondly, all countries have national myths, and the United States probably has a greater capability than any country of creating these kinds of myths. Oftentimes those myths reflect, not only the views of the powerful, but the history of the powerful and the sins that the powerful are trying to hide. So this exhibit has taken off all those myths. It doesn't allow the myth of this blameless American population. It doesn't allow the myth that everybody has been given an equal chance. It doesn't allow the myth that if you just work hard, all these kinds of things will happen, or that everybody is equal. All these myths have been blown away by this kind of revelation. What I think we're supposed to do, to the extent that we feel close to this American notion of who we are, is to present information as we find it and to challenge, in some ways, many of these myths. I don't want to live in a place where I am defined by a myth. And I also don't want to have to live in a place where I am defined by a myth that lies about my ancestors. I think there are progressive people in the white community--there have always been progressive people in the white community--who have agitated for telling the truth about these kinds of myths. But the thing we have to realize is that the histories of subjugated peoples always, always will turn the life of a nation on its head. And that's what they don't want to happen. So the more that Native American history is told, the more the history of black folk in the country is told, the more the history of Mexico and Mexicans is told, the less you will hear of this sort of unified myth, of the making of America. EndBlock

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