Learning from the Past 

The Black History Museum reminds us of our country’s own flawed past.

“We did this,” his gesture seems to say.

It is perhaps the best-known image of an American lynching. It documents the vigilante killing of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith by a mob of thousands who beat, mutilated and tortured them to death while the police looked on. More than 3,400 black Americans were murdered in this fashion, executed without trial for unproven, trumped-up or nonexistent crimes between 1882 and 1968.

The Marion photograph is displayed in “Strange Fruit Amongst the Leaves (The Lynching of Black America),” an exhibit at the Black History Museum, but it appears there in curiously edited form. It is one of several life-size photos of lynching scenes included in the exhibit. In each, the victims have been carefully cropped from the image so that only the mob remains. This shifts our focus from the victims to the victimizers, affording the souls of the dead some dignity without making a spectacle of their wretched fates. But the absence of violence in these photographs creates a troubling conundrum. By sparing us the hideous reality of these acts, are we let off too easily and allowed to simply shake our heads and walk away?

It’s a tough call. Much of the material included in “Strange Fruit” comes from “Without Sanctuary” — a harrowing exhibit of lynching photographs that were once circulated as postcard souvenirs. First seen in New York in 2000, its emotional impact and grisly imagery polarized critical reaction. Author Susan Sontag argued that seeing so many atrocious images inured the viewer to their horror, while art critic Roberta Smith insisted: “[These images] refute the notion that photographs of charged historical subjects lose their power. … Instead they send shock waves through the brain.”

Named for the heartbreaking Billie Holiday ballad that goes in part “Southern trees/bear a strange fruit/blood on the leaves/and blood on the root,” the exhibition substitutes textual descriptions on placards and works of art for documentary images of the victims. “When Hose is caught, he will either be lynched and his body riddled with bullets or he will be burned at the stake,” reads a contemporary account. Sam Hose was a Georgia laborer who killed his white employer in self-defense during a dispute in 1899. His abduction and murder by a mob of 2,000 was a hellish public spectacle typical of American lynchings. After chaining the terrified man to a tree, the crowd mutilated him and roasted him alive. As his body cooled, the crowd scavenged fragments as keepsakes.

Confronted with such savagery, it is easy — too easy — to simply withdraw into a comfortable casing of moral superiority. But how different are these lynch mobs from the picnickers who set up lawn chairs on prison grounds to celebrate electrocutions? Or, perhaps closer to home, why is the killing of thousands of innocent Americans intolerable but not the killing of thousands of innocent Iraqis, blown to pieces by cluster bombs because they are in the way in their own country?

“Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” wrote philosopher Theodor Adorno after the Allies liberated the death camps. How can artists metaphorically address such realities in any meaningful way? “Strange Fruit” features two works of art that attempt to do so. American sculptor Nat Werner’s 1948 “Lynching” (1948) — a free-standing wooden figure of a broken-necked black man being lowered Christlike from a tree by other blacks — addresses the subject in a traditional, illustrative manner that recalls a long tradition of western depictions of Jesus being removed from the cross. Somali-born Kawther Elmi’s “The Lynching Tree” (2000) — a multimedia installation that combines wooden posts, rope, drawing and screen-print images into a funerary environment that fills a room — suggests tragedy and restrained rage with evocative materials, subdued lighting and a palette of reds and browns.

Both works are powerful. While neither can compete with the sheer impact of documentary realism, each offers something just as important: an individual, human response to those realities — what Thomas Mann once called “simply giving sorrow words.”

“Strange Fruit” raises questions that cannot be answered to anyone’s satisfaction about a subject almost no one wants to talk about. Perhaps covering the museum’s walls with images of lynchings would simply be overpowering, creating an atmosphere so oppressive that to enter it would be to feel brutalized and helpless. And yet, that is perhaps precisely how one should feel when truthfully confronting such a subject. Regardless, the museum deserves credit for mounting this exhibit. Lynching represents a chapter in the history of America that must be read unflinchingly if it is ever to be assimilated peacefully. S

“Strange Fruit Amongst the Leaves” can be seen through Sept. 21 at the Black History Museum at 00 Clay St. The photographs of “Without Sanctuary” can be viewed online at www.musarium.com/withoutsanctuary/index.html.


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