In which we demand: Does each cluster of paragraphs perform a unique and vital function?
Once you’ve gained enough command of your short-form stories to assign each paragraph a unique and necessary purpose (see the Oct. 15 posting), you can apply the same logic to longer-form writing.
Rather than immediately striving for graf-to-graf synchronicity in your 75-inch story, find a more modest test to make sure you’re going in the right direction: Demand that each segment of your story play a specific role. Treat a segment as any logical chunk. Figure each story will have (I’m being very arbitrary) six to twelve segments.
One of the best lessons you can enjoy is to take a piece of somebody else’s writing you admire and see where these natural divides occurred.
I’ve tried to do this to one of the best newspaper features I read last year. It was written by the Los Angeles Times’ J.R.. Moehringer while he was our Atlanta bureau chief. J.R. came upon the tale of a Southerner named James Allen, who had become obsessed with collecting pictures of lynching.
The story defied any structural generalities. It was not a narrative. It divided the biographical details into two sections in different parts of the story. It divided the African-American reaction to Allen’s quest into two sections in different parts of the story. What it had that it made it work, that made it feel like a singular flowing statement, were (1) scenes, (2) beautiful transitional logic and (3) an insightful narrator who knew how to put history into perspective for you by letting you see his characters discover and experience history’s ripples. It was one of the best stories I have read in a long time about race in this country because it understood (without ever being so artless as to say so directly) that we are all–and will always be–prisoners of this history.
J.R. will tell you he got lucky because he stumbled into the opening scene the first time he met Allen, and later on was able to observe a gripping speech Allen gave which was obviously a great ending. Even with those advantages, the story makes a series of good choices. Let’s take a ride:
“AN OBSESSIVE QUEST TO MAKE PEOPLE SEE”
I. The opening scene: This scene introduces the issue (the heated interest over lynching photos) and the protagonist. J.R. is known as a stylist but watch how deliberately he moves–short sentences, parallel structure, each new fact taking you just a bit further into the story. There’s only a snatch of description of Allen. The point is to get you on board for the long haul, to make you willing to explore a notion that would make many of us turn away and quit reading:
NEW YORK — There isn’t room for everyone who wants to see.
The gallery can’t hold more than a dozen people at a time, so the crowds who come each day to see the exhibit must wait. Today, one of the coldest days of the year, the wait is three hours, and still the line stretches down the block.
The exhibit features 68 vivid photos of American lynchings. There is a photo of Frank Embree, a black man whipped across his legs and back and chest, then hanged. There is a photo of Lee Hall, a black man shot, then hanged, his ears cut off. There is a photo of Bennie Simmons, a black man hanged, then burned alive, then shot to pieces. There are photos of men and women, hanging from trees and bridges and telephone poles, most of them black–a small number of the 5,000 blacks killed by white mobs, mostly between 1880 and 1940, mostly in the South.
Most of the people waiting to see the photos are black too, though circulating among them is a man as white as the snowflakes wafting through the February air. He is James Allen, the 46-year-old owner of the photos, the well-known antique collector from Atlanta who set out to use his collecting skills to make people see, to find lynching photos that would “shock the country.” Judging from the line outside this gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he did just that. Judging from the look in Allen’s eyes–which are blue and big behind Harry Potter glasses–he shocked himself as well.
II. The confrontation: In those first four grafs the writer encircled the issue and the protagonist. Now, due to some luck–the unexpected appearance of a black celebrity–J.R. is able to introduce us to a powerful sub-theme: how blacks, in particular, are torn by this exhibit. Stevie Wonder is inside the gallery to ask Allen some questions. The scene takes 21 grafs but it ends with a powerful, engaging question–the question people will keep asking Allen throughout the story.
As the gallery closes for the day, Allen is exhausted. He walks across the street for a cup of coffee, but the moment he takes a sip, his cellular phone rings.
“Who?” he says into the phone. “Really? Are you sure? OK, I’ll be right over.”
He hangs up and stares.
“Stevie Wonder is across the street,” he says. “He wants to see the photos.”
Allen hurries back to the gallery, and there, just inside the door, wearing a full-length black overcoat and dark sunglasses, is the famous musical artist, who has been blind since birth. He is flanked by two friends.
“Mr. Allen?” one of the friends asks. “This is Steve Wonder.”
They shake hands.
“Steve was hoping you could describe your photographs to him,” the friend says.
“Sure,” Allen says.
He leads Wonder inside, to the first set of photos on the wall.
“I’m going to be graphic,” Allen warns.
“That’s OK,” Wonder says.
Allen talks slowly, deliberately, about a photo of a black man, Will James. He tells how thousands turned out to see James hanged in the center of Cairo, Ill., in 1909. He tells how, when the rope broke, the mob riddled James with bullets, then burned him, then cut off his head. He describes a photo of the head, jabbed onto a stake and set at the edge of town.
Wonder says nothing, while his friends look at each other in horror.
Allen leads Wonder to the next photo, and the next. Wonder seems bewildered, as if he can’t comprehend all that Allen is saying. When Allen steps away to speak with someone else, Wonder’s friends try.
“It’s like his neck is broken,” a friend whispers to Wonder, “and his upper body is standing straight.”
The friend twists Wonder’s head, to simulate a broken neck. He makes Wonder’s arms go slack, arranges Wonder’s body to look like the hanged man in the photo before him. Now Wonder seems to understand. Now he seems to feel the image, to see it.
Allen returns, and Wonder leans into him.
“Can I ask you a question?” Wonder says.
“Yes,” Allen says.
“What inspired you to do this?”
III. Foreshadowing: Four grafs to encircle the big issues we’ll encounter in this story.
It’s the first time a black person has asked this question, asked it pointedly, with an audience gathered to hear. But it won’t be the last. As thousands of Americans, blacks in particular, confront Allen’s horrifying collection of photos, they will often react by confronting Allen himself. Some will be angry. Others will be more like Wonder: They will shake Allen’s hand warmly and thank him for what he’s done–then ask in the next breath why he did it.
Was he motivated by compassion–or money? Is he a crusader–or a voyeur?
Faced with black anger and suspicion, Allen will tend to look wounded. He will pause and close his eyes and struggle to make his motives clear. After devoting years to the search for photos of lynchings, there will be days when it all feels secondary to this other search, for the best way to explain himself, for the right words to allay the fears of people he set out to help.
In the end, however, the two searches will seem the same–each an obsessive quest to make people see.
IV. Allen’s collecting biography: Seven mostly longish grafs, told chronologically, to show how his passion expanded, and also to give us a history lesson about this horrible phenomenon.
The first photo was a white man, Leo Frank. A Jewish factory manager falsely accused of killing a young girl, he was lynched in 1915, in the woods north of Atlanta. Nearly 65 years later, a photo of the lynching fell into Allen’s hands.
Not just a photo. A postcard.
From historians and collectors Allen learned that postcards of lynchings were once as common as postcards of Niagara Falls. Even after the U.S. Postal Service banned “violent” mail in 1908, a photographer could make a living off lynchings alone, selling the photos door to door, and especially at the lynchings themselves. Postcards and souvenir photos of lynchings allowed white mobs to spread their terror far and wide.
Allen bought the Frank postcard for $15, then found another, of Laura Nelson, a black woman in eastern Oklahoma. Nelson’s 14-year-old son was accused of shooting the local sheriff. When Nelson tried to hold off a posse of white men who came for the boy, she too was arrested. Weeks later a mob broke into the jail and took Nelson and her son to the Canadian River. They raped Nelson and hanged her from a bridge, and hanged her son alongside, his pants around his ankles.
Someone snapped a photo that day–May 25, 1911. The photo probably got passed around and went into a drawer and collected dust for decades before Allen saw it at a flea market and bought it for $75. When he found another photo, and another, he began to suspect that untold numbers of lynching photos must be out there, their existence unknown to Americans. He’d already established a national reputation as a “picker,” someone who finds and resells rare objects. But picking was only paying the bills. Finding lynching photos, he thought, could change the world.
Gradually the search for the photos consumed Allen. He canvassed the South. He haunted flea markets and pawnshops and antique stores. He peered into crawl spaces and attics and cellars, even under one old grandmother’s bed. He pored through albums and scrapbooks and family Bibles. He made hundreds of phone calls and mailed thousands of fliers. He advertised in newspapers and antique journals and on the Internet. He set up a toll-free number, launched his own Web site, and became a fixture at gun shows and gatherings of Civil War buffs. He spent thousands of dollars he didn’t have, including $30,000 for one rare photo of Frank Embree, gazing into the camera, a mixture of terror and rage on his face, just minutes before the mob lynched him.
Last year Allen decided to show the nation what he’d found. He chose to publish most of his 145 lynching photos in a book, “Without Sanctuary.” Then, last winter, he organized some of the photos into a small New York exhibit, and when the exhibit drew more visitors than the gallery could accommodate, when it sparked editorials and essays and furious debate in the black community, he helped move it to the larger New York Historical Society, where it remained on display until earlier this month. (More than 80 cities have offered to host the exhibit next.) This fall, Allen will take his photos to the Sorbonne in Paris. Next year he hopes to mount an enormous and potentially explosive exhibit in Atlanta.
V. An assessment of the collection by historians: four grafs to put Allen into perspective, to give us some guidance about how to feel about him.
Because of Allen, historians say, Americans in great numbers are talking about lynching for the first time since the 1930s, when the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People lobbied hard, but without success, for federal anti-lynching laws.
“These images have not really been part of our photographic and cultural history,” says Leon F. Litwack, the A.F. and May T. Morrison professor of American history at UC Berkeley, who contributed an essay to Allen’s book. “Now they’re unavoidable.”
Countless books have been written about lynching. But there is something different about 145 photos. By collecting so much visual evidence, many say, Allen has dispelled the notion that lynchings were rare, or that they happened long ago.
“In 30 years working in the field of African American studies,” says Randall Burkett, an archivist at Emory University in Atlanta, “there’s nothing I’ve encountered that enables white folk to understand the reality of racism in America in the way these images do.”
VI. A deeper look at Allen’s collecting biography: 11 grafs keyed to what he learned, so that we learn.
While collecting photos, Allen also gathered facts. He learned everything he could about lynching, beginning with the definition: A lynching is when three people or more, outside the legal system, kill someone accused of some crime or offense. Hanging is often, but not always, the method of the lynch mob. Victims are often burned alive, mutilated, dismembered, their teeth and fingers and ashes and clothes and internal organs sold as keepsakes. Allen found people still saving lips and locks of hair from lynching victims.
Allen learned that tickets were sold to lynchings, that the mood of white mobs was exuberant–men cheering, women preening, children frolicking around the corpse as if it were a maypole. He learned that special excursion trains carried people to lynchings from farms and outlying areas, that some lynchings were staged like theater, the victims dressed in costumes to deepen their degradation.
He learned that, in much of the U.S., lynching wasn’t exempt from the law, it was the law. Between 1880 and 1930, a black Southerner died at the hands of a white mob more than twice a week.
Six years ago, Allen devoted himself full time to the search for lynching photos, in part because he could see himself in each new photo he found.
“I’m a gay man,” he says. “And the discrimination I’ve known in my life has been from white males. I’m just angry, and this is a way to express my anger.”
He learned about the white males leering out of the photos, their eyes glazed with blood lust, by digging through old newspapers–which not only covered lynchings but often advertised them. Whenever he “exposed” another villain, Allen says, “it was a feeling of ‘gotcha!’ ”
In one photo, a grotesque little white man in the foreground points to the hanging bodies of two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. “Bo pointn to his niga,” someone scrawled in the margin of the photo, which Allen bought for $750 at an Orlando, Fla., card show. Besides acquiring the photo, Allen thinks he knows who Bo was, which may prove equally useful. Even if members of lynch mobs can’t be brought to justice, he says, their names should be recorded. “I’m building a case,” he says. “I’m building the truth.”
Allen believes lynchings didn’t disappear but took new forms. Echoes of lynching can be found everywhere, he says, from the death penalty to the current epidemic of police brutality. Whenever reporters ask the date of the last lynching, Allen answers grimly: “The last lynching hasn’t happened yet.”
Part of Allen’s education involved learning to do business with dangerous people. One day he phoned to make an appointment with a man who owned a rare lynching photo.
“When you get here,” the man said, “remind me to show you a picture of the nigger I blew away myself.”
Last year Allen got a call from a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The man was willing to sell his prized lynching photos, so Allen and his partner, John Littlefield, raced across northern Georgia, into the Alabama forest, reaching the man’s house in the middle of the night. When the man produced a noose and waved it at them with a sneer, Allen realized he’d been had, and wondered if he and Littlefield would live to see the sun rise.
VII. The black reaction: 15 grafs on the most intriguing part of the story. Watch how J.R. plants a seed in the person of Kymberly Newberry, who will return later on. Watch, too, how she uses her question to create a transition to the next section–the life forces that shaped James Allen:
Lately, Allen has been learning to cope with blacks’ reactions to his photos. Most blacks thank him for his efforts, but many are troubled that he is earning money from his $60 book, which has sold 20,000 copies and briefly became a top seller on Amazon.com.
“To commercialize the suffering of black people is to do the ultimate disservice to black people,” says Michael Dyson, a black scholar at DePaul University who holds the Ida B. Wells-Barnett professorship, named after the great anti-lynching crusader. “To make coffee-table books out of that kind of pain is highly problematic.”
Some of Allen’s critics are less offended by how much he profits than by how he presents himself. It’s fine to be a scavenger, they say, so long as you don’t call yourself an avenger.
“He’s not a saint,” says Julia Hotton, a black independent museum curator in New York and a consultant to the New York Historical Society. “I know why he did it. He did it because he’s a dealer. And that’s all he has to say.”
Hotton says older blacks especially can’t help feeling suspicious when they see Allen, and when they hear him.
“If they hear a white man with a Southern accent is collecting these photos,” she says, “they get a little skittish.”
On Internet bulletin boards, some blacks talk angrily about the fact that a white man is telling their story. One man says that white people exhibiting lynching photos is like Germans running a Holocaust museum. Others question the value of anyone, black or white, perpetuating such painful images. In the comment section of the online general-interest magazine Journal E, someone writes: “If Mr. Allen really wants to help African Americans, he could do much, much better than to pound fresh salt into old wounds.”
Not all the anger is aimed at Allen. Many of the 7,000 messages in the electronic guest book at the New York Historical Society, and the hundreds in the guest book from the photo gallery where the exhibit started, describe an unfocused rage. “To tell you the truth,” an 11-year-old girl writes, “I feel so mad and upset now I feel like killing whites. I know it was a lot, not all of them. I understand. But they still could of helped us.”
Whatever the reaction, Allen meets it head on. He repeatedly accepts invitations to speak to black groups, even when he knows the reception is likely to be hostile, and he’s spent many hours at the New York Historical Society, introducing himself to visitors.
Just recently, Allen approached a young black man looking at one of the photos.
“What do you think of the exhibit?” Allen asked.
“What do you think I think?” the man snapped.
Kymberly Newberry was angry the minute she saw Allen’s book. A black TV and film actor in Los Angeles, her experience was typical: She walked into a bookstore, looking for something fun to read, and Allen’s book stopped her cold. There, on the cover, was 16-year-old Lige Daniels, hanging from an oak tree outside the courthouse in Center, Texas, and just below his bare feet was a towheaded little boy, wearing a dress shirt and necktie and smiling as if for a school photo.
Newberry spoke to the manager of the store. She beseeched the sales clerk. She asked, what’s the point of this? What good can come from this?
Then she opened the book. She couldn’t stop herself, and when she saw what was inside, on page after page, she wanted to know just one more thing: Who the hell is James Allen, and why did he do this?
VIII. Allen’s personal bio: The question opens the door, and we walk through for nine grafs.
He was raised in Winter Park, Fla., a middle child in an Irish Catholic maelstrom of 11 brothers and sisters. He was the one who didn’t quite fit in, who had an unusual fascination with rare objects. Instead of bikes and toys, he would ask his parents for Chinese vases.
His salvation was the family housekeeper, Mary English. Without understanding why, he bonded with her, identified with her. A poor black woman who sometimes walked to work barefoot, she talked to him about hate, and about the high price of being born different.
He was 18 when his father threw him out of the house for being gay. He drifted around the South for a time, then landed in Atlanta in 1977. Flat broke, 23 years old, he got an idea. Maybe he could make a living off his love of objects. He borrowed a friend’s van and drove into the country, where he found an antique shop that would give him a set of oak chairs on credit. He drove back to Atlanta, set the chairs in a dirt lot and put up signs. The chairs sold instantly, at a tidy profit, and a picker was born.
From the start, while finding rare objects, Allen found an obsessive streak in himself, a tenacity without limits. There was the time, for instance, he sat all day with an old woman, begging her to sell him her antique blanket chest: To stall, he kept eating her spongy angel food cake, until he thought he might explode. (He got the blanket chest.) There was the time, driving through Alabama, he got a call on his cell phone about a slave-made jug in South Carolina: He did a U-turn in the middle of the road and drove all night to be the first one at the antique shop in the morning. (He got the jug.)
He lost his driver’s license twice and collected 35 speeding tickets in headlong pursuit of the next handmade quilt, the next antique highboy, the next odd piece of Americana.
It was never enough for Allen to be a great picker, one of the few who not only sells to private collectors but supplies the finest museums. (He has placed things with the Smithsonian Institution, and he has almost single-handedly stocked the High Museum in Atlanta with the work of renowned folk artist Howard Finster.) Allen wanted to be king of the pickers, a goal he now thinks he’s reached, partly because he did what no one thought possible. He found 145 photos of lynchings in America.
“Oh there’s no doubt,” he says. “I’m unquestionably the best.”
And yet, he lives modestly. His house is the house of a picker, a man who feels at home on the back roads of the Deep South. No other house in the heart of Atlanta has a homely creek burbling through its frontyard, or homemade gourds strung from the branches of its holly tree, or a crude purple sign painted by a black man from south Georgia:
IX. A detailed look Allen’s house: This 12-graf section flows easily from the previous graf. It’s largely a trick to create an anchor that will justify a revealing scene at the house. A black cameraman asks Allen a probing question that draws a better answer from narrator J.R. (“…In fact, there are endless theories…”) than from Allen.
Allen lives here with his partner, Littlefield, two pit bulls, a menagerie of screeching parrots, and hundreds of sad, haunting objects. His next collection will focus on “the seeds of racism,” he says, and his house is part research laboratory, part evidence locker.
Above the front door is an old sign from the Atlanta Biltmore: “Coloreds Only.” Against a far wall is a porcelain drinking fountain from Texas. Painted on it in delicate blue script: “Whites Only.” On a side table is an infant’s Ku Klux Klan robe from Indiana. Other than the blood-red Klan symbol it looks just like a christening dress.
The most striking object is out back: A wooden shack, 7 feet tall, 7 feet wide, 11 feet long. Allen found it abandoned along a dirt road in Florida, and found the black man who built it, living in a nursing home nearby. After paying the man $10,000 for the shack, Allen interviewed him for hours, recording his stories.
The man, a shellshocked World War II veteran, not only lived in the shack for 50 years but decorated every inch of it with his carving knife. He carved to compensate for his poverty, Allen says, and to comment about it. He didn’t have a phone, so he carved a phone. He didn’t have electricity, so he carved an electric meter–and wired it. He didn’t have a lock, so he carved himself a set of useless keys.
After a day of carving, the man would shut his door each night and sit in the dark.
“Why didn’t you go outside?” Allen asked the man.
“Because of the Klan,” the man said.
The man’s story enhances the beauty of the shack, Allen believes, and its value. The man’s story makes the shack more than a work of folk art; it’s a sort of monument. When Allen sells the shack, along with some furniture and art done by the old man, the asking price will be just under $100,000.
Allen’s house is always a hive of activity. Today, however, it’s unusually busy. A camera is set up, and Allen is being interviewed about a new kind of racial harassment in the workplace: Black workers across the nation have reported finding nooses on their chairs and doors and lockers. Because of his photos, Allen seems the most likely person to address this phenomenon, and to explain the symbolism of the noose, which he calls “the American swastika.”
When the interview ends, the cameraman, who is black, has one last question. Allen braces. Here it comes. But the cameraman, sifting through Allen’s stacks of lynching photos, only wants to know if Allen has any explanations for why lynchings happened.
In fact, there are endless theories. Economic competition. Institutional racism. Sexual confusion. Some even blame a sharp rise in black crime. Allen can recite them all, and often does. At the moment, however, only one comes to mind. “There are just some sorry-ass white people in this world,” he says.
The cameraman laughs bitterly.
X. Deeper examination of the black reaction: Again, the transition in the next sentences preserves the story’s momentum. We know enough about Allen and enough about his volatile obsession to appreciate the nuances that are central to many African Americans. J.R. works this for 15 grafs, showing us Kymberly Newberry’s change of heart, and then her isolation. As I read this section I truly understand the pain and ambivalence that I might, as a white person, have written off. The last paragraph of this segment points an unflinching, provocative finger at the protagonist and prepares us for the conclusion.
Somewhere under the clutter in Allen’s house lies a copy of his recent speech to a group of black psychologists in New York. The speech went well, he says. He nearly managed to explain himself, almost made them see, and many in the group approached him afterward to say kind things and to offer thanks.
The question-and-answer session, however, was bruising. Some stood and demanded to know just who Allen thought he was, a white man collecting relics from the “black holocaust.”
He tried to tell them that a white man can understand pain too. He tried to tell them that a white man can be heartbroken by black history, and want to help. He didn’t try to tell them about being gay, about watching AIDS stalk his community and claim his friends, an ordeal that gave him a heightened appreciation for all human suffering. Allen has learned that comparing the plight of gay men with the struggle for civil rights unsettles many blacks.
Then they asked about the money. Exactly how much was Allen making off their suffering?
“That’s the most hurtful thing,” Allen says. “To dilute everything I’ve done down to a commercial enterprise. I tell them it’s not their business. It’s not the point. It’ll be so long till I see any profits–if I ever do–that I will have earned them.”
Allen already has turned down an offer of $1 million for his photos. The buyer wanted to place them at Harvard, and Allen believes the photos must remain forever in the South, which is why he houses them at Emory, where they are available to students and scholars.
Still, he divides the proceeds from his book with the publisher, Twin Palms. And if he does sell his photos–to Emory, for instance–he won’t keep the sale a secret. “I hope it does make news,” he says. “I hope that everyone in the country who has a lynching photo realizes there’s a potential for that photo to be worth thousands of dollars–so they won’t destroy it.”
Kymberly Newberry, the black actor in Los Angeles, doesn’t care if Allen gets rich, and no longer cares who he is. Despite her initial anger, she eventually bought Allen’s book, and she studied it carefully. She read the essays while walking the treadmill at her gym. She wept over the photos in the waiting room at her doctor’s office. After living with the book for weeks, Newberry felt her anger turn to a grudging sort of gratitude.
“I don’t care who wrote the book,” she says. “I don’t give a damn. What’s important for me is that we get together and talk about it. If this man had nerve enough to do this, it’s a gift. We have to open it.”
But Newberry can’t find anyone willing to talk about it. Her friends react to the book the way she did at first, only more so. “Everyone’s response is, ‘No, I can’t look at that, I can’t deal with that,’ ” Newberry says. “Particularly black men. It’s the last thing they want to see.”
This may be one of Allen’s most startling discoveries, and it may help explain some of the reactions to him–along with the lack of reaction from any relatives of the victims in the photos: Lynching, Allen finds, is the rawest wound of all, more recent than slavery, more terrifying than segregation, less widely known than either.
Even Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who as a young black man was beaten by state troopers in Selma, Ala., and marched in the backyard of the Ku Klux Klan, wasn’t prepared for what Allen made him see. “Despite all I witnessed during the height of the civil rights movement,” Lewis writes in a brief forward to Allen’s book, “and all I experienced of bigotry and hate during my lifetime, these photographs shocked me.”
One of the angriest outbursts can be found in Allen’s book, in one of the essays he solicited. Hilton Als, a black staff writer for the New Yorker, chose to write less about the photos, as Allen and his publisher asked, than about the whites who asked him to write about the photos.
In other words, Allen.
“What is the relationship of the white people in these pictures to the white people who ask me and sometimes pay me to be Negro, on the page?” Als writes. “When they look at these pictures, who do they identify with? The maimed, the tortured, the dead, or the white people?”
XI. Allen’s finest moment: It’s a speech at a historically black college. It takes 35 grafs, and it unfolds in three mini-sections. The first one establishes the tension.
And yet, no matter where Allen goes, there isn’t room for all the people who want to see.
On a sweltering night in mid-July, Allen is the featured speaker at Fisk University, the historic black college in Nashville. A crowd of nearly 200 is on hand, nearly all students and professors, nearly all black. Some are here for Allen’s speech, some for his photos, and some for the question-and-answer session later, which is expected to be heated.
While Allen paces in the wings, going through his speech one last time, the audience sits rigidly in folding chairs, staring at the empty lectern, like a jury staring at an empty docket. In the background, courtesy of the university, a portable stereo plays “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s funereal lament about lynching:
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh.
The graphic lyrics, the anguished quality of Holiday’s voice, the oppressive summer heat–everything serves to increase the tension as Allen walks slowly to the front of the room. He clears his throat, shuffles his papers, and begins in a whisper.
As a prelude, he spends a full five minutes eulogizing Mary English, the black housekeeper from his childhood, who died not long ago. “She was the love of my life,” he says. “I hope you will sense more than a suspicion of her voice and spirit in our conversation tonight.”
The crowd stirs, restless.
XI (b). Now 18 grafs, in which Allen tries to explain his quest in deeply personal terms to people who have reason to doubt his intentions. J.R. lets him tell, in great detail, the story of one lynching victim:
He talks about what it means to be a Southerner, to love the beauty of the land while hating its history to the core. The land is a liar, he says, because it makes you forget the ugliness lurking just beneath, the thousands of lynchings that are always there, that must never be forgotten.
He talks about the South’s “unhurried rural lanes,” its “dark untangled waters.” Beneath it all, he says, are the “mutilated and bloated bodies.”
He gives a brief roll call of the dead, then quickly focuses on one lynching in particular, in Waco, Texas. He talks slowly, deliberately, trying to make everyone see.
The victim, Jesse Washington, was 17 years old, a sharecropper. In the spring of 1916, while sitting on his porch and whittling a stick, Washington found himself surrounded. He was under arrest for the murder of a white woman, his employer’s wife.
Washington led a narrow life, Allen says, the life of all blacks at the time in that part of Texas. He didn’t know there were 63 churches around him. He didn’t know there were marvelous schools and universities. He didn’t know–he probably wouldn’t have believed–that Waco was sometimes called “The Athens of the South.”
Today it’s even harder to believe these things of Waco, Allen says, because of what happened to Jesse Washington.
There was a trial, of sorts. While thousands outside the courthouse bayed for the teenager’s death, his lawyer offered no defense. The jury found Washington guilty, and he was dragged from the courthouse, delivered into the hands of the waiting mob.
Farms went untended that day, Allen says. Businesses closed. Half the population of Waco–more than 15,000 people–filled downtown. They scrambled to high ground and stood on wagons and hung from the windows of buildings to get a better look at Washington, a metal chain wrapped around his neck, being dragged to an oak tree outside City Hall.
“There,” Allen says, “another mob was making a bonfire with wooden crates.”
Stripped of his clothes, Washington was kicked, spit on, then pelted with bricks. Pieces of his flesh were gouged out with spades. The mayor and the sheriff and a local photographer named Gildersleeve all looked down from the mayor’s second-floor office as the mob threw Washington onto the bonfire and began to roast him.
Washington lost consciousness briefly, Allen says, but he came to when someone in the mob castrated him. He fought desperately to escape, pulling at the chain around his neck and trying to rise.
“For this they hack off his fingers,” Allen says, “leaving him to slap grotesquely at his restraints.”
Both Allen and his audience are weeping now. But Allen presses on.
In a photo of the lynching, Allen says, “one can see a large bearish pale-skinned man wearing a blacksmith mitten, keeping tight the chain. Another man holds writhing Jesse on the heap of flaming crates with a long pole. The large pale man and an accomplice pull the chain and hoist the blistering body–of an American boy–high above the heads of the closest spectators. A wild cheer erupts.”
Allen learned about the death of Washington from a postcard. A young white Waco resident sent the postcard to his parents, proud that his face was among those in the photo. On the back, the young man wrote: “This is the barbecue we had last night. Your son Joe.”
XI (c). And finally, in 12 grafs, the last section, that begin with the question on everyone’s mind, the question you as a reader might still wonder about, the question J.R. wants to give Allen one last chance to put to rest. Notice how, in the last sentence (“…but not all…”) he avoids an overly simplified conclusion:
A woman in the second row, her cheeks streaked with tears, stares at the ceiling.
“Why?” Allen says. “People ask all the time: ‘Why? Why did you collect these horrific photos?”
He clears his throat, adjusts his glasses. He runs a hand through his sparse blond hair.
“In humble admiration of the work of Emmett Till’s mother,” he says, referring to Mamie Till, who insisted on an open-casket funeral after her son was lynched in August 1955, to show the world what lynching looked like. “Putting a face on murder and racial hatred in America for the entire world to see, we published this book. For the need to have an outlet for my own disgust and anger at the status quo, I have relentlessly pursued these photos. With every image acquired, and every face of the gawkers and killers that is brought to light, I sense a quieting of the hounds that have dogged me since childhood.”
His voice thickens.
“For every victim that lies pasted in some racist family’s photo album,” he says, “or stored in a trunk with grandma and grandpa’s Klan robe, or still pinned to the wall of a service station in some holdout sorry-ass little town–if we can acquire and place their photos in an accurate, respectful context, identify and record them for the first time, I feel some slight awareness of what is meant by resurrection.”
As the word “resurrection” floats in the muggy air, hovers like a line of music, Allen acknowledges finally what drives him, as a Southerner, as a white man, as a human being.
“Sometimes, when working with these images, I search the faces of the whites. I tremble with anger at the legacy they left me to claim.”
He grips the lectern.
“I know that, possibly, in another time, it could be my face fixed in the photographer’s chemicals. Gloating so stupidly. Gazing out at me now.”
He takes a step back, his glasses fogged with tears, a look of relief on his face. He’s explained himself, at last. He’s made them, and maybe himself, see.
For a moment, the room is perfectly still and quiet. Then most of the people in the audience–but not all–rise to their feet and applaud.