- Lynching's Afterlife
We need the truth of how the bodies died to interrupt the course of normal life. But if keeping the dead at the forefront of our consciousness is crucial for our body politic, what of the families of the dead?—Claudia Rankine, "The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning," 2015
Attempting to account for atrocity can never be complete, but must be ongoing.—Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains, 2011
Sometime in August 1899, Lavinia Baker and her five children walked into J. E. Purdy's photography studio in Boston, Massachusetts and posed for a series of family portraits. The photographs, which were printed as 3 × 5 cabinet cards and standard 8 × 10 [End Page 204] gelatin prints, traffic in familiar late nineteenth-century visual conventions: the Bakers are dressed in formal Victorian attire, pose against an ornate backdrop simulating a living room, and gaze just beyond the camera.1 At first glance, the images could easily be mistaken for any one of the countless photographs W. E. B. DuBois compiled for the 1900 Paris Exposition, in which depictions of black middle-class men and women function as a corrective to the objectifying, dehumanizing representations of black life (and death) circulating in the public sphere.2 But while middle-class portraiture was long mobilized as crucial evidence in the case for black citizenship, the Baker photographs were commissioned to visualize something else: lynching's afterlife.
The Bakers' portrait session was just one component of the "Baker Exhibit," a multi-modal anti-lynching performance. The brainchild of Lillian Jewett, a young white reformer who fashioned herself as a latter-day Harriet Beecher Stowe, the exhibit was marketed as an innovation in Progressive Era reform. Set to tour New England (although it was staged only in Boston and Providence), the show starred Lavinia Baker and her children, survivors of the "famous" 1898 Lake City, South Carolina lynching that claimed the life of the patriarch Frazier Baker (a black postmaster) and two-year-old Rachel Baker (the youngest family member). As Jewett imagined it, the Bakers were the key to constructing a politically transformative visual experience that would rival the burgeoning efforts of northern reformers who primarily relied on print and oratory to advocate for social change. Beginning in July 1899, Jewett set to work marketing the Bakers as "living evidence" of mob violence and an "object lesson" in the shape and structure of postbellum lynching, asserting that a first-hand visual encounter with a family of survivors could invigorate anti-lynching efforts.3
At its height, the Baker Exhibit attracted nearly three thousand attendees, most of them black, and was generally praised as a revolution in anti-lynching reform tactics. For a reported ten-cent admission fee, spectators experienced a generically hybrid experiment in activist theater including musical features by the black female vocalist Nannie Vars and the abolitionist singer J. W. Hutchison, and lectures by prominent black political activists and Jewett, who was fast becoming a semi-celebrity in her own right. The featured attraction was a corporeal show-and-tell during which the Bakers revealed their wounds and scars to an eager audience.
In the midst of their performance duties, the Bakers posed for their photographic portraits. The images were reprinted in the press [End Page 205] to advertise the show, while the cabinet cards were likely intended as souvenirs. But perhaps most important, the photographic session, which was almost certainly orchestrated by Jewett, cemented the Bakers' status as anti-lynching icons, "fixing" the mercurial subjects, who were beginning to show a propensity for improvisatory action. Indeed, on the second night of the show's Boston run, spectators received "something of a shock," according to one reviewer, when Lavinia Baker performed an impromptu dance that was "not down on the program,"4 signaling an excess of generic hybridity that was ultimately too much for the audience to bear. Faced with a categorical crisis—what kind of "lesson" in racial violence could survivors offer? What did it mean to consume living evidence? And could a family photograph ever index lynching?—the Baker Exhibit's attendees quickly lost interest; within a week of its opening, the...