I watched The Great Debaterswith my class Thursday. There are a lot of things to like about this movie, but I chose it for us specifically because my students have no idea how to listen — really listen — to each other when we have discussions. They are mostly interested in shouting one another down, talking the loudest so their position will be heard. I thought watching people learn how to make an argument would make something click for them. And I know they all like Denzel, so I figured they’d pay attention.
Because I am the teacher, I watched the movie before we saw it as a class. And I was surprised by how much more was going on than the build up to Wiley’s debate against Harvard.
A few years ago, I happened on the lone copy of James Allen’s Without Sanctuary in my Barnes and Noble. I pulled it off the shelf because the title triggered the vaguest memory. I’d heard the name, couldn’t place it. Then I saw the cover photo, saw the subtitle — Lynching Photography in America — and remembered. Without Sanctuary is the book made from the photos that had been shown in various galleries and historical societies around the country. I had tried to go see the photos when their tour had come to New York. I waited on line nearly three hours before realizing I couldn’t do it, that seeing those pictures and postcards would be too horrible.
I couldn’t look at the book, either. I tried reading some of the introduction, some of the plate descriptions. Even that was too awful. But I bought the book because it’s a book people should own, a book people should see. I just didn’t think I’d ever be one of the people who would be able to see it.
I bring this up because there is a lynching scene in the movie. I hadn’t expected that. Yes, I knew it took place in the 1930s, knew it took place in a rural community in the south. Still. I guess I thought (naively) that the movie would just focus on those debates and leave everything else offstage. Which would have made no sense at all.
The scene is brief and, while utterly clear, not cruelly so. It was over before my freak-out had a chance to start. The scene is brief but is, of course, powerful. I wondered about how it would affect my students. Don’t misunderstand. I didn’t think it would disturb them so much that it would mean I shouldn’t show the movie. My students are surprisingly and not surprisingly able to look at horrific things quite easily. I wondered if their reaction might be strong enough, angry enough to completely disrupt the rest of the screening. And then I thought about what post-viewing materials I’d want to have on hand. Which was when I thought about James Allen’s book.
This book has lived in my house for several years now. And I have still not looked at it. I have, in fact, kept it wrapped in a plastic bag so I wouldn’t see it by accident. I’ve loaned it to people, so the plastic bag has changed over time — B&N to Pathmark to Little Things to H&M … It was only in January as I unpacked into my new apartment that I finally took it out of its wrapping and put it on a shelf (ok, yes, under a stack of other books so that I still wouldn’t see it by accident).
My students would be able to look at the book. I knew that without having to think too long or hard about it. The trouble was figuring out how I could present it to them when I knew I couldn’t look at it. But I wrapped it up and put it in my bag, thinking I’d figure it out as I went along.
So we watched the movie. My students love Denzel. They love Forest Whitaker. And Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker are not only good actors but very easy to watch. All of that added up to everyone paying attention — yes, there were random not-movie-related outbursts, but mostly everyone was watching.
We reached The Scene … and there was an eruption of shouting, disbelief, disgust. All but Jeovany settled down pretty quickly, and even Jeovany quieted after a few minutes. They got back into the movie and we continued on through to the end of film.
We turned the lights on. “So what about that scene, Miss? That was really a person set on fire?” I said that in the movie it was of course not really a person but that yes, people were set on fire. “Alive?” Yes, alive.
I reminded them of our conversation about Fanny Lou Hamer and how we’d talked about Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. I told them about the book and how I wasn’t sure if I should share it with them.
“You should get the book,” Valerie said. “We’ll be able to look at it. I want to hear more about this.”
So I unwrapped the book, telling them about my history with it and then about the book itself, about the fact that people made the photos not as reporters documenting a crime but as souvenirs, to send as postcards. I held it up so they could see the thin strip of photo on the cover, and I started to read some of the lynching descriptions — which is actually harder for me than looking at the photos. And then they started to look at the pictures.
I was happy enough that they were shocked and disgusted. I wasn’t sure they would be. I was happier still that they thought about it, about the castrations, the mutilations, the tarrings, the notes written on the postcards … and the fact that there was so much more going on than a mob wanting to kill someone.
And we talked about Emmett Till and what Henry told James in the film: “They lynch Negroes” … and about everyone’s surprise at discovering that whites were lynched, too. We talked about James Byrd.
For once I was actually grateful for my students’ limited attention spans. We had already gone on longer than they can usually sustain focus. I was impressed, but I also needed to close the book and step back, so when the conversation started to break up, I was relieved.
As we said our goodbyes, Raj stopped at the door. “Bring the book back next week, Miss,” he said. “We need to talk about this some more.”