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SUNDAY REPORT

An Obsessive Quest to Make People See

After antique collector James Allen discovered scores of lynching photos, black Americans were grateful--and confused. Was his motive compassion--or something else?

August 27, 2000|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"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.

A Question of Money

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.

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