Who Owns the Noose?

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Mr. Downs, PhD is an assistant professor of History at Connecticut College. His books include Why We Write: The Politics and Practice of Writing for Social Change and Taking Back the Academy!. His articles have appeared in History Today, The Southern Historian, and Prologue.

It happened, again. Beginning in Jena, Louisiana in 2006 and then followed by incidents at the University of Maryland, the Coast Guard Academy, and Columbia University, the noose, which powerfully symbolizes the rampant lynching that occurred throughout the U.S. South in late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has been discovered hung now in a police station in South Florida.  Leaving aside the nature of this “hate crime,” this is certainly not the first time that the targets of these offenses, confronted racism. So, why, has this incident, and others like it, warranted so much media attention?  The recent rash of noose hangings seems to have less to do with the viscous horrors targeted against African-Americans, and more to do with how the history of the noose has enabled the leading media, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, to define racism. 1

In order to understand why the noose has received so much attention, it is necessary to return to early twentieth-century photographs of lynching and the noose.  Some of these photographs appeared in newspapers by both supporters and opponents of the practice, and some were even made into postcards, which were then circulated throughout the country. Many, if not all of these photographs, operated under the intention that white people would serve as the audience to these images. Some photographs even went so far as to make white Southern audiences as the focal point of the image, while the lynched black bodies appeared as a mere backdrop to this abject form of Southern theater.  Yet, these photographs, which both imagined a white viewing audience, and which, in some instances, centered on white people as the central focus of the image, unwittingly reveal the history of the noose.

On the surface, the noose signifies the violence and hatred targeted towards African-Americans, but as these photographs show, this is simply not the case. The participation of white people as both viewers and actors in this Southern spectacle suggests the extent to which white people give meaning to the noose.  Which raises the question, without white people in the photograph or as consumers of the image; would the photo have been taken? Further, it is to circuitously raise the old philosophical question: if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around: does it make a sound? That is to say, how is the presence of white people witnessing lynching actually allowing for us now, seventy or more years later, the opportunity to see it for ourselves? Without white people naming and defining issues of racism—as  this recent eruption of noose hangings suggests—much of what gets catalogued and called racism would be like the proverbial tree in the woods, falling but not making a sound that anyone could hear.

Furthermore, throughout the history of the representations of the noose, black people are consistently portrayed as passive victims of this terrible violence. Given such a context, we do not ever see how black people themselves responded to the lynching crisis. By only showing a black body dangling from a tree, we don’t see the ways in which black people took to the streets and fought for federal legislation aimed at ending lynching in the South; or how black women’s clubs and sororities formed special meetings and planned actions that instructed African Americans on how to defend themselves against the assault of white people; or even how the Southern African-American journalist Ida B.Wells inspired scores of African-Americans to evacuate the South and to move North to avoid the threats of lynching.

Consequently, the absence of an active black response to the lynching crisis illustrates the extent to which white people, both liberal and racist, have taken ownership of the noose and dictated its representation.  In an effort to counter this dynamic, consider the ways in which black people throughout the history of lynching responded to this crisis by not only protesting in the streets and writing editorials in newspapers, but also by using their artistic work to deliver powerful messages that reached the far corners of the black community during the height of the lynching epidemic. As part of a series that chronicled the migration of black people from the South to the North, the African-American painter Jacob Lawrence portrayed an image of an empty noose hanging from a tree, and an unnamed black body positioned away from the noose.  The caption beneath the panel reads, “Another cause was lynching. It was found that there had been a lynching, the people who were reluctant to leave at first left immediately after this.” As cultural historian Farah Jasmine Griffin tells us, “the most striking object, the hanging body, is striking by its absence.”2   In representations of lynching peddled mostly by white people, we witness the corporeal bodies of African Americans on display. Yet, perhaps, such images are too horrifying for black people themselves to witness, and, as a result, the noose appears without a body. Instead what appears is a black body bent over in a huddled position.

Unlike the bodies that typically dangle from the noose in white representations, the unseen, unnamed, and anonymous black body here appears to be mourning at the site of the lynching. Compared to the aforementioned images of white people forming a spectacle around the lynching, here we get a sense of how black people mourned the atrocity surrounding the noose.  Not only is the act of mourning a direct response that flies in the face of the otherwise obsequious passivity that characterized white representations of lynching, but it also carries a potent political message. As the caption reads, the “people left immediately.” The Great Migration, which refers to the massive exodus of black people from the rural and urban South to the North in the early 20th century, was a powerful way that black people responded to lynching.  Not just in paintings, but also in music, African-Americans responded to the noose.  Singer Billie Holiday turned the song “Strange Fruit” into an overnight hit with her harrowing rendition, which hauntingly responded to images of lynching that had otherwise silenced and subjugated a people.

Thus, when we approach the recent rash of noose hangings, it is necessary to think more rigorously about who is deploying these images. Given the dominant media’s obsession with the noose, one would assume that this is the only case of racism that unfolded in the country since Don Imus spat disparaging remarks about the women of the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team. But people in the black community know better: systematic forms of racism develop everyday, but do not get constant media play. It is the white liberal media that defined, “nooses being hung,” and “names being called” as the most obvious cases of racism. But things have changed in the post civil rights era; racism exists in ways far too pernicious that lack simple, clear-cut definitions or rhetorical accounting.  Yet, it is easier for well-intentioned white liberal journalists to define the noose as a glaring example of racism, and thus obscure, like the photographs of the early twentieth-century reveal, what black people themselves define as social problems. While I could list some of the social issues and challenges today that plague the black community, such as, infant mortality, black incarceration, reparations, and the increasing spread of HIV in the Deep South, this would only lead to a list of recognizable issues that only eclipses the many indefinable cases of racism that crop up everyday . So, instead, I want to emphasize how the attention on the noose exposes how white liberals define racism in a way that is both comfortable to them and suggests that they themselves do not perpetuate racism.

In order to thus illustrate how racism unfolds in oblique and indecipherable ways, I must rely on the popular feminist adage, “the personal is political.” When the first noose hanging episode exploded last spring, I distinctly remember discussing this issue with a group of upper class white men, who were in their thirties. All of them were outraged with this incident and boldly stood up for the rights of these victims. While their intentions were, nevertheless, on the right side of the ideological and moral fence, it seemed the more that they berated the racists who hung the noose, the more that they congratulated themselves for not engaging in such behavior.

I wonder, how many times, white liberals symbolically hang the noose around the necks of black people in the United States in less obvious and more coded ways? To my friend that is a lawyer, I inquired, of the twenty or so interns a year that your law firm hires, how many are black? He blankly stares back at me. To my friend who is a venture capitalist and travels the world in search of new markets, I asked him how many people of color traveled with him on his business trips to Africa? He looked confused, wondering why I would be provoking an argument with him, as if he had done nothing wrong, and then hesitatingly said, “none.” And finally to my friend who is a high powered CEO, I asked, how many black people serve on your board of trustees? And, by this point, I am sure you can imagine his response.

To each one of these guys, they feel in their hearts that they are doing the right thing by valiantly defending the victims of the noose hangings, yet they fail to recognize how many times they themselves have symbolically hung the noose on black people in their professions who can’t get out of the mailroom. Part of the problem with racism today can be found indirectly in the theme of Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye. Morrison’s subtle injection of the “Dick and Jane” narrative embroidered throughout her novel reveals that when we first imagine a character in a story, we imagine that the character is by default white. Similarly, when we imagine corporate lawyers, successful businesspeople, and boards of trustees, we inevitably see only white people filling these roles—which unknowingly perpetrates a form of systematic racism.   

So, today, as we discuss the recent upsurge of noose hangings, we should be careful that our engagement of this topic does not perpetrate a form of self absolvent and self aggrandizement, and we should instead consider how we symbolically hang the noose in subtle and indirect ways on our own college and university campuses.  When more black women in colleges and universities can be found in positions of service from the cafeteria to the adjunct professorial level, we are symbolically hanging a noose.  When we allow for tables in the cafeteria to be segregated in terms of white students at one table and blacks at another, we are not only hanging a noose but we are reviving Jim Crow segregation.  Finally, each time we speak against the noose, we symbolically hang the noose on issues that often don’t get the attention of the white liberal media.

1 See, for example, Joe Holley, “U-Md Responds to Possible Hate Crime,” 10 September 2007, Washington Post;  Sewall Chan, “Noose Puts Columbia On Center Stage Again,” 10 October 2007, New York Times; “Noose Found At Miami Police Station: Black Sergeant Finds Noose Hanging In Bathroom,” Local 10 News.Com, Florida, http://www.local10.com/news/15073186/detail.html?rss=mia&psp=news

2 Farah Jasmine Griffin, Who Set You Flowin’?: The African-American Migration Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)

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Tracey L Lewis - 2/23/2008

I am a high school English teacher and have been recently talking about race in America in tandem with discussions about black historical achievement in light of February being Black History Month. Just the other day, my students had laptops in class to complete a web quest about African American Spirituals. Toward the end of the period, I noticed that there "mysteriously" appeared a picture of a noose in the printer tray. When students were asked who printed the picture, not one raised a hand to stake claim.

I could have made a huge deal about finding out which student made the printout by tracking students' website visits that had a laptop from the cart that was connected to the printer. Instead, when we return to class next week, I plan to approach the situation from a wider perspective which I hope will thereby more greatly benefit and engage students in a lasting manner. As a matter of fact, I anticipate using the article "Who Owns the Noose?" and comments to aid in the discussion to present this topic within a historic as well as modern context that includes views outside of the classroom membership.

And while we may simply be arguing about "the 'meaning' of a hank of hemp" in this current context, it is apparent that it still has meaning to at least one member of a group of almost 30 high school students. Otherwise, why would any one of my students print the picture and yet not take ownership of the act?

For someone so young, vulnerable, and impressionable to attach such detrimental meaning to a bit of knotted up coarse yarn is in my opinion very serious business and one for educators to address. For this reason if for none other, I believe that we must continue to "waste our time" with this discussion; otherwise, historical implications attached to the noose will continue to filter down into continuingly younger generations ad infinitum.

John D. Beatty - 1/28/2008

It is clear that the rope is offensive. I demand the immediate and unconditional destruction of all such objects.

Would that make us happy? Does banning certain words make us more civil?

Thought not. So why, in the name of intellectual honesty, are we arguing about the "meaning" of a hank of hemp? Because it suits the offended community. that's why.

Don't waste our time.

Thomas Jackson - 1/27/2008

The noose incident at the Coast Guard Academy was left to the Coast Guard Investigative Service and the Coast Gaurd Office of Civil Rights, headed by Ms. Terri A. Dickerson to investigate and mitigate. The Thomas Jackson Center for Equal Civil Rights taking a hard look at Ms. Dickerson's qualifications to "mitigate and close those open wounds."