The Noose

hanging_noose_jpg.jpgThat old instrument of death the noose has been much in the news of late. Saddam Hussein and his henchmen have gone to the gallows. Clarence Thomas continues to rail against his “high-tech lynching” at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And in the past few months, actual nooses have been found hanging in a variety of places — at high schools and universities, in workplaces and police stations, from the backs of pickup trucks, and near Ground Zero in New York City. Many have surmised that the appearance of these nooses is related to the controversy sparked in Jena, Louisiana when white students hung nooses from a tree near a public school. What we have is probably some combination of disgruntled students, cowardly racists, and “copycats.” Or perhaps, as Peter Applebome of the New York Times suggested, “maybe it’s just the distorting mirror of the never-ending media cavalcade, where any moron with a Sharpie and a length of cord from Home Depot can make a statement heard round the world.” [The noose is not the only symbol of hate making a comeback. The swastika has been showing up with increasing frequency in some communities; it has been spotted at synagogues and even carved into a crop circle in New Jersey].

Whatever the case, the seeming resurgence of the noose is a disturbing development. Its intentional use as a symbol of racial hatred and terror is of course utterly comtemptible. There have always been, and likely always will be, those who will make such cowardly gestures in an effort to intimidate. More disturbing on some level is the fact that there appear to be some (perhaps many) people who are either not aware of the noose’s disgraceful history, or who may believe that being forced to acknowledge that experience forces political correctness upon them. Some of the co-workers involved in the incidents noted above seemed to think that hanging a noose was a “joke.” Others have suggested that perhaps the media is hyping noose hangings in an effort to shock readers into caring about race. After all, as Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, is quoted in the New York Times saying, ”This is comparable to name calling” . . . ”It’s important to look at what it means and also what it doesn’t mean.”

We certainly ought to consider what hanging a noose signifies. I suggested in a paper that ethnographic methods may be useful in assessing the meaning of symbols like the confederate flag and symbolic acts like cross burning. Anyone who doubts the enduring and powerful hatred and terror associated with this symbol (and who cannot be bothered to read one of many excellent accounts of the Jim Crow South) should at least peruse Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000), a book I stumbled upon years ago and have never forgotten. Of course, the noose, like other symbols, is polysemous. The context of the display matters. There are certain contexts — historical exhibits on Jim Crow violence or the death penalty, tributes to the Wild West, and perhaps even a celebration of Halloween fright — in which the symbol is intended to convey some non-threatening meaning. Even so, hangers of nooses — in particular those who live in diverse neighborhoods or work in diverse environments — ought to understand how this symbol is interpreted by many, if not most, African-Americans. Those noose-hangers who are fully aware of and even embrace the terrorism of the symbol should not count on any First Amendment protection for their “message.” Hanging a noose with the specific intent to intimidate is a true threat. What to do about the deep-seated undercurrent of racism that the noose’s resurgence seems to signify is a much more complicated question — and not, as our history demonstrates, one that will be resolved solely by passing hate crimes laws.

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6 Responses

  1. Laura says:

    This noose thing has gotten out of hand. I work in a neighboring town. The nooses were hung in the trees by a high school team that had a football grudge against our team. It wasn’t racial. It has to do with their mascot. The nooses were Hung EVERYWHERE and they were lassos not nooses. Until Sharpton got involved. I guess the man will do what he can to get paid and get his face in the news. But at what cost?? Check the story out.

  2. Hattie says:

    It would be wonderful if man had two living souls:

    one to impose hatard on, and one to give the hatard to. As for Sharpton, Laura, walk a mile in his shoes, and tell us all how you feel. You don’t have a clue. People are hated because of the color of their skin. In the 60s in Louisanna, I can still the signs that said White Only/Black, this is only because of the color of your skin. Laura you need to do more research, open up your brain, eyes, educate your soul. I don’t know if you are a person of color, if you are, learn your history, the NOOSE itself means so much to so many Afican Americans. You don’t seen to understand that. I will give you just a little history. When slaves were pregnant, and working in the fields, when it came time to give birth to that child, the slave would give birth in the field, the oversee would throw that child in a sack, and the slave would go on working. If your are a person of color learn your history. NOOSES mean so much, to much to go into. As for Sharpton, I’m glad he got involved, and I hope he keep on getting involved. I guess If you saw a Sw. sticker, you would said it’s no big deal, but it is to Jewish people. Why must people of color put things aside, no other race does

  3. TomW says:

    Shall we declare the displaying of “sacks” a hate crime as well. How many witches were also hung to death with Nooses, how many outlaws in the Old West. Used innocently and not to intimidate or represent racism, the noose is merely a knot like many others that were used to hang people of all races. Maybe rope in general should be against the law…

  4. Anthony "Hangman" Belli says:

    Better late then never. — I have no problem understanding why black Americans living in the South have a direct connection to seeing the symbol of the noose as one of savage hatred and violence. In the South this symbol, for obvious reasons represents terror. So lets say I bought a little cafe on Main Street in Selma, Alabama and to decorate it I hung nooses on the outside of my cafe, as well as on the inside. I’d have to be a complete A-Hole to do such a thing, and I’d expect to get my white ass beaten down or found DOA before I got the chance to open my cafe for a second day. CONTEXT PEOPLE CONTEXT!!!

    But if I live today (2008) in Placerville, Ca. also known as “Hangtown” from the days of the California Gold Rush, I understand why the symbol of the noose can be seen on the city’s logo, city vehicles, and hanging from Main Street shops. To the miners of 1849, aka: “the 49ers” the noose represented a symbol of justice and of law & order. This was especially true of the honest hard working miners who were US citizens and who anticipated California’s admission into the Union

    as they did not want mob violence in the Mother Lode. They held impromptu trials and popular justice reigned. Those found not guilty by a miner’s court were sat at liberty. The noose itself is not a good or bad symbol. The noose, like all other symbols represents what it does to the people in the culture where it may or may not be seen.

    CONTEXT & COMMON SENSE must rule over the lame idea that one Federally mandated rule / law regarding this symbol, or any other represents anyone thing specifically.

  5. Anthony "Hangman" Belli says:

    Better late then never. — I have no problem understanding why black Americans living in the South have a direct connection to seeing the symbol of the noose as one of savage hatred and violence. In the South this symbol, for obvious reasons represents terror. So lets say I bought a little cafe on Main Street in Selma, Alabama and to decorate it I hung nooses on the outside of my cafe, as well as on the inside. I’d have to be a complete A-Hole to do such a thing, and I’d expect to get my white ass beaten down or found DOA before I got the chance to open my cafe for a second day. CONTEXT PEOPLE CONTEXT!!!

    But if I live today (2008) in Placerville, Ca. also known as “Hangtown” from the days of the California Gold Rush, I understand why the symbol of the noose can be seen on the city’s logo, city vehicles, and hanging from Main Street shops. To the miners of 1849, aka: “the 49ers” the noose represented a symbol of justice and of law & order. This was especially true of the honest hard working miners who were US citizens and who anticipated California’s admission into the Union

    as they did not want mob violence in the Mother Lode. They held impromptu trials and popular justice reigned. Those found not guilty by a miner’s court were sat at liberty. The noose itself is not a good or bad symbol. The noose, like all other symbols represents what it does to the people in the culture where it may or may not be seen.

    CONTEXT & COMMON SENSE must rule over the lame idea that one Federally mandated rule / law regarding this symbol, or any other represents anyone thing specifically.

  6. Anthony "Hangman" Belli says:

    Better late then never. — I have no problem understanding why black Americans living in the South have a direct connection to seeing the symbol of the noose as one of savage hatred and violence. In the South this symbol, for obvious reasons represents terror. So lets say I bought a little cafe on Main Street in Selma, Alabama and to decorate it I hung nooses on the outside of my cafe, as well as on the inside. I’d have to be a complete A-Hole to do such a thing, and I’d expect to get my white ass beaten down or found DOA before I got the chance to open my cafe for a second day. CONTEXT PEOPLE CONTEXT!!!

    But if I live today (2008) in Placerville, Ca. also known as “Hangtown” from the days of the California Gold Rush, I understand why the symbol of the noose can be seen on the city’s logo, city vehicles, and hanging from Main Street shops. To the miners of 1849, aka: “the 49ers” the noose represented a symbol of justice and of law & order. This was especially true of the honest hard working miners who were US citizens and who anticipated California’s admission into the Union

    as they did not want mob violence in the Mother Lode. They held impromptu trials and popular justice reigned. Those found not guilty by a miner’s court were sat at liberty. The noose itself is not a good or bad symbol. The noose, like all other symbols represents what it does to the people in the culture where it may or may not be seen.

    CONTEXT & COMMON SENSE must rule over the lame idea that one Federally mandated rule / law regarding this symbol, or any other represents anyone thing specifically.