A Noose at the Smithsonian Brings History Back to LifeIt’s actually not.
By LONNIE G. BUNCH III JUNE 23, 2017
The person who recently left a noose at the National Museum of African American History and Culture clearly intended to intimidate, by deploying one of the most feared symbols in American racial history.
Instead, the vandal unintentionally offered a contemporary reminder of one theme of the black experience in America: We continue to believe in the potential of a country that has not always believed in us, and we do this against incredible odds.Indeed.
The noose — the second of three left on the National Mall in recent weeks — was found late in May in an exhibition that chronicles America’s evolution from the era of Jim Crow through the civil rights movement. Visitors discovered it on the floor in front of a display of artifacts from the Ku Klux Klan, as well as objects belonging to African-American soldiers who fought during World War I. Though these soldiers fought for democracy abroad, they found little when they returned home.
That display, like the museum as a whole, powerfully juxtaposes two visions of America: one shaped by racism, violence and terror, and one shaped by a belief in an America where freedom and fairness reign. I see the nooses as evidence that those visions continue to battle in 2017 and that the struggle for the soul of America continues to this very day.
The people responsible knew that their acts would not be taken lightly.
A noose is a symbol of the racial violence and terror that African-Americans have confronted throughout American history and of the intensity of resistance we’ve faced to any measure of racial equality.As far as I can tell, the idea that a noose is the equivalent of a burning cross was more or less invented in 2007 during the Jena Fiasco led by the Reverends Jesse and Al. Six black star high school football players in a small town in Louisiana had long been running amok, aided by the usual white male power structure that excuses the violence of strong fast black jocks as long as they score touchdowns. But when the Jena Six beat a white youth into unconsciousness and then continued to put the boot in while he lay inert, they finally were facing some serious jail time.
At that point the national news media started spreading the story that the white kids in the high school deserved it because they were racists. The evidence? The student body had put on a Cowboy-themed social event including, along with many other movie Western tropes, nooses on the Ol’ Hangin’ Tree. Therefore, three months later, six black football stars were entitled to pummel one unconscious white kid.
So, what does it mean to have found three nooses on Smithsonian grounds in 2017? A noose inside a Missouri high school? A noose on the campus of Duke University? Another at American University?That Hate Hoaxes are a thing?
As a historian, who also happens to be old enough to remember “Whites Only” signs on motels and restaurants that trumpeted the power of laws enforcing segregation, I posit that it means we must lay to rest any notion that racism is not still the great divide. …So, Lonnie, how is the police investigation coming? You are the curator of a $540 million edifice that opened in 2016, so clearly you must have video cameras everywhere. LeBron James gave you $2.5 million that you could have used on cameras (although, come to think of it, LeBron seems a little under-cameraed himself). It should be simple to catch the malefactor, right? But it’s been over three weeks …
The answer is that discrimination is not confined to the past. …
I see the nooses in the same way. They are living history. Viewed through this lens, they are no less a part of the story the museum tells than the Klan robes, the slave shackles small enough to fit a child, the stretch of rope used to lynch a Maryland man in 1931 or the coffin used to bury the brutally murdered Emmett Till.
If you want to know how African-Americans continue to persevere and fight for a better America in the face of this type of hatred, you need only visit the museum, where the noose has been removed but the rest of the remarkable story of our commitment to overcome remains. Anyone who experiences the National Museum of African American History and Culture should leave with that realization, as well as the understanding that this story is continuing. The cowardly act of leaving a symbol of hate in the midst of a tribute to our survival conveyed that message as well as any exhibit ever could.
Lonnie G. Bunch III, a historian, author, curator and educator, is the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Thanks to commenter Mr. Anon for the title.