Saturday, January 19, 2008

Nooses in the News: Why History Matters

Symbols have power. Symbols have meaning. Symbols have a context. Symbols have histories. Behold the noose.

Nooses have been in the news--again. Most recently a white, female golf commentator made a reference to Tiger Woods and lynching, a statement that got some media attention and led to a two-week suspension for the sportscaster. The South Carolina native and Duke graduate apparently didn't know or remember the history of lynching; an unfortunate word choice--its history, its symbol, its power--sparked significant controversy. And then, the golf publication Golfweek put a picture of a noose on the cover of a recent issue that dealt with the Tiger Woods story. Read more about these stories from this local blogger, and read these very interesting posts (and here) from the blog of Edward Gilbreath. Professional golfer Jim Thorpe offers commentary and perspective here.

This is of course another instance of why history matters, and why the teaching of history matters so much.

Then there were the many stories about the "Jena 6" from Louisiana, where race, class, and the South's (and that nation's) history converged, most notably on a day of national protest last fall. The fact is, Jena (or at least the news coverage of it) overshadowed many other "noose incidents" in 2007. Read here about Columbia University, here about the Coast Guard, and, from a Houston suburb, Pearland, here. A Washington Post article details other incidents here, and a New York Times opinion piece provides a map of recent incidents (see map above).

As many readers will remember, some of our recent study of Jim Crow America focused on lynching and its history. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow documentary has a companion website with helpful maps, and the authors of Without Sanctuary created an on-line documentary of their book.

And perhaps most notably, the W.E.B. Du Bois Crisis essay "The Son of God" (1933) we read contains an important scene where the carpenter Joshua is lynched for his teaching, and for the power of his message of liberation, equality, and justice. You will recall, Mary, his mother, saying: "Behold the Sign of Salvation--a noosed rope." Here, Du Bois creatively and powerfully writes redemptive power into a symbol of death--a true prophet.

Yet, there's more to this history. The theologian James Cone recently appeared on the Bill Moyers Journal and powerfully discussed the intersections between lynching, race, religion and history. The historian Donald Matthews published a three-part article on lynching a few years back, and Edward J. Blum covers lynching, race, and religion in one chapter of his recent book on Du Bois.

For a musical and lyrical expression of lynching, its history, its tragedy, its sorrow, and its power, listen to Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit." Read about the song and find the lyrics here.

[Photo credit here.]


Nikolas said...

Well to say the least the comments by the sportscaster and the symbolism behind the noose are something that obviously should not be made fun of but I believe there is more to the story than just that. Part of me believes that joking about a symbol that brought so much pain is beyond idiotic but I believe there is a nasty double standard at work here as well. In the black community there is a struggle right now between groups that desire to push forward and move beyond the past and the group that desires to live in the past and do nothing because they are "owed" something because their family suffered at one point. The example I am referring to is the use of the word 'nigger' although this is not what the article is written about the concept remains the same the word is linked to the painful past, people are offended when the word is used, and there is mass contreversy concerning how black america should view such things. There will always be two sides to the coin inappropriate use of a word or reference can rouse the anger of any man while on the same note oversensativity and double standards force mass confusion on the greater population. When the concept of "Do As I Say Not As I DO" comes into effect mixed messages and possible frustration can occur. How the double standard works is quite simple just take a look at the rap music of today. Rap music freely uses the word 'nigger' and puts out the message that black men and women need not aspire to move forward in life but rather they should live as thugs and loose women that music does not help anyone and does not inspire the next generation to greatness. I will wrap this up now the reference the sportscaster made is the embodiment of this idea this woman made a foul reference and caused a very strong response by a lot of people some in the community respond because they have chosen to live in the past respond and act like "victims" while the group that has chosen to move forward respond as people who are angered by a person's obvious lack of common sense. In closing in order to change our society we must first change ourselves to embrace ideals that suggest we not aspire to greatness and suggest women are worthless will never get us anywhere.

Phil said...

In keeping with the topic of this particular post, several points stand out. Knowledge of history continues to remain an important thing—not so much to prevent people from misspeaking since this is perhaps a perennial part of the human condition—but because both symbols and words carry meaning and elicit deep reactions, both for the speaker and for those spoken to. It seems that the sportscaster could have benefited from a more informed understanding of American history.

But as blogger Ed Gilbreath notes, the sportscaster made the necessary apologies and Tiger Woods extended a hand of forgiveness, as did professional golfer Jim Thorpe, also an African American. While this by no means excuses the comments of the sportscaster, the specific reactions to the situation by Woods and Thorpe are important to keep in mind. This is clearly something worthy of note.

And certainly there is a generational dynamic of historical memory at work (in many communities in the United States dealing with complex and varied issues, not just the African American community) in terms of the various legacies of slavery and Jim Crow within African American communities and these different points of view should be heard. The big question, of course, is the way forward. (And, admittedly, the question of rap music, the topics this genre addresses and the language artists choose requires another kind of discussion.)

Besides the memory of lynching and contemporary controversies, another case in point in terms of historical memory is the way that the memory of Martin Luther King is used. Many focus on the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, while others forget or ignore that by 1968, the year of King’s death, he was working energetically and at great personal cost on antipoverty campaigns and putting his weight toward the antiwar movement. He went to Memphis is 1968 to work on an antipoverty campaign, and famously gave his Vietnam War speech in NYC in 1967. For some MLK seems to be frozen in time in 1963, while others argue that his antipoverty and antiwar work remain as relevant today as ever. Whose King will be remembered?

Watch the news coverage of MLK day this week, and give this some thought. Again, symbols have meaning, context, history, and power.