The Cultural Symbolism of the Noose Many blacks residents in Jena, La. were outraged when white teens hung nooses from a tree — and the school superintendent characterized it as a "prank." We discuss the symbolism of the hangman's noose.

The Cultural Symbolism of the Noose

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The protests in Jena are, in part, a story about the power of a symbol. It began when a high school student asked school officials if African-American students could still under a schoolyard tree that whites usually sat beneath. The next morning, nooses were found hanging from that tree. Several white students were suspended for what the school superintendent later called a prank. Many blacks in the town were outraged. To them, a noose is a powerful symbol that invokes the history of lynching. Hanging one could hardly be called a prank.

So the question is how could people who live in the same town see this event and this symbol so differently? We want to hear from you want does the noose symbolize to you, if anything. Our number is 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

Joining us from the studios of member station WAER in Syracuse, New York, is Joseph Jordan. He's director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at the University of North Carolina. He curated an exhibit of photographs of lynching called "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America."

Joseph Jordan, thanks very much for being with us today.

Dr. JOSEPH JORDAN (Director, Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, University of North Carolina): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And I wonder, were you surprised when you first heard the story and about the use of nooses by high school students?

Dr. JORDAN: No, I don't think I was particularly surprised. What we find today - and particularly in the United States - is that at different points in time, some of the vestiges of old racisms rise. And even if these young people didn't know and felt that it was a prank, I think that the idea that these symbols still exist as symbols of intimidation and ways of intimidating other people - I'd think that they understood that that would have been the possibility of a reaction from the folks that were there at the school.

CONAN: Just an hour ago, Johnny Fryar, a member of the LaSalle Parish school board, spoke with CNN, and he defended the school board's decision not to expel the white students who hung those nooses. Let's listen to what he said.

Mr. JOHNNY FRYAR (Member, LaSalle Parish School Board): I did talk to one of the parents who told me and said that their son thought it was a prank. He was naive to the fact of what it meant, and that he was sorry, but it was a prank to him. And, again, you know, as to - I'm not making excuses for anybody, but I am saying that was the action that we took - we thought it was appropriate at that time.

CONAN: I wonder, Joseph Jordan, does that explanation work for you?

Dr. JORDAN: I think I would probably take another tact in not saying whether it works for me, but what - one of the things that we found in doing the exhibit in Atlanta is that, oftentimes, the easiest way for people - and particularly people in power - to deal with these issues, particularly when they're contentious, is to try to find a way to not talk about them. In other words, if we don't talk about them, the problem goes away.

Even if the administrators there accepted the idea that this was a prank, they should have taken the opportunity to use it to teach the school community and others in the community what it actually does. I mean, anytime you have symbols that serve to humiliate, denigrate or intimidate other communities, the schools and the leaders in the schools have a responsibility to go back and make sure that folks understand what those things really do to folks.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Is it credible to you that people in the same town, who grow up together, go to the same schools together - this is not 1952. These people know each other better now than they did then, but that these two different groups of people could have such very different understandings of what this meant?

Dr. JORDAN: No. I mean you - again, you find this all the time in U.S. society. We still have instances where swastikas are drawn on the sight of synagogues. You still have very demeaning and denigrating images of Native Americans that are used by sports teams. And when you ask those teams about them - even teams right there in Washington D.C…

CONAN: There's a well-known one. Yes.

Dr. JORDAN: …thank you very much - they have very, very different impressions of what those symbols actually do to people, how they make them feel. So I think that this is another example of where people are talking past each other. And the idea that you ask one community who's singing "Dixie", for example, at football games or using symbols like Chief Nakahoma or hanging nooses on trees - if they're hurtful, it really is not up to them to determine that. It's when they are in conversations with other communities that may have identified these as hurtful symbols that we get the meaning. And that's what didn't happen in Jena.

CONAN: No communication there. Hatred, you have to understand, is in the eye of the beholder.

Dr. JORDAN: It may be, but again, I don't think the administrators down there were completely oblivious to this. I don't think that they are outside of history, if you will. I'd think that in Louisiana, in Indiana and across the United States, it's understood, particularly by adults, that these symbols have particular kind of repercussions. If not, they wouldn't be used.

CONAN: We're speaking with Joseph Jordan, director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at the University of North Carolina. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get a caller on the line now. This is Eric, Eric's with us from Iowa.

ERIC (Caller): Hi. I live in Iowa now. I'm from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And my comment is that I find it utterly incredulous that any person living in Louisiana would not know what a noose symbolizes. And I'll take any reaction to my comment off the air. Thank you very much.

CONAN: All right, Eric. Thanks very much for the call. Would you agree with him, Joseph Jordan?

Dr. JORDAN: Well, you know, I'm not going to try to get into the head of young people that were there. Like I said, I'm more likely to accept that they didn't know the consequences of what they were doing, but I can't accept that the adults there had the, you know, were - had no knowledge that the reaction would be so strong from the black community, particularly not only just given the history of Louisiana but also given the history of the United States.

The young people, like I said, when you do something like that, you don't do it for neutral reasons. You do it because you know it's going to get a reaction. And in this case, I suspect that they did it because they knew it would draw a negative reaction. Whether they address the entire history of the noose, I have no idea, but they did know that it was a hurtful symbol.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is James, James is with us from Fair Haven in New York.

JAMES (Caller): Oh, thank you for taking my call. I just - I wanted to make a comment, you know, I agree about the incredulousness. But I also think, you know, I mean, here's a situation where people died. They talked about the lynching. You compare it to something else such as, you know, desecration of the American flag. Could you - you couldn't possibly claim ignorance to that, and it would invoke those same strong emotions. I think that people need to be understanding of that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. It's a conscious use of symbolism, and symbols are very powerful, indeed.

JAMES: I mean, to say that you don't know what the noose means would be to say that plastering the N-word all over that tree would, you know, to say we didn't really know what that means. It's a - I agree that it's a search for a reaction, and to try to and hide from that is the utmost in cowardice.

CONAN: All right, James. Thanks very much for the call.

JAMES: Thank you.

CONAN: Joseph Jordan, this is not the only story in the news lately that's involved the use of nooses. We searched Google News and found several others. In Massachusetts this summer, a noose was found on an African mask in a city official's office earlier this month. A noose was found hanging outside of a Black Cultural Center at the University of Maryland. Is this typical? Is this - I mean this is relatively new, do you think?

Dr. JORDAN: No, I mean you can look at the - I mean, just the past 10 years, there are case after case where in workplaces, in order to ostensibly do something that's supposed to be a joke, workers will hang a noose. In other cases, you'll find it in schools, as we've seen here. But in each of these cases, again, I contend that this part and parcel of the fabric of popular culture in the United States as well as some of the more traditional ways that people have chosen to try to denigrate other folks.

I think the gentlemen made mention of the tree, which I understand down there in Jena has now been cut down and the stump is grounded so that they're, I mean, ground - they've ground the stump so that there's no evidence of it. And, to me, that sort of typifies what happens in U.S. society when they come up with these kinds of issues. Not all places - in some places, they've dealt with the kind of reconstructive approaches to try to build back communities once you have these breaches.

But when you cut the tree down, what you're really doing is saying is that, well, if it's not there, the problem will go away. And the problem isn't in the tree. I mean, the poor tree had nothing to do with the fact that these individuals came and hung nooses from them.

CONAN: Yeah, and…

Dr. JORDAN: What they should try to do is cut down the attitudes that allowed those kids to feel that this was an appropriate thing to do.

CONAN: And that they felt - again, given the history of the area - that this was a whites-only area, that they needed to ask for permission to sit under the tree.

Dr. JORDAN: Well, I think that, again, that goes, I mean, one of the thing that's sort of is painful is to see residents there confront the news media and say that they've been, you know, that they've been misrepresented and that the image that's being painted of them isn't correct, that they're all friends down there. And all of the things that we're seeing and all of the things that are being said by the parents of these young boys and other folks in the black community is that things are not all right. So very clearly, they shouldn't be talking to the media. They should be talking to their neighbors.

CONAN: Thank you very much for being with us today.

Dr. JORDAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Joseph Jordan, director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at the University of North Carolina, with us today from our member station WAER in Syracuse, New York.

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