This will be a history of rope.
It strikes me that such a history is desperately needed just now. It seems the travesty in Jena, La., has spawned a ghastly trend. Remember how white students at Jena High placed nooses in a tree last year to communicate antipathy toward their African-American classmates? Now it's happening all over.
A noose is left for a black workman at a construction site in the Chicago area. In Queens, a woman brandishes a noose to threaten her black neighbors. A noose is left on the door of a black professor at Columbia University. And that's just last week. Go back a little further and you have similar incidents at the University of Maryland in College Park, at a police department on Long Island, on a Coast Guard cutter, in a bus maintenance garage in Pittsburgh.
Mark Potok, the director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told USA Today, "For a dozen incidents to come to the public's attention is a lot. I don't generally see noose incidents in a typical month. We might hear about a handful in a year."
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The superintendent of schools in Jena famously dismissed the original incident as a "prank." It was an astonishing response, speaking volumes about the blithe historical ignorance of people who have found it convenient not to peer too closely at the atrocities of the past lest they be accidentally . . . moved.
But watching this trend unfold, it occurs to me that maybe what we need here is the opposite of ignorance. Maybe what we need is information. Maybe what we need is a history of rope.
A history of rope would have to include, in 1904, Luther Holbert and his wife, who had their fingers chopped off and handed out as souvenirs. Holbert was beaten so badly one of his eyes came out. It hung by a thread. A large corkscrew was used to bore into the couple's flesh. It tore out big chunks of them each time it was withdrawn. A rope was used to tie them to the tree.
A history of rope would have to include, in 1917, Rufus Moncrief, who was beaten senseless by a mob. They used a saw to cut off his arms and otherwise mutilated him. The mob hanged Moncrief. Then, for good measure, they hanged his dog. Ropes were used for both.
A history of rope would have to include, in 1918, Mary Turner, burned alive in Valdosta, Ga. A man used a hog-splitting knife to slash her swollen stomach. The baby she had carried nearly to term tumbled out and managed two cries before the man crushed its head beneath his heel. A rope was used to tie Turner upside down in a tree.
A history of rope would include thousands of Turners, Moncriefs and Holberts. It would range widely across the geography of this nation and the years of the last two centuries. A history of rope would travel from Cairo, Ill., in 1909 to Fort Lauderdale in 1935 to Urbana, Ohio, in 1897 to Wrightsville, Ga., in 1903, to Leitchfield, Ky., in 1913 to Newbern, Tenn. in 1902. And beyond.
You might say the country has changed since then, and it has. The problem is, it's changing again.
It feels as if in recent years we the people have backward traveled from even the pretense of believing our loftiest ideals. It has become fashionable to decry excessive "political correctness, " deride "diversity, " sneer at the "protected classes." Code words sanding down hatred's rough edge. "State's rights" for the new millennium. And now, out come the nooses. Just a prank, the man says.
Mary Turner would argue otherwise. I find it useful to remember her, useful to be reminded of things we would rather forget. To remember her is to understand that there is no prank here.
A history of rope would drown your conscience in blood.