By Alan Bean
Jack Shuler called me up a few years ago to talk about Jena. In September of 2007, 50,000 people rode buses to this little town in central Louisiana to protest the treatment of six black high school students accused of assaulting a white student in late 2006. Since Friends of Justice, the organization I direct, was the first group from outside the area to investigate the case, and since my narrative summary of the case had influenced both journalists and protesters, Shuler seemed eager to talk.
My association with the Jena 6 (as the defendants came to be known) didn’t get a lot of attention until conservative journalists made me their whipping boy.
According to my narrative, the assault on Justin Barker in early December, 2006 was the last in a chain of events stretching back to September of that year. At the conclusion of a school assembly, a young freshman asked the principal if black students could sit under a tree in the school courtyard that had traditionally been reserved for white students. The principal told the student that he could sit anywhere he wanted, but the next morning, two nooses fashioned from nylon rope were found hanging in the tree.
The ensuing events are aptly described in the preface to Jack Shuler’s new book The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose:
A day later a group of black students held a sit-in beneath that tree, and the school launched an investigation to identify the culprits. It didn’t take long to find them–three white students did it, they said, as a joke . . . The local school superintendent claimed that ‘many persons of authority’ interviewed the three students and that ‘the result of those interviews showed that the students were not motivated by hate and there was no indication from any of the students that they had any inclination to do violence.’
In the final chapter of The Thirteenth Turn, Shuler summarizes the essential thrust of my thesis:
As Bean tells it, there had always been some animosity between black and white students, and even between black students and white teachers. After the noose incident and student protest, tension in the school was palpable. The campus was put on lockdown–law enforcement officers swarmed the place, and the school administration called an assembly. At that assembly all of the white kids sat on one side of the auditorium and all of the black kids on the other. At one point during the assembly District Attorney Reed Walters addressed the students, saying he was tired of their behavior. And then he said, ‘I just want you to realize that I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen.’
Many of these details were culled from the Jena Times and Mr. Walters admitted under oath that he made the statement about making lives disappear with the stroke of his pen. Asked to explain the remark, Walters said he just wanted the students to “work it out on your own.”
Which is precisely what happened. Throughout the autumn months, groups of white and black students clashed on several occasions, but always off campus. Then, someone set fire to the high school and the racial tension bubbled to the surface. The smell of smoke was still heavy in the air when classes resumed after a weekend marred by racially charged violence. As Justin Barker was leaving the school gym after the lunch break, he was felled by a single blow from behind and kicked and punched by a group of black male students.
The six defendants in this case were charged with attempted murder, a charge that carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years and a maximum sentence of life in prison. According to DA Reed Walters, school officials, and the Jena Times, the assault at the high school had no association with the earlier noose incident whatsoever.
The conservative backlash to the massive demonstration in Jena put asunder what I had joined together: the noose in September and the assault three months later. My critics contended that my version of events had been swallowed whole by liberal journalists eager to portray six juvenile delinquents as victims of Jim Crow justice.
The Thirteenth Turn follows my version of events (the alternatives don’t really make sense); but it was the boys who hung the nooses that grabbed Jack Shuler’s attention. Like me, he was open to the possibility that the noose hangers failed to grasp the racial implications of the noose. But that just raises another question: how could you grow up in a culture shaped by racial violence without learning that history?
I told Shuler I had never been happy with the media’s response to Jena:
I wanted it to be a story about what happens post-civil rights when schools are integrated and people can’t unpack their baggage from the past, the trauma. It was a festering wound. So the stories were either “This is Jim Crow Racism!” or “This is being blown out of proportion.”
Shuler’s book focuses on these “things beneath the surface”.
Why has the noose become a symbol of intimidation surpassing the burning cross, a tool for radical racists at a moment when some pundits insist that we live in a postracial America? Why does this thing have so much potency as a symbol? To truly understand the American story, these are answers we need.
Shuler teaches American Literature and Black Studies at Denison University in Granville, Ohio and The Thirteenth Turn books is the third book he has written that reckons with America’s tragic racial history.
As the title suggests, Shuler is interested in the “technology” and evolution of the noose. Early on, we are introduced to an expert in knot-tying who shows the author how to construct a proper noose and explains how hard it is to get a hanging right. Too much of a “drop” and the head is ripped from the body; too short and the victim dies of strangulation because the neck doesn’t break.
In the earliest days, of course, death by slow strangulation was the whole point and vast throngs came out for public hangings complete with bulging eyes, emptied bladders and bowels, kicking legs and grossly extended tongues. The American tradition of lynching follows a similar pattern. In fact, bodies were often horribly mutilated (often by souvenir hunters) and death by strangulation was simply the final indignity. The sight of a lifeless, charred, disfigured corpse swinging between earth and heaven packed a powerful message.
But what message, exactly?
To answer that question, Shuler conducts a guided tour of America’s most painful memories, including the 1930 lynching of Abraham Smith and Thomas Shipp, an event memorialized by an iconic photograph snapped by Lawrence Beitler.
The photographer “usually took photos of wedding couples and babies, of school and church groups, of parades and public events. His daughter Betty would later claim that he didn’t want to take the photo in the first place. But he did, and he sold it for 50 cents a pop. Beitler apparently stayed up for ten days and nights making copies of the photo to meet his customers’ demands. Everybody wanted a copy, a modern relic from the event.”
Beitler’s photograph survived, in part, because it inspired Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit”, a song made famous by Billie Holiday.
But Shuler reminds us that Smith and Shipp weren’t lynched in the South but in Marion, Indiana. The noose isn’t just about the South (although the vast majority of lynchings involved black victims swinging above Southern soil); the noose is a uniquely American symbol.
The lynching captured in the infamous photograph was part of the wake churned by the resurrection of the KKK after “a defrocked Methodist clergyman and salesman named William Joseph Simmons . . . witnessed D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation . . . On the day before Thanksgiving of 1915 Simmons and fifteen other men went to the top of Stone Mountain in Georgia to set a cross on fire–and the Klan was reborn.”
Shuler’s research revealed the extent of the Klan’s influence in the Hoosier State.
In Marion the Klan led their moral crusade right to the front door, paying visits to Wednesday night church services at congregations with pastors who had yet to join. Dressed in their costumes and carrying the American flag, they’d walk down the aisle, toss some money on the pulpit, and hand a membership form to the pastor. If he didn’t sign, he’d be out the door by the end of the week.
And the noose helps explain how the West was won. To illustrate, Shuler takes us to Mankato, Minnesota for the 1862 execution (or mass lynching) of thirty-eight Dakota men accused of butchering white settlers. All thirty-eight died on a single gallows erected for the purpose.
The condemned men painted themselves with ‘streaks of vermilion and ultramarine’ and began singing their death songs as preparations began for the executions . . . When this work was finished they stood as one and sang.
As the death-by-hanging stories pile up we begin to understand Shuler’s fascination with the noose and why he thinks its history says so much about us. Lynching, with its commemorative photographs and body parts severed by souvenir hunters, is a form of “folk pornography”.
Before the [Civil] war the standard literary and theatrical stereotype of the southern black male was of the contented slave, the ‘happy darky’ or Sambo. After the war and Reconstruction black men were more often than not portrayed as subliterate savages on the prowl for white women. The message was clear–enslaved black men were pliant; free black men are dangerous sexual predators.
Shuler sees the noose as “the ultimate cultural technology for whites had at their disposal for controlling black people.”
Lynching has fallen out of fashion, of course. Few condemned criminals are sentenced to “hang by the neck until you are dead,” and executions are no longer performed in public settings for the titillation, instruction and intimidation of onlookers.
The last public hanging execution was of Rainey Bethea on August 14, 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky. Bethea, an African American farmhand, had been convicted of raping and murdering seventy-year-old Eliza Edwards . . . Bethea’s execution was witnessed by a crowd of about twenty thousand. Kentucky prohibited public execution in 1938.
Capital punishment, though still popular in southern states like Texas, Florida and Virginia, has been on a downward trajectory for decades. It should concern us that “the United States ranks in the top five worldwide for the number of annual executions, trailing only Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and China” (that’s not the kind of company an “enlightened Western nation” wants to keep. Still, if we were still using capital punishments people at the 1640s rate, we would be executing almost 9000 people a year as opposed to the 39 people we killed in 2013.
The last execution in the conservative state of Kansas was in 1965, largely thanks to the adverse publicity Truman Copote’s In Cold Blood brought to the state. Death penalty opponents suggest that the nation has evolved beyond primitive blood lust, but Shuler isn’t so sure the dark shadows of human nature can be dispelled that easily, especially when he thinks of the pictures that emerged from Abu Ghraib. And how do we explain the frightening proliferation of “noose incidents” in the wake of th Jena 6 case?
To illustrate, Shuler introduces us to Jason Upthegrove, an African American activist from Lima, Ohio who led the protest against the unwarranted police shooting of an unarmed woman by a local SWAT team. A white supremacist from Oregon mailed Upthegrove a noose without thinking to remove his fingerprints and DNA evidence from the envelope or its dismal contents. Upthegrove evoked the abiding power of the noose when he described his emotional reaction to Shuler:
Sending a noose isn’t saying, ‘I don’t like you.’ It is not like saying, ‘I disagree with you.’ It’s not just an objection to my position. Sending a noose is tantamount to sending a picture of a gas chamber to a Holocaust victim, tantamount of sending a bullet to a shotgun victim, tantamount of sending a knife to a stabbing victim, or a stocking cap to a victim of rape . . . The noose is the most egregious thing that can be threatened against an African American because of its long history.
Which brings us back to Jena. If the boys who hung the nooses in the tree in the school square didn’t understand the racial significance of their actions, why did they go to the trouble of fashioning a noose? How do white Americans learn what to do and how to do it?
Shuler has a theory.
The end of the spectacle of lynching does not mark the end of the history of the noose . . . the noose becomes a synecdoche, a part that stands for the whole.
The noose hangers in Jena might not have understood why the noose inspires fear in African Americans, but they knew the noose would send a powerful message. They had been carefully taught.
The noose is instant hate. And what happened in Jena, Louisiana, was not an anomaly. It wasn’t the first noose incident, and it wasn’t the last. The noose has become the new burning cross, the ready symbol for expressing hate and fostering a climate of fear in workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods throughout the United States.
Were the boys in Jena guilty of a hate crime? I never thought they should be charged as hate criminals because, for me, Jena was about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children. But to the extent the boys were trying to maintain the racial status quo in their world (and they were) they were functioning as hate criminals. Shuler quotes Barbara Perry’s definition of a hate crime: “A mechanism of power intended to sustain somewhat precarious hierarchies, through violence and threats of violence.”
After talking to legal scholar Jeannine Bell, Shuler identifies a major problem with hate crime prosecutions–they focus attention on the motives of the criminal rather than the pain of the victim. “Validating the perpetrator’s perspective in this way,” Bell says, “is symbolic of the lynch mob all over again.”
And this, as I have always suggested, was the problem in Jena. By focusing all their attention on the motives of the noose hangers, investigators came to the conclusion that no harm had been done because the kids failed to grasp the significance of their actions. In the process, the pain and outrage experienced by Jena’s African American community was discounted and ignored. Black protesters were given five minutes to express their concerns to a meeting of school officials and then silenced altogether.
And this sense of profound denial sparked the death spiral of anger and resentment that eventually left Justin Barker, a white student on the margins of the conflict, battered and unconscious in a Jena high school hallway.
Shuler gets that:
Alan Bean told me that to focus solely on the fights and the charges against those young men is to miss the point. The point is that there was an underlying issue that wasn’t being addressed in the community, and the noose brought it to the surface. And when it got there, it was ignored . . . At the heart of the matter, he said, was buried deep in the community, buried deep in the history of the South, an ugly history that almost no one wants to address . . . Addressing the underlying issues in Jena would mean actually confronting that messy past, and that would be overwhelming. That, Bean said, explains why the school board so desired a quick resolution.
Shuler may be the first writer to understand why I said that “Jena is America.” When I decided to tackle Jena’s messy narrative, I had two goals: saving six young men from decades in prison, and using the story to illustrate our racial predicament. Thanks to the intervention of capable attorneys, we accomplished the first goal (most of the ex-defendants have graduated college by now and are doing great things). But I have never been sure anyone learned much from the Jena saga.
Reading The Thirteenth Turn is a vindication for me. The book isn’t about me or my opinions, of course–I only figure in the preface and the penultimate chapter–but Jack Shuler has tackled all the big questions posed by Jena and left us with the kind of answers that bear the marks of deep suffering. Shuler’s research drew him into dark and forbidding places, but he has emerged with the grotesque beauty we call truth.