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.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. During slavery, one of the main purposes of lynching was to deter the enslaved from escaping to freedom. But lynching did not end with slavery; it was also a response to the end of slavery. It continued from the 1880s until after the end of World War I, with more than 100 people lynched each year. So prevalent was this atrocity that between 1920 and 1938, the N.A.A.C.P. displayed a banner at its national headquarters that read simply, “A man was lynched yesterday.”
Lynching was not just a phenomenon of the American South or the Ku Klux Klan. And in many places, as black people fought for inclusion in American life, lynchings became brutal spectacles, drawing thousands of onlookers who posed for photographs with the lifeless bodies. This collective memory explains why the noose has become a symbol of white supremacy and racial intimidation.
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?
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.
As someone who has experienced the humiliating sting of racial epithets and the pain of a policeman’s blow — simply because I was black and in a neighborhood not my own — I would argue that it answers a naïve and dangerous question that I hear too often: Why can’t African-Americans get over past discrimination?
The answer is that discrimination is not confined to the past. Nor is the African-American commitment to American ideals in the face of discrimination and hate.
The exhibitions inside the museum combine to form a narrative of a people who refused to be broken by hatred and who have always found ways to prod America to be truer to the ideals of its founders.
In the process of curating these experiences, I have acquired, examined and interpreted objects that stir feelings of intense pain. Anger and sadness are always parts of this work, but I never let them dominate it. Instead, I use them to help me connect with the people who have suffered and continue to suffer immeasurable pain and injustice, while clinging to their humanity and their vision of a better country.
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.