It appeared at a slight bend on the right hand side of the trail. It hung from a tree branch less than six feet from the ground. The loop would not have fit over most human heads – adult or child. Was it a running knot, the kind that tightens when the end is pulled? I wasn’t sure. It was a looped rope hanging from a tree at a point in the trail that made it difficult not to see – hard to avoid – impossible to ignore.
I was alone. My hiking partner was approximately a quarter mile behind me, struggling with leg issues that slowed, but did not stop him. It was a late afternoon in late May on a New Hampshire trail that had been sparsely populated all day. We hadn’t seen another soul for hours. So, I was confident that no one saw me as I stopped and stared at the loop, knowing that my stopping was a clear and irreversible sign of recognition – a sign (even if only read by me) that I understood the loop to be a noose: a symbolic, miniaturized version (a toy?), but a noose.
Hanging before me was a symbol of racial oppression and the dominance of whites over blacks; a threat of torturous mistreatment and death. As a white person it was a proclamation of my own supposed superiority and a claiming of the privilege that is the natural and righteous outcome of that advantage; a reminder that the institutions, traditions and intentions of racial hatred from long ago have not, in fact, been vanquished from the earth – not by protests, prayers, education, legislation or even election, but they continue to march forth, blazing torches in hand, in city streets, on country roads, and even on hiking trails because they live on in white thoughts, feelings and beliefs.
These abstractions of heart and mind – as with all human abstractions – do not remain abstract, but consciously and unconsciously, find constant expression. They are memorialized in habits, actions and institutions, and those harmful institutions and habits reinforce the old inclinations while birthing new variations of the very thoughts, feelings and beliefs that gave birth to the habits and institutions in the first place. It is much like a loop – or a noose.
It took me less than thirty seconds to determine that I would take this abomination down. I would not allow it to hang there and offend the next hiker – not my white friend and not the next hiker who may be a person-of-color. I stepped up on a small boulder giving me access to where the rope was attached to the tree. As I loosened its hold I discovered that there was a loop on both ends of the rope.
This is inconsistent with a lynching noose, I thought. I lifted the upper loop from the branch and took the rope in hand. Then I noticed that the knot didn’t have the appearance of what I associated with the knot of an actual noose; it didn’t have that spiraled shaft of rope from which the loop emerged. This looked more …well … loop-like.
On hiking trails people often hang pieces of colorful material or other kinds of hand-made markers to indicate to themselves or others that they have been at that location. These markers might be used as a casual way of saying “Hi” to fellow travelers or they may have navigational purpose as a guard against accidentally reversing course or to help find the way back when one has gone off-trail. Hikers are lost in the woods with greater regularity than most non-hikers might imagine.
To go off trail is at times a necessity when confronted with a downed tree, flooding or even the need to relieve one’s bladder or bowels. Once off-trail, becoming disoriented and getting lost is a possibility for the experienced hiker and a serious concern for the novice. Hanging a sign can be a life-saving maneuver, and I had never before removed a marker on a trail.
These thoughts flooded me as I stood on the rock with rope in hand. Was I placing someone in danger? Was I disrupting a vital communication between two travelers? Was I seeing a noose where there was only a loop?
The implications of the common critiques of political-correctness bore down upon my privileged self. Was I imagining racism that wasn’t there? Was the racism only in me? Was I putting someone else at risk to stoke my feelings of personal righteousness?
I stood frozen on the rock with the rope. More than once I glanced back up the trail looking for my friend to arrive, hoping to discuss the dilemma, calm my nerves and share responsibility for what I increasingly felt to be possible dire consequences. He was nowhere in sight. I was on my own.
My thoughts and feelings leaned strongly in the direction of: I’ve over-stepped my bounds. The damage I might be inflicting surely out-weighed the possible harm I was looking to prevent. I decided to put the loop back where I had found it and erase any sign of my hasty, perhaps paranoid intervention.
So, I hung the loop back up and got down from the rock.
I had hung a noose on a tree.
A shudder rose up from within. My own hand had exposed my complicity in the worst kind of racism. I had opted to prioritize my own feelings – delicacy/fragility/cowardice – over the possible impact of this symbol of hate. Now it hung there – not by another’s hand, but by my own.
I stepped up on the rock once more. I removed the rope and stuck it in my pocket where it remained until I tossed it in the trash bin of a roadside motel several hours later. What happened on that trail lasted less than five minutes, but the implications linger; they are the things that cannot be discarded.
Maybe it was just a loop on a tree but for me it raises a question: What else have I left hanging out there?
How many times have I heard words or witnessed gestures that were far more explicit, undeniable in their offense against others, and left them alone, hanging in the air? The thoughts I had standing on that rock resonated deeply because they rhymed with all of the excuses and mealy-mouthed explanations I’ve given myself, sometimes even shamelessly spoken to others, minimizing the harm, taking refuge in the assumed lack of intentionality, and shaming those who call out the offense.
I want to call it a loop – but it was a noose.