A terrible symbol of a not-so-distant past

September 15, 2016

SW reader Mark Berg reflects on what he witnessed at a historical re-enactment.

THE MURDER of Michael Donald, who was abducted, beaten and hung from a tree branch by two Klansmen, has been referred to as the last recorded lynching in the U.S.

But this is not some act from the distant past--the killing took place on March 21, 1981. That was the same year that Sandra Day O'Connor became the first female Supreme Court Justice and the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered in theaters.

The history of Blacks in America is fraught with violence and oppression. The United States was shamefully built on vicious, inhumane slavery, and the struggles of Black families haven't disappeared since then. There are plenty of men and women today who remember Jim Crow laws, the lynching of their brothers and sisters, the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Last weekend, another tradition continued in a Chicago suburb: The Des Plaines Valley Rendezvous was held at Columbia Woods inside the Cook County Forest Preserve, where attendees experienced the history of frontier life in Illinois through re-enactments, games, music and food.

A noose hangs from "The Hangout" tent at the Des Plaines Valley Rendezvous
A noose hangs from "The Hangout" tent at the Des Plaines Valley Rendezvous (Mark Berg)

For those who are familiar with historical re-enactments, they may strike you as sentimental and sanguinary. Frontier life was probably a little more like The Revenant than chowing down on a turkey leg the size of your forearm or drinking homemade root beer. There is often a strong vein of fantasy that dries out historical education, and this component of imaginative play can be helpful in nudging out certain uncomfortable truths.

Many people saw a foreboding object at the Rendezvous this year: Hung up over the doorway of a tent called "The Hangout" was a noose.

One African American resident of Cook County who learned about the noose said, "What that noose means to me is the blood and suffering of my ancestors. People who walked like me, talked like me, looked like me, were strung up in this country with those."

FOR SOME, history is the subject of curiosity, enjoyment, and learning--it is a tapestry where one can imagine oneself in some far-flung past, full of mystery and long-lost wonder.

For others, though, history is alive and nipping at their heels. It's a great abyss of strife, chains and death.

Only a few weeks before America gloried over Harrison Ford lassoing Nazis with his whip, two vile despicable bigots were using their own rope to hang and murder an innocent young man 35 years ago.

A rope just like that one hung in Columbia Woods last weekend. While some people laughed and talked, ate and drank, and walked right past it, thinking, "How funny: the Hang Out!" others felt a stutter in their hearts.

They may have thought about a story they heard from their family, wreathed in choking blood. They probably looked around at the crowd and thought, "Only a handful of years ago, people who look like these folks were hoisting up people who look like me, dropping blood on the leaves."

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