On W e d n e s d a y night, Nov. 15. a few of Eastern University’s performing artists from “The Crucible,” including myself, created some sidewalk chalk advertisements (ads.) We covered McInnis’ cement tiles and the walkways with out of context quotes from “The Crucible,” along with dates and times for our show. After McInnis was covered with Arthur Miller’s work, a few of us went to Walton.
We wanted to create an ad. reflecting how “The Crucible” is about Christians who were accused of witchcraft and died as martyrs during the Salem witch trials. Since the method of killing accused witches was hanging, a few of the cast members thought it would be impactful, if we traced our bodies as if we had been hanged. A line from the play and the title, “The Crucible,” were added to ensure passersby would know this drawing was an ad.
Thursday morning, Nov. 16, staff members were concerned with what was written and drawn on the school’s walkways. Staff erased or partially erased four of “The Crucible” chalk ads, including one that referenced harlotry and the hanged bodies ad.
That evening Ron Matthews, executive director of the Fine and Performing Arts Division, sent an apology email to students and staff . Matthews wrote, “Art can be off ensive but the framework should be within… the presented work itself.” Matthews wrote the chalk ads were “socially irresponsible and off ensive, especially in light of the larger national debate about morality and appropriate behavior and language.”
By this time, there were people who saw the erasure as censorship, and people who saw the ads as vulgar. Multiple students had opinions on the matter.
Grace Kaidy, sophomore, saw the hanged bodies ad. and was scared. She thought it was a suicide threat. Upon finding out the ads were for “The Crucible,” Kaidy was impressed with them. Kaidy thought the cast members were “passionate about the show, and they wanted to put some of that passion into their ads,” but “if they were a little more careful, things wouldn’t be as messy.”
A “Crucible” cast member who did not draw the ads states the hanged bodies were “out of taste.” The cast member thought the ad was “a bit morbid.” Alex Holnick, senior, was confused by which phrases had and had not been erased. “Most of these I don’t see anything wrong with,” as they are “in the proper context,” says Holnick.
Katarina Rorstrom, a cast member who did not write the ads, says she was disturbed by the traced bodies at first. Rostrom, however, was amused by what was and what was not erased. She was surprised that a line referencing harlotry was erased and a bloody dagger was not erased, claiming, “We are desensitized to violence in a way we are not desensitized to sex.” Rorstrom found the erasing ironic, “considering one of the main themes of ‘The Crucible’ is to live with one another, to listen to each other and to respect one another; to be open with each other.”
An outspoken cast member who wrote some of the erased chalk ads sees the erasing as pure censorship. “We are now living in a time where censorship is a more dangerous threat than ever,” says the cast member. “When we refuse to let expression take place, we can no longer call [Eastern University] open and accepting.”
History professor Dr. Butynskyi, also had thoughts on the ads. He states, “I can understand the need for swift action if this involved racial, sexist, or homophobic epithets. However, the ads I observed, were in keeping with the context of the play and its subject matter. I think an opportunity was missed here to discuss intentions, meaning, expression.” Butynskyi believes this event has placed a strain on Eastern’s relation to the arts, stating, “The Arts have been an integral part of the Church throughout history and yet we find ourselves caught in the struggle of appropriateness, offensiveness, censorship, and the like.”
On Friday, Nov. 17, eight more ads and any iteration of the word “witch” was erased. “Life is God’s greatest gift,” “We goin’ to Barbados,” “I have found my honesty,” “Because it is my name,” “A marvelous cool plot to murder” and “May I have a sip of your cider,” featuring the drawing of a flask, were untouched.
Or Tone Deaf?
DR. CALENTHIA DOWDY
The Crucible , an Arthur Miller play set in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts dramatizes the Salem witch trials of new world colonial England. Socalled witches were women presumed to possess supernatural powers including the ability to cast spells, and kill. Many women accused of being witches were innocent, guilty of nothing other than being female, smart, and based on some historical narratives, sexually alluring to men who claimed they were unable to control themselves in the presence of said witches. Accusations of being a witch led to trials and if found guilty, was punishable in at least two ways, burning at a stake, and hanging from a tree. By a noose.
Africans in America have an intimate and cruel history with the noose. Forcibly brought over to the Americas by Europeans to work in fields, on plantations, and inside homes. Africans were made slaves and were punished if they attempted to escape to freedom, or for not working hard enough for zero-wages. Black slaves were punished in several ways, including chopping off of limbs, and hanging from a tree. By a noose. African slaves and women are two of the people groups who experienced irrational treatment and torture in the history of the U.S. Witches and African slaves were hung from trees by nooses.
I remember the fi rst time I saw real photographs of black people hanging from trees while white people looked on in amusement. It was called Lynching. Their black bodies dangled, eyes bulged, and sometimes the testicles of the black men were cut off as their bodies hung, unclothed. The imagination around black male sexuality evident even in their murders. Billie Holiday’s haunting song, Strange Fruit (1939) is about black bodies hanging from trees.
Killing by noose was a common practice in the U.S., reaching its peak in the 19th and 20th centuries. It remains a deep and painful historical reality here, and the image of a noose is a trigger for many of us. The African American experience is one of cultural trauma and collective memory of that trauma. The trauma is passed down through generations, something known as epigenetics, so that our bodies remember and react. We not only remember a time when overt racist policy and legal murder were realities for our ancestors, we also feel it. Any symbol of lynching is a trigger. Just last year, 2016 a black man was found hanging from a tree in Atlanta and the trauma surfaced in black speculations around this man’s’ death. Was he lynched or was it suicide? The last recorded lynching was in 1981 when 19-year old Michael Donald, an African American man was killed and hung from a tree by the Ku Klux Klan in Mobile, Alabama.
According to the NAACP between 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of this number 3,446 were black. Blacks accounted for 72.7% of the people lynched. These numbers seem large, but it is known that not all of the lynchings were ever recorded. The actual numbers are higher.
When someone leaves a drawing, or a real noose hanging anywhere, it is a message that provokes fear and intimidation. Even when unintentional, the result is the same, fear and intimidation. The image of a noose is so powerful that in the state of Virginia there is a penalty for displaying a noose on the property of another, or a highway or other public place with intent to intimidate.
With this history and the collective trauma it triggers, drawing a noose is not only perceived as irresponsible and insensitive to some, but can also be viewed as un-Christ-like and lacking in compassion for others. Whatever gender or racial identity, our histories are not the same. Let’s not be pain triggers for others. The apostle Paul told us to make up our minds not to put any stumbling blocks or obstacles in the way of our sisters and brothers. Our hope and wish should be for our fellow citizens to heal, flourish, and thrive. No more noose drawings displayed out of dramatic context at EU. Ever.
(Dr. Dowdy is Associate Professor of Youth Ministry and Department Chair at Eastern University.)
Sources: NAACP, law.virginia.gov