October 4, 2007
Race, Myth, and Ritual in Jena
— M. Cooper Harriss
A curious coda was sounded in Jena, Louisiana this past week. In the
wake of explosive confrontations between black and white high school students
that have served, among other things, to bring to light just how poorly
human beings can treat one another, Jesus appeared.
For those familiar with the history of the freedom movements in the United States—especially those of the 1950s and 60s—the Jena story is nothing new. Racial tensions are ignited by one side's encroachment upon the other's territory. Matters escalate, symbolic gestures lead to full-on violence, someone is charged, the all-white jury decides, the nation reacts in horror, a march is held, and a town becomes a symbol, a benchmark of shame that serves in the grander scheme to signify a cathartic hope for progress. Montgomery . Little Rock . Oxford . Birmingham . Selma .
And now Jena. Reed Walters, the LaSalle Parish District Attorney in charge of prosecuting the "Jena 6," held a nationally televised press conference on September 27 to announce that he would not challenge an appellate court's decision overturning 17-year-old Mychal Bell's conviction for aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy because he was wrongly tried as an adult. At the end of the conference Walters thanked "the Christian community" for their prayers and made this observation about the September 20 march that drew roughly 20,000 protesters—mostly black—to Jena: "I firmly believe that had it not been for the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ last Thursday, a disaster would have happened." When challenged, Walters clarified his statement: "What I'm saying is, the Lord Jesus Christ put his influence on those people, and they responded accordingly."
That Jesus prevented "disaster" in Jena by "put[ting] his influence on those people" is a hard formulation to swallow. What sort of disaster does he mean? What are we to make of the implication that "those [black] people" would never have been able to behave in a peaceful, civil manner without divine intervention? Having raised these points, I set them aside. My purpose is not to pillory Walters but to point out that by invoking Jesus, Walters, albeit unconsciously, falls into line with other actors in the Jena events, all of whom are also actors in a larger, religiously infused drama.
Religion has inundated this story at every step. Jena is a tale of black and white, and as such it participates in the racial mythology of American culture. Attempting to reconstruct the origins of this myth, Ralph Ellison conflated the rhetoric of Genesis 1:1 with a primordial understanding of "Africa." In this understanding the American creation story becomes less about Adam and Eve and more about Africans and English—racism is America's original sin. That the violence would escalate over a tree, furthermore, signals the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as well as the broader religious category of trees that Genesis depicts. Likewise, shade—the tree's benefit and presumably what made it prime real estate in Jena's high school courtyard in August 2006—is rarely without troubling biblical associations.
The events of Jena also resurrected symbols and rituals associated with the racial ur-myth at the fringes of the American civil religion. By hanging nooses from the tree, white students invoked lynching, a scapegoating ritual in which an innocent victim is sacrificed as an expression of white supremacy. The metaphor of a "strange fruit" in the haunting song popularized by Billie Holiday ties lynching back to Genesis: "Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees." Good and evil, indeed.
Finally there is the protest itself. No matter what "the Lord Jesus Christ's" direct role was on September 20, the event certainly was intended to recall the remarkable mass rituals orchestrated by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC—a point that television coverage made certain was not lost on its viewers. Expressive of God-given rights, the freedom movement's protests dramatized the biblical essence of American racial confrontation before a national and global audience, via the new technology of television. King consciously took on the role of Moses. Police dogs, fire hoses, firebombs, and nightsticks stood in for the lashes endured by suffering servants and children of Israel. The carnage was terrible and real, yet it was equally effective for the way it plugged into a larger Christian narrative central to the mythology of "America."
In the end, perhaps, the most unsettling aspect of the entire Jena episode is precisely how little it diverges from the past. Reed Walters has given us the occasion to explore its religious implications, where we see a continuing dialectic of racial violence and conflict in which the rituals, symbols, and responses have changed very little. Though the tree was cut down, there is nothing new under the sun.
M. Cooper Harriss is a PhD student in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and managing editor of the journal Ethics.
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