Student Apologizes for Rainbow-Colored Noose Art on Tennessee Campus

Officials at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee said campus police discovered six rainbow-colored nooses hanging from a tree on campus on April 18. Riffsyphon1024 on Wikimedia Commons

Updated | A Tennessee college student has apologized and a professor is "devastated" after an uproar began when six nooses of different colors arranged in the order of the rainbow found on Monday hanging from a tree on the campus of Tennessee's Austin Peay State University (APSU) led to confusion and anger and were called "deeply disturbing and hurtful" by the university president—but on Tuesday an investigation found the display was a class art project.

The display gained national attention after the Instagram account for the university's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) posted a photograph of it on Monday. The same day that the nooses appeared on campus, a transgender bathroom bill—similar to the law recently passed in North Carolina, which has led to intense scrutiny—failed in the Tennessee state legislature.

The university in Clarksville, which has some 10,000 students, confirmed in a statement Monday night that campus police had received several complaints about "a display of nooses," which were apparently spotted near the Trahern fine arts building on campus around 5 p.m. The school said police "removed them out of concern of hate symbolism and its potential impact to the campus" and that it was investigating, according to the statement. Students planned a meeting with school officials over the matter.

Before the display was confirmed as an art project, University President Alisa White said in the statement that the nooses were "deeply disturbing and hurtful to our University community," no matter the reason. "Regardless of the intent, the display has no place on our campus. I am saddened, and I am sorry for the hurt and offense this has caused and want our students, faculty and staff to know that it will not be tolerated," she said.

Students initially speculated on Facebook that the display was for an art class. Another person wrote online that if the nooses were meant to raise awareness for the higher suicide rate for members of the LGBT community, then the display is "a spectacular piece." However, other people said it was triggering to those who belong to certain underrepresented groups on campus and offensive to African-Americans.


So this is at #APSU

A photo posted by NAACP Of APSU (@naacp.apsu) on

In a follow-up statement on Tuesday, university spokesman Bill Persinger said, "University officials have investigated the incident and found that it was an artist's display as part of an introductory course that focuses on yarn as a medium for creation of art works," and that the instructor had not reviewed or approved the final display.

"The student told officials that there was no intent for any statement regarding or representation of LGBQT- or racially-related social issues," Persinger said. The student apparently apologized and supported the removal of the display.

"While we support the freedom of expression on our campus, we also have to keep in mind that there are symbols that have very specific and negative meanings to everyone, especially if context is not provided," President White said in Tuesday's statement.

Despite the removal of the display, Reuben Harris, a senior at APSU, told Newsweek Tuesday morning that he and fellow students planned to meet with the university's student affairs office on Tuesday to express their concerns about the display, especially as a class art project.

"A lot of people are concerned about the nature of the symbols of the noose," he says.

Harris says he saw two women, who appeared to be students, using a stepladder to hang the nooses around 1:45 p.m. on Monday. "Usually people will wrap things on this campus in yarn. They wrap water fountains or trees or light poles," he says. He decided to take a video of the incident on Monday, and it later became clear to him that they were leaving the nooses and not wrapping the tree. He declined to share the video with Newsweek until he meets with school officials.

Harris says he found the nooses triggering because he is black and also has grappled with mental health issues. He adds that the display could be triggering for military veterans, many of whom attend the school because it is situated near Fort Campbell. According to a fall 2015 university report, 27 percent of undergraduate students at APSU are affiliated with the military.

The meeting on Tuesday, Harris says, is "so we can all show our voice as a group that we think this is not OK. And not necessarily that we want individuals who did this to have a disciplinary infraction on them, but we just want them to be aware of how things may appear."

The university held an open forum about the incident on Tuesday afternoon to share information with the campus community and media. During the forum, a school official said the FBI had spoken with the student and faculty member involved and determined there was no evidence of a hate bias.

A school official also said that the faculty member involved was "devastated and apologetic."

Following the forum, the university released a statement by the student responsible for the display. "My intention with my sculpture project was to address the cycle of death and rebirth that is represented by the arrival of spring," the student said. "I did not take into consideration that nooses are a racially charged symbol. For that I am sorry. I cannot apologize enough for the pain that my artwork has caused."

College students across the country are demonstrating over what they say are racial issues at their schools. Nooses have appeared in recent years at Duke University and the University of Mississippi. Officials at the University of Delaware responded to what was reported to be nooses there last fall, but the school later said they were lantern hangers.

But Harris says the noose display was an isolated incident, and that he mostly hasn't felt discriminated against as a black student on campus. "We do not want us to get to a state to where the students of the University of Missouri were going through, where they were even afraid to go to class," he says, referring to widespread protests by students of color beginning this past fall at the University of Missouri and the backlash that followed those protests.

According to the 2015 university report, 37 percent of students identify as a race other than white. In fall 2015, 1,926 students identified as black or African-American, or 19 percent of the study body, a figure up from 2014 but down 4.7 percent over five years.

This story has been updated to include comments by the student involved in the noose display and information from the university forum on Tuesday.

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