My sorority sister was the first to see it. We – myself, my sister and another NPHC member – were heading back to our cabins after our large group session was dismissed. As we approached the cabin, she abruptly stopped. Her eyes widened. Her jaw dropped. She frantically pointed at a tree, exclaiming, “Look! Look! In the tree!” It was a banana, dangling from a limb.
My heart dropped instantly. I began to scan the area around us to see if we were in any immediate harm. Once we realized we were alone, questions started flying: “Was this here this morning?” “There’s no coincidence that this happened right after we just got done talking about race, right?” “Why would someone put it in a tree? There’s a trashcan a few feet away.”
My sister took a picture of the banana and sent it to other NPHC members, most of whom responded with immediate urgency. For most black participants, the image of the banana in the tree was jarring, an overt sign that we weren’t welcome.
Yesterday, The Daily Mississippian released a news article reporting on a racially charged incident that occurred at Camp Hopewell during an IMPACT retreat this past weekend. NPHC organizations were certain the incident would become public, and, as a collective, we understood the potential pitfalls of allowing white journalists to write our story.
Mainstream news organizations have long prioritized white, conservative perspectives above the voices of black people. We were concerned that our student newspaper couldn’t contextualize the fear that the incident inspired. We were right.
Shortly after the banana was found, IMPACT retreat leaders convened a camp-wide meeting. NPHC members used the space as an opportunity to discuss the racial realities of our university community with our white peers. Some white students seemed receptive. Others appeared apathetic. Many NPHC members denounced the disunity between white and black fraternities and sororities. Black students gave testimony, bearing witness to the subtle racism that pervades our campus.
Bananas have historically been used by white people as derogatory to dehumanize and denigrate black people; a symbol that makes us fearful of our racist past and present. Scientific racism permitted biological stereotypes surrounding the “apelike” qualities of black people to bleed into popular understandings of blackness.
White supremacy categorized Africans and African-Americans as savages, primal and subhuman. According to Professor James Bradley, associating black folk with bananas and monkeys has always been about the “way Europeans have differentiated themselves, biologically and culturally, in an effort to maintain superiority over other people.”
Even today, bananas remain an intimidation tactic, intended to instill fear in black communities. This year, American University elected Taylor Dumpson, a member of my sorority, as the school’s first black female student body president. Opposers responded by hanging bananas from nooses around campus with racial epithets written on them.
Regardless whether last weekend’s incident was an honest mistake or a malicious threat, our response as black Greeks at the University of Mississippi was valid and authentic, especially given the present state of race relations in our country and at our university.
Our community must recognize an uncomfortable reality: that this incident is indicative of a broader campus culture. Since the article’s publication, critics have claimed that NPHC members fabricated or exaggerated the impact caused by a banana.
Yet, what they so easily overlook is that within the past four years, students placed a noose on James Meredith’s statue, klansmen marched on our campus and a community member alluded to lynching black people in online comments.
It is no exaggeration to say that black students often feel as though they are under attack. We must confront a culture that dismisses black experiences, supporting the notion that constructive dialogue can actually foster a level of cultural understanding amongst different races.
Makala McNeil is a senior integrated marketing communications and sociology major from Grenada.