American University Hit with Bananas Hanging From Black Nooses

Monday was set to be a significant day for American University. For the first time in the institution’s history, a black woman was taking office as the student government president.

Taylor Dumpson woke up ready to begin her new term, but events unfolded differently than she had expected. That morning, students discovered several pairs of bananas around campus, strung up on thin black ropes fashioned to resemble nooses.

The bananas had short messages scrawled on them, including “AKA FREE,” an apparent reference to Alpha Kappa Alpha, a predominantly black sorority of which Ms. Dumpson is a member; and “HARAMBE BAIT,” referencing the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo who was killed last May after a child fell into its enclosure.

This is at least the second time in the last year that bananas have been used as symbols to stir controversy at American University. In September, white students were accused of leaving a banana at the door of one black woman’s dorm room and tossing a rotten banana at another.

Following that episode, Neil Kerwin, the university president, expressed “deep disappointment and frustration” in a letter to students.

“We will confront racist expressions with forceful condemnation and respond to discrimination with every tool at our disposal,” he wrote.

But this week, some students at the university in Washington, D.C., have grown increasingly frustrated with an administration that they say has not taken their concerns seriously.

“There’s a lack of genuine passion about racial issues that happen on campus,” said Sydney Jones, 19, who heads the N.A.A.C.P. student chapter at American University. “A hate crime is something extremely serious.”

Ms. Dumpson could not immediately be reached for comment, but she addressed the incident in a statement on Monday. “This is not what I imagined my first letter to you all would be,” she wrote.

“In my first message to the student body, I would have wanted to talk about accountability, transparency, accessibility, and inclusivity. Now more than ever, we need to make sure that members of our community feel welcomed and above all, safe on this campus.”

A large demonstration formed on Tuesday in response to the episode, with students gathering to attend a town-hall meeting hosted by the administration. Hundreds of students then walked out, Ms. Jones said, and made their way to the registrar’s office to request withdrawal forms as a symbolic act to express their disappointment.

Among the first to alert the university to the bananas was Quinn Dunlea, 20, a senior about to graduate. At just before 7 a.m. on Monday, she and a friend saw some pieces of fruit hanging from a lamppost.

“We knew immediately what it was,” Ms. Dunlea said. “It’s not subtle. Bananas and nooses.”

After alerting campus security, Ms. Dunlea searched for more bananas. She saw five pairs across campus, she said, each strung together in similar fashion, and each with the same messages scrawled along their skins. (She added that a sixth pair of bananas had been found and photographed, though she did not see it in person.)

Ms. Dunlea said the messages were disturbingly specific, clearly referencing the new student body president. “It’s very explicitly clear what they meant, because that was her first day in office, and it called out her sorority,” she said.

Fanta Aw, the university’s interim vice president of campus life, said in a Monday statement that the university’s department of public safety was investigating the incident. “These racist, hateful messages have no place in our community,” she wrote. “The safety of our students is paramount.”

The university did not respond to requests for additional comment on Tuesday.

Similar events unfolded this weekend in Northfield, Minn. Hundreds of students at St. Olaf College gathered to demonstrate on Saturday after a series of racist notes was found on campus, including one that had been tucked into a student’s windshield.

It contained a racial epithet and appeared to address the student, a black woman, specifically. “Shut up or I will shut you up,” the note said.

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Source: The New York Times | JACEY FORTIN