On free speech and a noose in Wisconsin

The Obama lynching costume was not a contribution to discourse in a free society, and UW should not defend it as such.

The Obama lynching costume was not a contribution to discourse in a free society, and UW should not defend it as such.


At Saturday’s Wisconsin-Nebraska at Camp Randall Stadium, two fans showed up wearing a duo costume that depicted Donald Trump lynching Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It even incorporated a sign quoting Hillary’s remarks from a Benghazi hearing.

The two were part of a Halloween in Madison that brought a plethora of masked faces soaking in the irony of their symbolism: Trump hats (ironic or not), impressions of Hillary’s Death Row-inspired suit fashion, and likely fewer Obama impersonators. It became an opportunity to express oneself in plain sight with next to no repercussions—even if that expression involved a joke about lynching a president.

By now, it’s neither extraordinary nor original: everyone wants the click, the punchline, the last blow in the arena.

According to UW-Madison, the lynching costume constituted free speech: not an agreeable approach, not a tasteful representation, but free speech nonetheless.

“The costume, while repugnant AND COUNTER TO THE VALUES OF THE UNIVERSITY AND ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT, was an exercise of the individual’s right to free speech. The university also exercised its rights by asking the individual to remove the offensive parts of the costume.”

The university’s lackadaisical approach to crisis communication sends an astonishing and garbled message. In a vacuum, the above statement simultaneously condemns and condones the lynching a President with Black blood, and a woman who’s on pace to becoming the next, at the hand of a billionaire who’s trying his hand at the same thing.

To make UW’s response even more oxymoronic, consider the fact that every President is responsible for a degree of criminality embedded within the position: representing the United States, a nation funded by the blood of Black bodies, the subservience of women, the labor of prisoners, and chain gangs nationwide. Also, the Trump character embodies a man who publicly declared that avoiding taxes makes him smart. These are not distant issues at UW-Madison: Many employees use furniture built by prisoners. This moment happened in a city that fast-tracks its Black and brown youth to subservience, that has executed Black and white bodies under exigent circumstances.

The university’s response crossed over from ironic to just plain galling:

“UW-Madison is dedicated to promoting a campus environment where all people feel valued, safe, and able to thrive. To that end, the university continues to encourage all of our community members to engage in discussion over vital issues in ways that promote greater understanding and respect for all persons.”

The discussion in this moment is the absence of the discussion: a commentary all its own where thousands of white folks bore witness to a triggering emulation of a traumatic phenomenon and did nothing but watch the game. Our fellow citizens share a lineage of pain, where Americans of their ilk and skin treated the hanging of Black bodies like the game and the barbecue in the parking lot. Is another community-wide engagement the only way to work through this? Must we again pass the buck to the subjugated, who’ve become so accustomed to igniting the flame under a white reality that mocks, ignores, benefits from the very system of public murder called back through the absurdity of a costume on Halloween weekend? Just how much Hell hides in this free speech of ours?

As an alumnus, I’m tired of being the punchline. I’m tired of students like me being told to do the work when they’re the targets. I’m tired of default paragraphs followed by no progression. I’m tired of a new headline every week. I’m tired for every Black body in a uniform who grosses billions in revenue all across this country to be reminded of how tangible their death is from the stands and off the pitch. I’m tired for women who watch their bodies become the world’s punchline.

In all this, I understand the university cannot singlehandedly delete oppression from the world, or from Madison. But merely removing a costume from a game isn’t demonstrative of the power UW has to advance conversation and the change. This costume was not a contribution to discourse in a free society; it was a cry of foolishness, desperately clamoring for another eye.

We cannot ride this out and we cannot keep letting this slide.

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

Eight stories over eight days, delivered directly to your inbox.

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top