Not Congenial at All
MARCH 2020: At a convention center in the belly of Texas, hundreds of rattlesnakes coil in a stark white feces–stamped pit, the rattling sound an echoing, high-pitched scream.
Started in 1958 as a way to control the rattlesnake population in the state, the Sweetwater Texas Rattlesnake Roundup, sponsored by the Jaycees, is billed as the largest snake roundup in the world. (In 2016, the event bagged a record 24,262 pounds of rattlers.) What was historically a relatively intimate occasion, where local ranchers bothered by the prevalence of the cattle-killing species captured rattlesnakes and made a small ceremony of the quelling, is now a nationally reported event possessing the pomp and circumstance of a state fair.
With online tickets selling out weeks in advance, the roundup—notably undampened by coronavirus concerns—boasts guided snake hunts; a rattlesnake cook-off with cash prizes; an area pageant that crowns an annual Miss Snake Charmer; showy snake handlers; live snake-skinning; and fringe-vest-clad vendors selling snakeskin knives, miniskirts, wallets, beer cozies, and the snakes themselves. All this activity hisses within the echoing hollow of the Nolan County Coliseum, a 220-by-90-foot arena that seats thirty-five hundred people.
Men in cowboy hats and scaly boots congregate to bid on the largest captives. Parents take cell phone photos of their delighted children shawled in rattlesnakes under the supervision of gloveless handlers. Teens dressed in tight denim shirts and Lone Star State T-shirts munch on sweets and fried snake. Men in rubber boots prance spryly into the famous snake pit and wield snake sticks with the same defensive pride as one might hold a nation’s flag.
Rattlesnake roundups are uniquely American. The rattlesnake is native to the Americas. In colder months, many rattlesnake species enter a period called brumation in which they coil together in underground dens, some containing as many as a thousand snakes. These gatherings have a cyclical nature: the animals often return to the same dens year after year, occasionally traveling as many as five miles. Some dens are used by generations of rattlesnakes for spans of more than a century.
For a small price, you may wait in line to hold the blade of a machete, which you can swing down onto a rattler, severing the body from its head. Another crowd favorite: standing among hundreds of still-moving bodies hanging from ropes and skinning them barehanded—sometimes, to applause—over bloodstained folding tables. Everywhere the bare hands of men and women stained with blood. No one wears gloves. Unusable or excess corpses are tossed haphazardly into black bags and garbage bins. Particular caution is taken with the severed heads, which can see, flick tongues, and inflict venomous bites for nearly an hour after being split from the body. And everywhere the overpowering smell of snakes, dead and alive: soil-like, acidic.
A Dallas News article quotes Eddie Gomez, a Sweetwater resident and roundup attendee who comes from a long line of rattlesnake hunters: “Around here,” he says, “it’s part of your heritage.” The skinners, auctioneers, spectators, and hunters of the Sweetwater roundup perform their jobs skillfully, gracefully. Dormant in their gestures is a lineage of identical motions, the elegance of inheritance.
Each captured body is measured, sexed, and weighed before being carted (in archaic-looking wooden boxes) to other corners of the festival—primarily to be auctioned or skinned for parts. In an online photo gallery of the event, images of smiling children and celebratory families flutter between pictures of blood and snake carcasses. One photo of a child gleefully sucking on barbecued snake appears just before the image of bloody entrails tangled in a garbage bin. The blood, the barbecue sauce staining the child’s face, estranged twins.
In another Reporter News image, Riley Dodd, a young blonde draped in a white pageant sash, splits apart a copper snake. Her arms are Jesus-splayed outward. She grasps shell-pink innards of the animal in one fist, its mottled brown skin in the other. The expression on her face is a white sheet of possibility: concentration, anguish—pleasure, even. Behind her, partially out of focus, a white wall is emblazoned with the handwritten ROUNDUP 2017 SKINNERS. Beneath the writing is a constellation of signatures and handprints of dried blood.
The Sweetwater roundup has grown increasingly controversial. Herpetologists and animal rights groups, like Advocates for Snake Preservation, have lobbied the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for years in protest of gassing, capturing, and killing wild snakes for human amusement. Snake hunters feed aluminum tubes into rattlesnake dens, pumping the shelters with gasoline fumes that force out the snakes to where hunters waiting with tongs and sacks sweep them up. The benzene and toluene fumes are often fatal to nontargeted species: other snakes, foxes, owls, small invertebrates, and turtles. Even experienced hunters sometimes mistake the homes of other animals for rattler dens.
Critics argue the gases also contaminate local water supplies. The fumes’ lingering presence in the animal may even taint the precious snake venom milked at roundup events and sold to medical research labs. Mass hunting and removal of rattlesnakes from local ecosystems has long-term effects not immediately obvious—blood dripping slowly from a wound.
Gassing or fuming animals is illegal in other rattlesnake-ridden states. In Texas, multiple committees have been formed, most prominently the Snake Harvest Working Group, appointed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. But legal action has largely stalled. Even members of the working group are politically divided on the issue. The long-standing tradition of small-town roundups and the huge local economic boom of the annual Sweetwater event bolster a powerful opposition.
What symbolizes the country’s soil is also the animal that plagues and bothers certain citizens to the point of inciting mass-extermination efforts.
In just one year, Sweetwater’s roundup captured an estimated twelve thousand rattlesnakes. In contrast, roughly seven thousand people in America are bit by rattlesnakes in a given year. Of these bites, only five are fatal. (Statistically, intoxicated young men are more likely to receive bites than any other group.) Somewhat ironically, the roundups, which are founded on the premise of the snake’s vileness and perilousness, are where the snakes—captured, beheaded, strung up, skinned, auctioned, eaten—appear at their most vulnerable.
The Reporter News article states the following: “In the competition which was decided on Thursday, [Riley] Dodd was Miss Congeniality. When asked if skinning a snake was congenial, Dodd answered with a laugh, ‘It’s not congenial at all.’”
A Very Popular Show
“Whole families came together, mothers and fathers, bringing even their youngest children. It was the show of the countryside— a very popular show,” read a 1930 editorial in the Raleigh News and Observer. “Men joked loudly at the sight of the bleeding body . . . girls giggled as the flies fed on the blood that dripped from the Negro’s nose.”
The word lynching does not have a clear etymology, but it was certainly coined in the United States during the American Revolution. In other words, lynching is a uniquely American animal. Peaking in the southern states between 1880 and 1940, lynchings were often instances of mob violence, many attended by hundreds or even thousands of spectators. Though many people assume that a lynching is synonymous with a version of hanging, lynch victims were tortured and killed in a myriad of other ways. Body parts were often removed, particularly in the case of Black men, many of whom were castrated before being put to death. Severed testicles, along with other dismembered body parts and bones, were often parceled and taken as souvenirs by white lynch mobs and spectators. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of the 1899 lynching of Sam Hose in Georgia that “the knuckles of the lynched man were on exhibition at a grocery store on Mitchell Street,” and a piece of Hose’s heart and severed liver were presented to the governor.
Lynchings increased dramatically after the Civil War, when some formerly enslaved people gained limited rights to vote, earn wages, and hold property of their own. Many historians attribute this increase to the perceived economic and social threat that white families imposed onto their African American neighbors. Sensing the tenuousness of their own power, white men—white mobs—would, in greater numbers than ever, enter backwoods and country roads. After dusk, or before, or during: there was no time of day in which they were not (are still not) emboldened. They wielded rakes, sticks, rifles, liquor bottles, crowbars. In this way, the roundups happened.
Often, lynchings happened en masse, claiming many victims at one time or occurring consecutively in the span of a few days. Frequently, they occurred in rural areas or strung across several towns. News spread from the dark mouths of cooks and maids and stable boys and farmhands and from the pink lips of shop owners and belles and farmers. It spread from the stark white pages of flyers, which were strewn, like flower petals, by pale hands onto the dusty stoops of Main Streets and local trade posts. Anticipation rattled: the morbid flurry of white excitement amid the ancient coiling of Black pain.
Rosy-cheeked spouses arrived at these mob scenes breathless, sometimes with children in tow, crating picnic baskets and blankets, munching peanuts and popcorn. All of this set to the overwhelming pit-smell of a human body burning. Though today spoken about in hushed tones, for many white spectators, lynchings were often boisterous, celebratory, raucous events.
This phenomenon was rooted in the nonhuman, chattel status of the formerly enslaved. The Black body was, for whites, akin to an animal. Historian accounts of lynchings often use this comparison, noting how victims were strung up like hunted, prized pieces of flesh.
Lynching postcards, which peaked in popularity during the same dark Jim Crow years in which lynching crimes rose to record heights, are one indication of the levity with which many white Southerners treated the murders. Distributed and collected as souvenirs across the South, the postcards were used both as racist propaganda and also as quotidian means of communication. Many archives exist of lynching postcards that were sent among families and inscribed with the quite ordinary goings-on of a household or family event.
Though their distribution in the United States was partially banned in 1908 with an amendment to the Comstock Act, lynching postcards were nonetheless distributed widely. The mere cover of an envelope was enough to escape the technicality of the ban. The images and artifacts are still circulated among white supremacist culture as part of their nostalgia.
One archived National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) postcard from Temple, Texas, features a photograph of two pale men posing proudly in front of a dark, strung-up corpse. A crowd of white faces in dark hats congregates below, spiteful as coals. The back of the card, stained rust around its edges, features sloppy scrawl. It reads: “This is the barbecue we had last night.”
A Most Defenseless Animal
The rattlesnake served as the earliest symbol of our nascent nation. The first pictorial representation of the American colonies, produced by British colonist Benjamin Franklin, was the now ubiquitous “Join, or Die” political cartoon. In its depiction, a rattlesnake is sliced into eighths, each segment representing an American colony. First appearing in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754, the wildly popular image metaphorized the importance of colonial unity. The severed snake became a symbol of American nationalism during the American Revolution and was later redrawn and recirculated into popular media during the Civil War.
In 1775, the rattlesnake appeared again on a now famous American flag, this time coiled against a stark yellow background in a defensive posture. Its mouth is wide, rattle raised, and fangs notably visible, as if on the verge of strike. Beneath the snake is what would become the most undisputable motto of the American Revolution—DON’T TREAD ON ME—which American general and politician Christopher Gadsden coined. The rattle of Gadsden’s snake contains thirteen segments—noisemaker of the colonies.
The Continental Congress officially adopted the rattlesnake symbol in 1778, when it was approved as the official seal of the War Office. In the seal, a rattlesnake is depicted above a banner that blazes this we’ll defend. The design was later repurposed into the War Department and the Department of the Army’s seal and flag. The Gadsden flag became the first flag of the U.S. Marine Corps, which, during and after the Revolution, carried bright yellow drums to celebrate victories, each emblazoned with the image of a rattlesnake. The U.S. Navy still uses the “snakes on stripes” flag—a striking striped backdrop over which a rattlesnake sprawls, tongue extended. The Bush administration ordered its raising on all Navy vessels following September 11, 2001, as a venomous symbol of the War on Terror.
For over 240 years, the United States Army and Department of War has symbolically used the rattlesnake as an emblem of war, of colonization, of regional politics. In the shadow of its spitting form, the American nation has plundered, enslaved, swallowed, and erased. No, it is not congenial at all.
Against the bald eagle, whose grandiose wingspan, capacity for flight, and majestic presence suggests an almost regal, ruler-of-the-sky embodied ideal, the rattlesnake seems a surprising choice to represent the nation. Known for its muted colors and its alien-looking diamond head with side-facing eyes, the snake was a venomous pest and even a terror to early settlers—killing livestock and humans alike. Further, for early Christian settlers and colonists, the snake would have long been a biblical symbol of evil, temptation, Satan himself.
So why the rattlesnake?
Our country’s growth was not majestic or regal. Beyond a pest, the animal that was our early nation was a living terror to Indigenous people. Far before the rattlesnake was emblemized in official capacities, America was, for Native inhabitants of the soil, a symbol of war. As more American leaders stole and annexed Indigenous land, the gross power and capitalist influence of America rattled across the globe.
The rattlesnake sheds its skin roughly twice a year, and each shedding produces an additional segment on the snake’s rattle. In other words, as the animal ages and grows larger, its rattle becomes louder. An infant rattlesnake, originally incapable of rattling when threatened, will only over time make more noise. The national symbol that early American leaders made of the rattlesnake was not an image of dignified regality but of implicit warning.
A lesser-known story: the rattle—the animal’s defining feature— is considered by some herpetologists to be a reaction to fear.
By the Skin of Its Teeth
September 2019: In a brick, windowless building in Slade, Kentucky, Jim Harrison, barehanded, wrangles a rattlesnake over a taut balloon-wrapped funnel, inducing the snake to strike the drumlike latex surface. The process must be done with bare hands so that Harrison can stroke the venom glands on either side of the snake’s head. This maximizes the amount of venom released. Dubbed “The Snake Milk King” on several internet platforms, Harrison founded and directs the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, which according to its website is home to “One of the Largest Collections of Venomous Snakes in the World.”
Contrary to the name, milking snakes does not involve milk; rather, it describes the more than hundred-year-old process of extracting venom from live snakes. Milking is done for the purpose of making antivenom. Globally, there is a severe shortage of snakebite antivenom. This is unsurprising, given that there is currently no safer method to obtain the necessary venom than barehandedly wrangling deadly snakes over funnels. Snake venom, due to its extreme rarity, is expensive—ranked as one of the most expensive liquids in the world per milliliter. When the venom becomes the cure, it demands a new and strange reverence.
What happens to the body when a rattlesnake bites? Breathing slows and becomes labored; limbs numb; the pulse quickens to rabbit speed; vision blurs; eyelids droop; the puncture site swells, sometimes to the point of bursting skin; skin blues, purples. An inexplicable thirst arises in the mouth. There is paralysis, necrosis, internal hemorrhaging, and bleeding—always somewhere bleeding.
Snake venom can retain its toxicity for close to a decade in storage and has also proven effective in treating life-threatening ailments. Pit viper venom is an ingredient in two out of the three main drugs prescribed for heart attacks in the United States. ACE inhibitors (angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors), discovered and formulated with snake venom, treat heart conditions by mimicking the blood pressure–regulating effect that the venom has in our blood.
Herpetologists who deal with snakes regularly warn people against touching or handling dead snakes, which can envenomate upon reflex and on rare occasions have been fatal to unsuspecting humans. Some studies have shown that venom stored in science labs retains its toxicity even when exposed to potentially adverse conditions. Venom, unlike the animal, does not easily die.
An American folk legend, likely begun in the South: An old man working in the fields is fatally bit by a rattlesnake through the leather of his boot. Weeks later, his adult son dies of mysterious causes. A few days after this, his grandson also dies. The cause of all their deaths: snake venom. The grandfather, father, and son all died wearing the grandfather’s boots. The snake’s tooth, embedded in the inherited boots, remained fatally venomous for months after the initial snakebite. One initial event retains its toxicity over decades; one distinct horror can envenomate generations. So the American story goes.
You Knew Damn Well I Was a Snake
“Who has heard the poem called ‘The Snake’?” the president asks his rally goers, to the tune of splattered applause and cheers. In a YouTube video with close to half a million views, President Trump—with a studied flourish—pulls several pages from his suit jacket pocket and, with the dramatic timing of a skilled storyteller, proceeds to read the lyrics of Al Wilson’s 1968 soul song. “I thought of it having to do with our borders and people coming in,” he looks up from the pages to say.
On her way to work one morning
Down the path alongside the lake,
A tenderhearted woman saw a poor half frozen snake.
His pretty-colored skin had been all frosted with the dew.
“Oh well,” she cried, “I’ll take you in and I’ll take care of you.”
Starting at political rallies in 2009, the American Tea Party and alternative right have taken up the Gadsden flag—don’t tread on me—as a modern symbol of their movements. In one 2010 Boston Globe article, a reporter, remarking on a local Tea Party rally, writes: “There’s been plenty of red, white, and blue at Tea Party events, certainly—other flags are . . . bright yellow. . . .Also rattlesnakes. Lots of rattlesnakes.”
A 2017 image from the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, shows seven white-skinned men bearing flags while standing in the middle of a street. Three of the men raise Confederate flags, two wield Nazi flags, and two hold Gadsden flags—the bright yellow color a clashing interruption in an otherwise reddish sea.
“Take me in, oh tender woman;
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in, tender woman,” sighed the snake.
It is not altogether surprising that the 1775 revolutionary flag has become a token for the American Tea Party and alternative right. These are the same politicians and demonstrators who can be seen at events and rallies sporting the ubiquitous red-and-white baseball hats of our president’s political campaign.
In the summoning of Gadsden’s historical emblem is the same white nationalist, nostalgic urge as that which coined the mantra “Make America Great Again.” The heritage of these notions, of the rallyers themselves, is one of violence and selectivity.
The “union” that General Gadsden, the signers of the Declaration, and countless nameless soldiers fought to protect was a tenuous politic violently forged atop stolen lands, legislated entirely by white men, and fundamentally dependent on transatlantic enslaved labor to build its wealth. The nation that Gadsden’s snake calls to mind is the nation of a select few—by no means all, or even most. The snake upon which others should not tread is a particular, white masculine serpent.
She wrapped him up all cozy in a coverture of silk
And then laid him by the fireside with some honey and some milk.
Now she hurried home from work that night; as soon as she arrived
She found that pretty snake she’d taken in had been revived.
In October 2019, the New York Times published an article stating that Trump had “privately” discussed several different options for fortifying the U.S./Mexico border wall, including installing a moat filled with snakes. (In response, Trump tweeted a denial, calling the article “FAKE NEWS.”) Nonetheless, news outlets grasped the snake-filled moat concept with an almost animalistic fervor, publishing startling images of rattlesnake hordes atop their response op-eds. Notably, as in the case of Slate magazine, several news outlets published borrowed photographs of the infamous Sweetwater roundup snake pit.
In the Slate magazine image, the entire frame is crowded with brown-and gray-mottled snakes, most of them coiled and entangled, several raising their rattles, which are blurred in motion. If you squint at the photograph, the image blurs to a single, dust-colored swath with one streak of white along the left border. In the left of the frame, one of the snakes is flipped upside down, belly up in the pile, revealing its shocking white underbelly. It is the smooth creaminess of milk, white stripe on a flag.
Now she clutched him to her bosom, “You’re so beautiful,” she cried,
“But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you might have died.”
Now she stroked his pretty skin and then she kissed and held him tight,
But instead of saying thanks, that snake gave her a vicious bite.
The rattlesnake—metaphor of the early, white nationalist and so-called “supreme” nation—also becomes, for the Tea Party and alternative right, a symbol of protection from outsiders. The nation is the rattlesnake upon which others should not tread. Rattlesnakes are also the weapons of choice to protect the nation (read: the pit of snakes to protect the border). However, in his dramatic reading of “The Snake,” President Trump asserts a different, oppositional metaphor of the snake. It represents the immigrant, the outsider, anti-American values. It is the woman in the lyrics, she who takes the snake in, who serves as a metaphor for American citizens, for the nation itself.
Rightfully, many internet users and writers critiqued the president’s use of Al Wilson’s 1968 song, which was written by Chicago civil rights activist Oscar Brown Jr. in 1963, the year of the March on Washington. Brown’s daughter Maggie, a Chicago singer-songwriter-performer, speaks to the Post journalist about Trump’s appropriation of her father’s song in the context of greater anti-Black racism: “They wanted to pull [my father] down. Now they want to pull from his stuff.”
“I saved you,” cried that woman,
“And you’ve bit me even, why?
You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die.”
“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin,
“You knew damn well I was a snake before you brought me in.”
This is the moment in which Trump pauses, leans into the microphone, then looks out into the audience pointedly, raising a chastising finger and says, louder than ever, “YOU KNEW DAMN WELL I WAS A SNAKE.” Despite the xenophobic tenor of the entire performance, this moment is, by most standards, a funny one. Trump, speaking zealously in the voice of the snake, grammatically implicates himself as a serpent. (“Trump’s Snake Poem Is Really About Him,” reads the title of one Times op-ed video following the incident.) Trump reveals himself as the ultimate snake oil salesman, a fraud, selling his supporters purity’s age-old, impossible elixir.
“Take me in, oh tender woman,
Take me in, for heaven’s sake.
Take me in, tender woman,” sighed the snake.
Here is the pit of rounded-up snakes, hissing in the feces-stamped belly of America. The rattlesnake metaphor twists, multiplies: the severed snake as the selective nation; the coiled snake as defender of the nation; the lyric snake as the outsider who threatens the nation; and, thanks to Trump’s dramatic reading, the loudmouthed snake as the nation’s president. This begs the question, is it time we slaughter all these symbols? And what trouble awaits the nation that let all these snakes in?
The ouroboros, one of the oldest mystic symbols in the world and by most historic accounts originating in Egypt, depicts a snake eating its own tail, its body forming a complete unbroken circle. Though its meanings over time and across cultures varies slightly, most consistent among them is the notion that the symbol represents birth and death, a cycle of transformation, infinitum. In a way, the ouroboros is an additional kind of roundup: the noun roundup transformed into a verb—to round up, to make circular—aptly describing the process of a snake encircling its body entirely up into itself.
The venom of the snake becomes the antidote. Generations return to the same wide-mouthed den. Join, or die. The life cycle of history.
Insofar as the nation is a rattlesnake, that snake is eating itself. It has always been eating itself. The subjugation of some American bodies by the hands of others can be interpreted for the nation at large as self-destructive, the mouth swallowing the body. As police bullets continue to tragically demonstrate, ongoing anti-Black violence is laid out in the country’s open streets. A tooth stuck in all of our boots. The president himself resides in the highest national office in large part due to his persistent, haunting summoning of the past. Baseball-capped rally cries blaze the desire to return to our dark den of origin—a summoning that calls to mind the act of joining the tail of a rotting snake with the head.
The desperation and rage driving protestors to topple national monuments is born from a yearning to repudiate our toxic history. This too is a roundup of historical objects, which many Americans want removed from public circulation—objects that contain a generational venom. In a 2020 New York Times article aptly titled “Cities Want to Remove Toxic Monuments. But Who Will Take Them?” Mr. Sheffield Hale, president and chief executive of the Atlanta History Center, is quoted as saying of the monuments: “First of all, they’re toxic in themselves.” In 2020, on the eve of Juneteenth, Oregon protestors leveled a statue of George Washington and set fire to its stone head, tagging the statue genocidal colonist. Here is the rattling tail of the snake blatantly resisting being subsumed by its head.
The president, loudly proclaiming that immigrants and anti-American values can be summed up as “The Snake,” simultaneously implicates himself as one—binding himself in paradox—to the delight of many viewers. What symbolizes the country’s soil is also the animal that plagues and bothers certain citizens to the point of inciting mass-extermination efforts. A Christian emblem of evil and temptation is now upheld by religious conservatives as the spirit animal of a desired virgin white nation.
What does it mean that the rattlesnake, which has represented—and continues to represent—a white supremacist American state, is also a symbol of the unwanted, the virtueless pariah? It is hunted, kept from our property borders, feared, captured, and poached, sometimes, as in roundups, for mere sport. Is the real trouble of the rattlesnake not its venom but that its symbol can be corrupted and co-opted by opposing movements for violent and conflicting means? How, among the riots, rallies, shootings, mass demonstrations, vanquishings—these thousand rattles rattling—can we identify fear’s source?
More common in nature is a snake biting itself, generally not its tail, but somewhere along its body. James B. Murphy, a herpetologist and research associate at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, says that this behavior is usually a sign of a snake in its death throes. When sick, the animal resorts to self-mutilation. “Towards the end,” he says, “when snakes are ill, they will bite themselves.” O