I remember feeling both enraged and terrified when I first heard the story of James Byrd, Jr. — the black man who was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death by three avowed white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. The year was 1998 and at the time I lived alone in Brooklyn, a good 45 minutes from my office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where I worked as a television producer for a talk show on PBS. Even as Byrd lived in the deep South, where deep-seated racism continued in open acts of violence and terror, I’d never heard of anything this horrific, and after that, I started looking over my shoulder more when I walked home from the subway.

The news played it up as an isolated incident, but it opened a floodgate of pent up horror and fear, anger and loyalty — a whole range of emotional dissonance. It was the rope that put me over. That Byrd’s neck had been tied to the truck, his head decapitated at about mile three. Because it’s the rope, the noose, that singular tool of violence that lives, bloodied and menacing, in the collective memory of black America.

I didn’t live through the late 1800s and early 1900s when thousands of slaves were lynched on a regular basis, but I held the imagery in my bones — through pictures of white people gathered around a black body swinging from a tree and Billie Holiday’s "Strange Fruit" and Emmett’s neck tied to a cotton gin fan. This was the late 1990s, though, when James Byrd, Jr. was lynched.

Now, just over twenty years later, comes an assault that could only be described as an attempted lynching and a definitive hate crime. And what I realized when news broke today that the Empire actor Jussie Smollett, while walking in Chicago early this morning, had been assaulted by two unidentified assailants, who yelled out racist and homophobic slurs before tying a noose around Smollett’s neck, is that black folks will forever be in vicious concert with the noose.

No matter the generation, how far past or urgently present, whether a 49-year-old man walking home after a night of drinking with friends, or a young, openly gay actor whose ease and clarity and accessibility on the popular culture scene makes him beloved by fans and peers alike, the noose will drop from the sky and into the hands of hate at any moment. We know what it signals, how quickly our lives can end in its taut, virulent tug.

Despite all that, nearly every media outlet who first reported on the attack referred to it as a “possible” hate crime. And that may be for those whose necks are not exposed.

The latest news reports say that Smollett, who also had an “unknown chemical” — some reports have identified it as bleach— poured on him during the attack, is in “good condition” according to police. But how will he recover from this trauma? Many of us are triggered by the mere image of a noose — Smollett has now felt one around his neck, yoked by the thick, bitter thread that history told us was our forever fate.

Rebecca Carroll is a cultural critic and Editor of Special Projects at WNYC, where she develops, produces and hosts a broad array of multi-platform content, including podcasts, live events and on-air broadcasts. Rebecca is also a critic at large for the Los Angeles Times, and a regular columnist at Shondaland in addition to Gothamist. She is the author of several interview-based books about race and blackness in America, including the award-winning Sugar in the Raw, and her personal essays, cultural commentary and opinion pieces have been published widely. You can follow her on Twitter @rebel19.