Assata Shakur Mural blog 3: beyond academia

This is the original, unedited text of a blog I published here in May/June 2015 to provide an immediate response to the controversy about a mural I supported at Marquette University.  I've since written about the mural, the leaders who created it, and the controversy in "White Fear in Universities:  the Story of an Assata Shakur Mural," Feminist Studies, vol. 41, no. 3, 2015.

This is part 3 of a blog series about a mural of Assata Shakur that was installed, then whitewashed two months later, at Marquette University this May (2015).  Read part 1 and part 2

 

As I write this on my porch, the social one of my cats is nuzzling on my hand and the city traffic buzzes by slowly/quickly/slowly, extended heartbeat that sounds like summer although it's in the 50s in Milwaukee. Cool and beautiful, like late September.  This fall will be the first September in 14 years that I haven't been slated for a fall semester job of some kind:  teaching, programming, administering, managing, organizing, advising.  Maybe it's that yesterday is the one month time marker of when I was fired, but I'm starting this week feeling nostalgic, reflective.  (Don't worry, friends--I'll deliver some politics by the end, or you can skip ahead to the big finish.)

 



 

I promised to write about why the whitewashing of the mural matters beyond academia. I couldn't decide if I should start with a personal or more analytical vibe. I keep thinking back to a conversation I had about establishing solidarity, credibility, with people who will hear the phrase “cop killer” and shut down. A particular audience who has more in common with Assata Shakur and many other civil rights and freedom fighters falsely accused than they might think.

 



 

How did we get here?

 



 

In September 2001, I had just started grad school. Three weeks into the semester, my carpool friend called me up (on the land line, of course) and said, “I think you better turn on the radio.” It was September 11, a Tuesday morning, and my favorite rock-solid NPR announcers sounded like jabbering squirrels. (When I tried to call home to Philadelphia, to see if my folks were ok, I couldn't get through: all circuits were busy. Such a little thing that felt so huge to my 23-year-old brain, used to a cis white women's privileges in Clinton-era prosperity (though I didn't know the word 'cis' yet). Amazing how communication lines can be the thing that shakes you into realizing how bad things are.)

 



 

I hoped, prayed, that we (as a nation) would be able to reconcile our grief in a meaningful way—not without justice, but with a kind of deep awareness of our own political history. I was superficially familiar with things like COINTELPRO and overseas military actions, with the reality that the U.S. hadn't always been the best global citizen. I hoped for better than the march for war and consumerism that began right away.

 



 

(I'm generalizing, moving through a lot of stuff quickly, and trying to keep it simple, but I might jump back in with links for some evidence for folks who need more specificity.)

 



 

Since then, we've occupied multiple countries and started wars on false pretenses. We've normalized torture. We've fed a sense of fear in ourselves (afraid of zombies, afraid to be without our phones for more than two hours at a time). We've turned that fear into fuel for justifying racism, for limiting women's reproductive rights, for making the police a military-trained force. People in poverty are struggling worse than ever partly because our military bleeds our national budget. Many politicians are more occupied with the drama of politics than politics itself, or citizenship. Do you ever notice how a lot of political news is about popularity (how someone is doing in the polls) rather than political actions (what they did in their congressional office that day)? Isn't that weird? I'm often unclear where to go to get actual information about real-time political events (including information that doesn't only feed my own political bias).

 



 

(Also, I promise I have hope, and will write about that hope, but I'm trying to connect a few dots here.)

 



 

So here we were, in a university that had had diversity crises one after the other, with a pattern of discrimination. In a city with one of the highest poverty and segregation rates in the country. In a state with the highest rate of incarceration for African American men in the country, and in a year when scene after scene of racial profiling followed by unjust force toward people of color was being replayed. People were fighting back against the dismal state of things. My students were being creative, thoughtful, supportive of one another and exploring options for how to research and make a statement on these issues.

 



 

In this context, though, any statement that seems not to support the police or the government or the powers that be gets demonized right away. Assata Shakur, rather than also being an intellectual and political figure admired by many, gets reduced to being a “cop killer”.

 



 

When someone is reduced in that way, it erases their humanity. Think about how it feels to always be called only by your job title. To have people only judge you by the clothes you wear. In the context I've been describing, only some people get to be seen as complex, fully human. It's a black OR white culture: one has to win. You're either for us or against us. Love America or leave it. (You've heard these statements, yeah?)

 



 

The reality is much more complex and we have lost the ability to see that, to talk about it. It's an incredible tragedy because then we no longer see each other. My work as an educator is, was, to communicate to students and colleagues that I see them, and so do a lot of other people, and here is a whole tradition to explore, and here's a space and a wall to investigate it. And when that gets shut down, we are telling students they don't matter. But we are also doing something much more cruel: we are telling them that they do not even deserve to space to ask the question.

 



 

This mural was a question, an opening, an exploration, and an assertion. It made the claim that students have a right to take up space in an institutional setting. It definitely presented a challenge, both in the quotes the students selected and in the choice of the person they muralized. And sure, that matters for academic freedom. But it also just plain matters for freedom. We must be free to challenge each other, to challenge ourselves, to face challenges. To question and still to belong. Questions are not a threat; violence is. And whitewashing a student project without consultation is a form of violence, just like tackling a 14-year-old girl at a pool party is a form of violence, just like putting people in prison because they can't pay their debts is a form of violence: it sends the message, over and over again, that the lives of people of color, poor people, women (and queer people, and others) do not matter as much as others. These violent acts may be different in scale but they come from the same place: a power structure that (consciously or not) explicitly prioritizes certain lives over others. And that affects all of us, whether you care about academic freedom or not.

 



 

Assata Shakur Mural blog 2: why this matters now (May 2015)

This is the original, unedited text of a blog I published here in May/June 2015 to provide an immediate response to the controversy about a mural I supported at Marquette University.  I've since written about the mural, the leaders who created it, and the controversy in "White Fear in Universities:  the Story of an Assata Shakur Mural," Feminist Studies, vol. 41, no. 3, 2015.

It's been a busy week! And I'm back writing the next installment of a blog series about a mural of Assata Shakur at Marquette University that I supported. For the backstory, see here.

 

 

 

In this post, I'm reflecting on why I think this matters for contemporary politics.

 

 

 

a. Assata Shakur specifically, and black women's leadership, activism and intellect in general, are legitimate fields of study. First of all, no one needs me to affirm that this is true. It is simply a fact. Yet part of why this happened is because many people don't know much about the political and historical legacies of black women's leadership both within the civil rights and liberation movements and within intellectual history. This essay is one lovely example of why/how her legacy matters (http://thefeministwire.com/2013/07/celebrating-assata-shakur-and-the-black-radical-tradition/). To question the legitimacy of exploring Assata Shakur is like questioning the validity of other central political figures. It disrespects the tradition, whether that is the intent or not.

 

 

 

b. “Cop killer”, racial profiling, and racial conflict are trigger points right now. The local media have mostly used the language of “cop killer” without providing any balance to the story. In the last post, I link to a piece that outlines all the reasons that it's likely Ms. Shakur is not guilty of the crime for which she has been convicted. Right now, a national movement is mobilizing in support of black and brown people! It should be more clear than ever that something is wrong with how police behave toward people of color. Ms. Shakur's case points out that this is nothing new. In fact, she had her hands up when the state trooper shot her (sound familiar?). The whole thing echoes down through history—it's impossible to pretend that racism is not a factor in policing.

 

 

 

c. “Appropriateness” and respectability politics: Many people who support the students in general thought there was something distasteful or in-your-face about the mural. In the right-wing media, the words “militant” and “radical” have been thrown around a lot. In most places I've worked, I get a lot of pressure to be within the bounds of what's perceived to be “good taste”--to play it safe. That's the main criticism of the mural, and that's exactly why it was important for the students to create it.

 

 

 

  1. Marquette students were protesting all year, mostly related to racism on campus. Many of the students I worked with were tired, sad, angry, energized, inspired, and motivated to claim some space where they could feel like their experiences and histories were affirmed. It would have been educational malpractice to step in to that creative process and claim that I knew better—particularly given my role as the white, PhD-holding female Director of a Center that was supporting a project entirely conceived and executed by women of color, including an experienced community muralist (our Program Assistant). As an educator who believes in standpoint theory, I have a responsibility to assess the students' capacity, needs, and skills, and provide resources to help them grow—not to interfere with their educational process or outcome. I made the judgment call that the mural was not only a cool idea that would get us more traffic in our “remote location”, but would also play some small part in empowering the students to make the space their own, at a time when many were feeling unsafe almost anywhere else on campus. I did not view my job to be a gatekeeper, but a space-clearer.

  2. “Appropriate” doesn't have much to do with the discomfort it takes to learn new things, especially about volatile political issues. It usually backfires, making people who are already threatened feel less safe, and enabling people who typically feel pretty safe in any environment to keep on keeping on. Educationally, this is counterproductive.

  3. Anyhow, in practical terms, usually “appropriate” gets invoked when something challenges the status quo. It doesn't usually work the other way and that's hypocritical. There are many, many parts of America's history that are “inappropriate”--why, for example, do we still memorialize Andrew Jackson, who was responsible for American Indian genocide in the Trail of Tears? Or (as I say in my last post), why are we so eager to memorialize Thomas Jefferson? He bears a large responsibility for the ideas and compromises that founded our current racial mess. And, he was a slaveowner who fathered several children by his slaves—which also makes him a rapist. (Again, it's important to review the historical record to be clear about how skewed the representation of Ms. Shakur has been.) For the sake of argument, however, if we can explore the histories of the Founding Fathers, why is she “inappropriate for a mural”? Because her story is more contemporary? Because she lives in Cuba? Because she is still alive? Who decides what is appropriate? What is a university for if not to explore these questions?

 

 

 

In my first post, I used the phrase “regardless of the mural's content” to argue that the GSRC (and all campus educational/resource centers) should be able to support students' interests and expressions without censorship or controlling influence. As an educator, this is one of my core values. But I've been chewing on that phrase all week because it sounds wrong: “regardless of the mural's content,” although true, is also a copout. Assata Shakur as the mural's content matters, and matters for us all in summer 2015, to end racism, to be more honest about our experiences, to learn from our histories and our current experiences so we can truly be the difference in real time.

 

 

 

Many thanks to Neeve Neevel, Sameena Mulla, Lee Abbott, and Ava Hernandez for conversations contributing to this post. Next week: why this is not just all academic.

 

 

 

 

 

Assata Shakur Mural at Marquette University (May 2015)

 

This is the original, unedited text of a blog I published here in May 2015 to provide an immediate response to the controversy about a mural I supported at Marquette University.  I've since written about the mural, the leaders who created it, and the controversy in Feminist Studies, vol. 41, no. 3, 2015 in a piece titled "White Fear in Universities:  the Story of an Assata Shakur Mural."

 

As the former Director of Marquette University’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center (GSRC), I’m writing to share my perspective on the recent controversy surrounding a mural of activist Assata Shakur (reported in the Journal Sentinel on May 18, 2015).  I supported the student-led mural project because my job as an educator is to provide space, resources, and opportunities without censorship or condescension.  In an environment of daily racism, the students wanted to research and offer up images of powerful black women leaders--both as a way to brighten up the GSRC as a hangout space and as a way to support identities and experiences that were on the margins at Marquette.  

 



 

So, after obtaining the necessary permissions I stepped back and took pride in the student and staff partnership and the students’ full ownership of the mural process.  When they posted the completed image to our Facebook page, the caption “it looks beautiful” reflected the aesthetic achievement of the mural, but to me the profound beauty was the educational and community process the mural represented.  What an amazing example of “education and empowerment on gender, sex and sexuality”, entirely in keeping with the Center’s mission.

 



 

My professional judgment has since been called into question for two basic reasons: the selection of Assata Shakur as the mural’s subject, and my authority role as an educator supporting the muralists.  The first point is easy:  many people are subjects of public art without being glorified or free from criticism, from Thomas Jefferson to Christopher Columbus.  Indeed, Assata Shakur’s work and history are studied in college courses across the country.   Although the recent media storm has mostly ignored the facts, historians are much more clear-cut about the crimes of Jefferson or Columbus than they are about the procedural issues with Ms. Shakur’s trial (see public record and http://thefeministwire.com/2013/05/our-sister-assata-shakur-life-struggle-justice-and-love/).  The students learned a great deal by exploring this ambiguity and made powerful connections to contemporary racial tensions in the U.S.  

 



 

However, regardless of the mural’s content, the most important thing is that students should have unrestricted freedom of inquiry.  It was in my job description to facilitate dialogue on uncomfortable issues.  Effective learning happens with healthy discomfort and sometimes with controversy.  Marquette could have taken up the media backlash as an opportunity to explore the mural’s process and subject rigorously, rather than erasing the students' work.  However, I will be working with community members and students to develop an educational event in the coming weeks so we can continue public dialogue outside the walls of the university.  I hope you’ll join me.