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.