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.
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.
“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.
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.