Op-Ed

Student perspectives on race matter

The controversial mural in Memorial Hall shows scenes of state history, including black workers in a tobacco field, black musicians playing for white dancers, and a Native American with a tomahawk.
The controversial mural in Memorial Hall shows scenes of state history, including black workers in a tobacco field, black musicians playing for white dancers, and a Native American with a tomahawk. Mark Cornelison

(This commentary was signed by 20 students in the University of Kentucky geography department.)

Students at the University of Kentucky have called for the administration and broader community to consider and act on racist depictions of slavery in the O’Hanlon mural. On the combined #WeAreUK and #NotJustMizzou tags, students share complex feelings brought on by the mural’s content.

The significance of the mural’s location should not be understated. Memorial Hall is the building seen in the UK logo stamped on letterhead, websites, merchandise, advertising and elsewhere. It houses one of the largest lecture halls, where classes of 300+ meet daily. In the foyer, the mural greets visiting scholars, students and the public.

The mural is one of the most prominent works of art at UK and one of few representations of African-Americans or indigenous people. Just as there are multiple understandings and perspectives of the world, there are multiple ways to interpret an image. Further, our interpretations and the significance of these representations change over time.

Unfortunately, the mural upholds dominant narratives of white supremacy, slavery, settler colonialism and “progress” while continuing to erase and marginalize indigenous and African American voices. When students report the trauma that they associate with such an image, faculty and university administration are obliged to listen.

Recent conversations about the mural do not exist in isolation. They are a part of larger national conversations that engage with representations of the history of slavery and the Confederacy.

In Lexington, the Old Fayette County Courthouse features a prominent statue of Confederate soldier John Hunt Morgan. In nearby Frankfort, a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis sits opposite a statue of President Abraham Lincoln in the rotunda of the Capitol.

Representations like these appear throughout U.S. cities and on college campuses and they influence our everyday experiences. Students at the University of Missouri State, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Princeton, Georgetown, the University of Texas at Austin, the College of William and Mary and other schools have confronted campus administrators over problematic depictions of race on campuses.

In this moment, it is important that administrators listen to the voices of students of color, take their experiences seriously, and critically rethink the ways race is represented through our institutions of higher learning.

Wendell Berry wrote in a recent editorial that he simply “cannot understand” the decision to cover the mural, lamenting the fact that the mural has been made political. However, representations of history within the spaces of our everyday lives are always already political.

By considering students’ demands to confront these representations, we acknowledge UK President Eli Capilouto’s recognition of the “work we must do to build a better, more inclusive community.”

This is, indeed, a powerful teaching moment and an opportunity for students, faculty and the administration to consider the ways that representations such as the O’Hanlon mural impact our experiences of place as well as recreate dominant perspectives regarding the history of race.

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