Covering mural means the teaching, listening has begun

Recent editorials and much popular opinion are upset by University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto’s decision to temporarily cover the Ann Rice O’Hanlon mural in Memorial Hall. Many of those in opposition would prefer to use the mural’s sudden notoriety as a “teaching moment” (whether explicitly stated as such or not).

I know the mural well. I have used it as a teaching moment in my own classes for 15 years. One of my PhD students published a paper on the mural. My scholarly writing is about racialized landscapes, which the mural certainly is. I am sympathetic to the concerns and pleased that the mural has catalyzed a conversation about race at our university.

But I think we miss the point of covering up the mural if we forget that the teaching moment already has happened and we are in danger of missing it.

I was not in the room when those campus leaders, who also are students of color, met with Capilouto. Nor was I privy to the decision to cover the mural. Yet we ought to listen to the students when they tell us that the mural bothers them.

The lesson here is that for many students the mural stands for their sense of not belonging to the greater University of Kentucky community. Our first response to that sense of alienation should not be to “teach” them what the mural really means, which sounds like white people telling black people how they should feel when confronted with representations of slavery and its legacies.

We can let the mural start a long-overdue conversation about race and racism that is student centered. That is what contested landscapes do: They mediate debate. That is what good teaching does: It starts by engaging a problem or an issue.

For any one of us to begin by definitively claiming the mural’s true meaning shuts off debate. To refuse to engage the students concerns is to belittle them. There is, of course, a backlash against such student concerns sweeping the country, attacks from both the left and the right.

Students bringing race issues to administrators are being called whiners and ignorant of the “true” battles of the civil rights movement. Man Booker prize-winning novelist Marlon James called this the “liberal limit:” “the view of many liberals and leftists, but particularly old white liberal men … that progressiveness has gone too far, so far that even their privilege now feels attacked.”

The students might be right or wrong about the mural, but at least the president listened to them regarding their place at UK, which is also about their place in U.S. democracy and about questions of social justice and equity. These are timely issues we are grappling with as a nation and should be part of a critical liberal-arts education.

Covering it will not erase racism. But the act of covering is an act of listening, on this campus and in a country sorely in need of better racial dialogue. Progress is sometimes made through revolution; more often it is made in incremental steps. This is one.

The mural always has been political, from it origins as a federally funded public art project to the fact that representations for students of color on campus are few and far between and so it matters that among those few representations are pictures of blacks as slaves and happy dancers.

I hope the mural is uncovered and becomes part of an active engagement with the historical and geographical structural imperatives of racism. The African American and Africana Studies Program at UK has made excellent suggestions for how to do that, including commissioning an artistic response to the mural in the same space, in conversation with the mural.

But in this very moment, the answer is not to defend the mural (as history, as progressive, as art) or to defend the non-racist intentions of our ancestors who created it, but to ask how the mural as cultural landscape works today.

This is a starting point for redressing social inequities that spiral far beyond this particular piece of art, but which might prove to be an accessible ground for building a stronger, more inclusive, just, democratic society.

Richard H. Schein is professor and chair of the University of Kentucky Department of Geography.

At issue: Nov. 30 commentary by Wendell Berry, “Censors on the flagship;” Nov. 30 Herald-Leader editorial, “UK should not paper over painful past;” Dec. 7 Herald-Leader article, “Faculty group urges action on race issues at University of Kentucky”

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader