I just read the IDS article on Thomas Hart Benton’s infamous mural panel in Woodburn Hall, and I am left wanting more. Quite a bit more. I don’t see an obvious answer to the question of the where the mural panel should be, and I certainly see the validity of the notion that it is there to make people uncomfortable — to make people uncomfortable with Indiana’s racist past and to make people unable to forget that chapter of our history.
I appreciate the notion that “sometimes learning is uncomfortable.”
Most of us enter college with preconceived notions passed on to us by previous generations, and it is the job of a good education to challenge the mythologies of our raising. Certainly, in my time at IU, I have had many of my own myths challenged, and often completely remade.
The problem is that the mural doesn’t seem to be making the majority of students uncomfortable. It doesn’t seem to be challenging their mythologies. White Hoosiers appear to be quite capable of walking in and out the lecture hall without feeling the shame of a racist past that extends into a racist present.
Instead, the mural is making education uncomfortable for a small minority for whom education in Southern Indiana is already uncomfortable. It is not a reminder of their sins but of their victimhood, and a victimhood that extends from that painting in 1933 to the present.
The imagery is challenging the very people we ought to be protecting, and it offers protection to the people who ought to be challenged. To black students, it is a reminder of how fragile their safety can be and how tenuous their welcome into civil society. For white students, it can serve as a reminder of how easily the rights of minorities can be rescinded by breaking the fragile boundaries of civil society.
Black students and faculty enter that lecture hall to be confronted by the images of terror carried out on the basis of their skin color. White students enter and are reminded of the privilege that allows them to terrorize with impunity.
It is a reminder of the power they can wield, at any moment, over a chosen minority. Especially as we watch the Trump administration legitimize white supremacy and we witness police forces corrupted by that tradition, the mural offers succor to the wrong side of history, and a lingering threat to its victims.
The solution to the mural is not clear to me. I think it is an important work of art, and I think it is important that art not be censored, most especially to eliminate chapters from our past — if only that chapter were firmly in our past — that we very much need to own.
What is clear to me, however, is that IU is not owning that chapter. IU is speaking down to the concerns of black students and faculty, condescendingly telling them that “education is not always comfortable.” The vaguest awareness of what it means to grow up as a black person in this country would stop that phrase in the mouth of any thinking white person. The vaguest awareness of black experience would surely indicate that black people know education is not always comfortable.
The recent article in the Herald-Times about the experiences of young, black female students in the Monroe County school system shows that this discomfort extends much deeper than the material to be learned or the lessons of history to be considered.
The discomfort extends to the very act of wearing one’s own skin into a public building. To tell black students and faculty how they should face that mural, rather than to listen to what experience is for a black person, is to mock the very basis of academia, where we learn by listening, not by lecturing. It is where we explore those areas that are foreign to us, and depend upon informants within communities to help us weave narratives that are true, rather than condescending mythologies that we have inherited in our position of privilege and power.
It is easy from a position of privilege and power to tell others how best to shoulder their burden. It is easy from a position of privilege and power to tell others that they must not shy from the painful truth of history. It is easy to say from a position of privilege and power that one would face those painful truths gladly when one’s skin color means having the privilege and power of choice.
Surely, above all others, those with that privilege and power should make the choice to hear and understand. Surely, it is the burden of that privilege and power to listen to those who do not have that same choice. Surely, it is the raison d’être of such a powerful learning institution to seek the truth of the black experience, and to listen with open ears to what one cannot know through one’s own experience but must gain from the experience of others.
I do not know the fate that should befall the Benton panel, but what I do know is that its fate should be to lead IU down that very road of self-discovery it so easily imposes on others.
It is time for IU to face that mural panel with honesty and open ears. It is time for IU to humble itself before those whose experience is not that of the majority and work to find a way forward with understanding and empathy.
Education is sometimes uncomfortable, and that fact should certainly apply to such a powerful educational institution before it applies to the students that come seeking knowledge and enlightenment.
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