BY HOWARD POUSNER / ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Hot on the heels of Kennesaw State University’s decision to reinstall Ruth Stanford’s art installation at its Zuckerman Museum of Art, leaders of KSU’s President’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Dialogue have released a letter supporting the KSU president’s original decision to remove it.
The letter by professors Jesse Benjamin, Judy Allen and Ernesto Silva does not call for a ban of Stanford’s work, ”A Walk in the Valley,” concerning the controversial legacy of the late author Corra Mae Harris.
Instead, the letter was written “in the spirit of dialogue and deeper understanding and reconciliation,” according to Jesse Benjamin, coordinator of KSU’s African and African Diaspora Studies.
“While the conversation in the media has so far focused almost exclusively on the issue of artistic freedom and censorship, we wanted to add our voices and suggest that another side of the story has not yet been told, and needs to be,” the professors wrote. “In fact, from the point of view of racial and ethnic sensitivity, we would argue that the President in fact did the right thing by asking that the installation be taken down.”
The day before the Zuckerman’s grand opening on March 1, KSU President Daniel Papp demanded the installation be removed because it “did not align with the celebratory atmosphere” of the museum’s opening.
Papp took some serious heat on arts blogs and elsewhere for the decision, which he then reconsidered and extended the option of reinstallation to Stanford. She ultimately agreed, and the school announced Friday that “A Walk in the Valley” would return, remaining on view through April 26.
Here is the full content of the letter from the leaders of KSU’s President’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Dialogue:
Open Letter to the Public:
As current and former Chairs of the KSU President’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Dialogue (CORED), we have been closely following the discussion around the removal of the installation on Corra Harris, “A Walk in the Valley,” by artist Ruth Stanford from the opening exhibit at the Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art.
While the conversation in the media has so far focused almost exclusively on the issue of artistic freedom and censorship, we wanted to add our voices and suggest that another side of the story has not yet been told, and needs to be. In fact, from the point of view of racial and ethnic sensitivity, we would argue that the President in fact did the right thing by asking that the installation be taken down.
We fully support freedom of expression, be it artistic, academic or in its other forms; however, we also support careful consideration of the context in which an exhibit is shown, as it surrounds one of the most sensitive and disturbing issues in the recent history of Kennesaw State University. In 2009, when the land acquisition in Bartow County first came to light, and with it Corra Harris’s letter defending the extremely violent lynching of Sam Hose in Newnan, Georgia, our community had to enter into serious exchanges focusing on several issues. First, there were extensive discussions on whether to keep the land, and it was determined that we would do so only with several conditions regarding the rendering of this legacy into a positive educational platform for our community. Second, there were extensive discussions about the process itself, as key constituencies and representative organizations with primary experience in teaching and working on issues of racial violence and lynching in US history, such as African and African Diaspora Studies (AADS) and the Center for African and African Diaspora Studies (CAADS), among others, were initially left out of conversations about how best to respond to the letter written in 1899.
It is this procedural issue that is now of concern again. It seems that, with whatever good intentions involved in the researching and planning of this exhibit, most of the same key stakeholders were once more left entirely out of the discussion, including CORED, the Interdisciplinary Studies Department (where AADS is housed), the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Black Faculty Caucus, and many others. Had they been consulted, the work of art in question would have been handled differently, and this controversy could have been avoided. It is in this sense that we feel President Papp acted on our behalf by requesting the installation be removed before the opening, as we had been left out of the conversation and had no voice on this sensitive matter.
While we sympathize with the artist and her right to have her artistic vision on display, we also sympathize with the students, faculty and staff of color who may have been hurt by the image of that hateful letter in such large format during the opening, particularly during the time our KSU Jazz Combo would have been performing in front of it with hundreds of guests in attendance. We also maintain concern for the sensibilities of anti-racist students and faculty and others not directly affected by this specific legacy of violence, but who would have been concerned and in solidarity with those who are. Had those most affected by the work of art been invited to the table earlier, we might have discussed different ways to frame and prepare the audience for an educational discussion, or about whether this was indeed the appropriate venue for such exchanges.
As was the case in 2009, we remain concerned that the appropriate reverence for the trauma and sensitivity shown in other cases, such as the Jewish Holocaust, and the need for direct consultation, has not been shown in this different but parallel, and similarly traumatic context of violence toward the Black community. Georgia has a history of lynchings and violence against Black, Native American, Jewish, Arab, Latino and other populations that deserves critical attention, and remains raw and sensitive in the present moment, particularly as racially disparate interpretations of Stand Your Ground laws create anxiety in communities of color. For example, some of our students who went to high school in Marietta with Jordan Davis are still grieving his loss and grappling with the recent controversial rulings in that case in Florida. Many are still struggling with the Trayvon Martin case, as well as the ongoing Marissa Alexander retrial.
We do not write this letter to dismiss the concerns about artistic freedom and integrity, but to level the discursive playing field with what until now has been the largely absent issue of race and racial sensitivity, particularly in media coverage and other statements that have been circulating near and far. In this brief statement, we have barely touched upon the depth of this historic issue in Georgia, and more specifically in the recent history of the KSU community. As such, we wish to promote deeper dialogue and discussion, as we continue to seek ways to transform disturbing parts of our historical legacy into opportunities to learn and grow. This is not an easy task, and this remains volatile terrain. This is why both process, and broad representation, remain integral to the way forward, as they have been in the past.
Judy Allen, J.D., current CORED Chair (2013-2014), Senior Lecture in Sociology, Faculty Advisor, NAACP-KSU Chapter
Dr. Ernesto Silva, past CORED Chair (2012-2013), Coordinator, Latin American and Latino Studies, and Associate Professor, Department of Foreign Languages
Dr. Jesse Benjamin, past CORED Chair (2011-2012), Coordinator, African and African Diaspora Studies, and Associate Professor, Department of Sociology