I walked into the Alumnae Lounge during Jumbo Days to listen to a class on children’s gender development. I was a senior in high school, and I was eager to get a taste of what it would be like to be a Jumbo. I sat towards the back of the room in one of the plastic chairs neatly arranged to face the projector. I listened keenly to the lecture but as an artist, I couldn’t help but look at the monumental murals covering every inch of the wall to my sides. Muted earth tones and geometric shapes came together to depict images of White men and women around planes and hills. The professor at the front of the room began talking about how it is important for children to be in an inclusive and diverse environment to promote their own development. I nodded in agreement, not realizing that the murals looming over all of us in that room jeopardized the inclusion and diversity in this community.
The murals that I saw that day in the Alumnae Lounge were painted in 1955 by Nathaniel Jacobson and Matthew W. Boyhan on a commission by the Tufts University. They depict an idealized founding narrative of Tufts University. White men and women surround and point to Chestnut Hill in triumph as if to prophesize the “light” the institution will bring to its surrounding communities.
Today, these murals are a point of controversy because of their colonial, White washed narrative that completely excludes people of color. Faculty and students are discussing the fate of the Alumnae Lounge murals in public forums. At the heart of these discussions are the questions: Do we take the murals down? Or do we keep them up?
On March 5, 2018 I attended a public forum on the Alumnae Lounge murals. The discussion was aptly located in the Alumnae Lounge itself and both faculty and student discussed the fate of the murals that loomed on our sides. An option that came up was to keep the murals up to harness their controversial qualities as a “teaching moment” to the Tufts community. I myself sided with this opinion at the beginning of the conversation. I thought that it was important to acknowledge the fact that historical erasure had been sustained on this campus despite the diversity and inclusion that it promotes and advertises publicly. I thought it would be powerful to bring attention to the murals as a tool to bring the community together in a conversation for inclusion and diversity in the community. In fact, Kalamazoo College has chosen to preserve a similarly problematic mural in their cafeteria for this exact reason. Christine Y. Hahn writes in Maintaining Problematic Art: A Case Study of Philip Evergood’s The Bridge of Life (1942) at Kalamazoo College that a mural could easily have been taken off the wall and rolled away in a storeroom since it is painted on canvas, “but maintaining problematic public art in an agonistic space helps keep [an] understanding of the past and [a] vision of the future firmly in view.” She vouches for the decision further when she claims that “its sheer continuing existence is proof of its service as the site…under which conversation, dissent, democracy and collectivity can occur”.
Sitting and listening to faculty discuss using the murals as a “teaching moment,” similar to Kalamazoo College’s decision, the conversation seemed to sway positively towards this idea. “Yes,” I thought. “It will be a powerful moment of solidarity when the community comes together as a whole to criticize these murals as a harmful misrepresentation of the institution.”
But then Issay Matsumoto, a fellow first-year Asian-American student and a staff member on the Observer, attending the panel raised his hand to speak into the microphone. The room silenced, and all eyes, faculty and student, turned to him in anticipation of his words. Instead of speaking immediately, he held the microphone for one…two…three seconds, and then he let out a heavy uncomfortable sigh. He spoke: “At what cost do we need to preserve this mural as a piece of history to teach people? At the end of the day, students and faculty are left out of these narratives and they feel emotionally harmed. There are other ways to teach people about the institution without the risk of excluding and ignoring the needs of people [in the community].”
His words sunk into me and my eyebrows creased in deep thought. I had forgotten why we were having this discussion in the first place. It was because students and faculty have come forward to express the discomfort, exclusion, and disturbance they felt from the murals. Isn’t it, then, more important to make people feel accepted and comfortable in a public space as the Alumnae Lounge, than to spotlight the controversy of the mural as a “teaching moment?”
In a TED talk about the importance of women in media titled “Women Should Represent Women in Media,” Megan Kamerick notes the power of visual representations. She says, “Media tells us every day what’s important, by the stories they choose and where they place them; it’s called agenda setting.” It’s clear to me that the “agenda” the Alumnae Lounge murals sets for the institution is one that is outdated and threatens the community’s contemporary agenda for inclusion and diversity. And while it is powerful to spotlight and openly criticize the antiquated colonial narrative, we must eventually bring down this mural to visualize and constitute the community’s new agenda towards inclusion and diversity.
As evidence of the power of representation in media, take for example the record-breaking Marvel movie Black Panther. The movie, with its all-Black cast is powerful and empowering. In an article by Ayesha Vishnani titled African culture of ‘Black Panther’ empowers African-Americans, women, Velaphi Thipe, a South African man studying in the US, praises that in Black Panther, “you see the world that represents what the African continent would have been without colonization.” The movie, with its extremely inclusive and diverse cast, set a worldwide agenda for decolonization and African empowerment. As a direct result, Kelsie Wilkins, a junior at MU, said that “as a Black student leader on campus,” the movie pushes her to “lead her community in the most authentic way possible by representing various voices.”
If our opinion is to keep the murals up as a “teaching moment,” then we must think carefully about what we are trying to teach and at what cost. When I initially agreed with the idea of the keeping the murals up, I envisioned the Tufts community coming together in solidarity to criticize the false white washed narratives in the murals and to work against it to promote an inclusive and diverse Tufts community. However, keeping the murals up, regardless of the conversations it will stir, will continue to make people in this community feel excluded and disturbed. Making people in our own community to feel this way is not a cost that we can ever afford. The community is already aware of the harmful antiquated colonial narrative that the murals promote. That is why we are having these open discussions in the first place. The discussions and dissent from the community is the “teaching moment.” The next step then, is to take down the antiquated narrative and design a new visual agenda: one that will represent and empower the community’s collective fight towards inclusion and diversity.