Letter to the Editor: Mural debate on campus part of national discussion


Memorial Hall lights up in the rainy weather on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Photo by Rachel Aretakis

We, the undersigned students in the Department of Geography at the University of Kentucky, offer this statement regarding recent conversations about the mural by Ann O’Hanlon in Memorial Hall. Students at UK have called for the administration and broader community to consider, and act on, racist depictions of slavery in the mural. On the combined #WeAreUK and #NotJustMizzou tags, students share complex feelings brought on by the mural’s content.

For example, @UK_Sigmas asks us to consider that “when you walk into Memorial Hall you are constantly reminded of the racist history of Kentucky, the genocide of the indigenous, and the enslavement of your ancestors.”

The significance of the mural’s location should not be understated. Memorial Hall is emblematic of UK. It is the building seen in the UK logo stamped on the university letterhead, websites, merchandise, advertising and elsewhere.

Additionally, Memorial Hall houses one of the largest lecture halls on campus where classes of 300-plus meet daily. In the foyer, the mural greets visiting scholars, students, and members of the public. It is one of the most prominent works of art at UK, in an iconic building, and one of few representations of African-Americans or indigenous people on campus.

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, representations such as the mural uphold 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 at UK 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 US cities and on college campuses, and they influence our everyday experiences of place. Students at Missouri State University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Princeton University, 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 their campuses.

In this historical moment, it is important that administrators listen to the voices of students of color, take their experiences seriously, and critically re-think the ways that 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 O’Hanlon 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 administration to consider the ways that representations such as the O’Hanlon mural impact our experiences of place as well as recreate dominant and perspectives regarding the history of race.


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