What Would bell hooks Do? (Regarding the Kenneth Adams murals in the Zimmerman Library, University of New Mexico)

June 2010

Per the objectives for this course, I have gained a greater understanding of how educational institutions reproduce social inequalities. I have also studied, and understood to some degree, the severe criticisms levied against these institutions by authors such as Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich and bell hooks. Thanks to Bill Moyers, I’ve become acquainted with the work and accomplishments of Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander School. Having no prior knowledge of any of these educators, their philosophies or their work, and therefore no pre-existing bias or opinion, “openness” was not an issue for me in terms of assessing their views although I don’t concur with or accept all of them.

However, when it was suggested to the class that on this very campus there existed a good example of the white supremacist, racist, male-dominated oppression that has fueled the critical theorists, I bristled. In advance of my own chance to experience and evaluate it on my own, I heard from a figure of authority that there was something on campus — specifically, the mural in the west wing of the Zimmerman Library, funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s — that I was supposed to find offensive. So what if I didn’t find the mural panels racist, or objectionable, or insensitive? What if I determined through my own “openness” of experience and reflection that the mural simply depicted the artistic views of one artist which were inevitably influenced and shaped by his times? Was there room here for an open debate and consideration without resorting to easy, lazy and dismissive labels? Or had it already been decreed that the panels were racist, et al — case closed. And if that was the case, did that mean there was something fundamentally deficient and wrong with me that I didn’t react with the requisite outrage expressed by one authority figure?

I had to see the murals for myself. Last Friday I made a quick pass through the library, fully prepared to find the murals benign, the artist unfairly maligned, and further evidence of how someone sees what they want to see because it fits the narrative of their own predisposed agenda.

mural-1 Native Indians
Kenneth Adams Mural 1
Kenneth Adams Mural 2
Kenneth Adams Mural 3
Kenneth Adams Mural 4

Instead, I had to shake my head and sigh at what I saw. I didn’t even stop to analyze the specifics. As I absorbed the fourth panel, I thought to myself — this is bad. I hurried out and away with questions such as who did this, and why, and more specifically, what were they thinking?

Googling UNM Zimmerman library mural, the first search result returned the library’s own page that described and explained the mural, painted by Kenneth Adams, one of the Taos Society of Painters. The library building, including space for the four panels in the west wing, was designed by the well-known southwestern architect John Gaw Meem and was named a building of the century by the American Institute of Architects (original link no longer active: elibrary.unm.edu/zimmerman/history.php) According to the mural’s web page, then university president James Fulton Zimmerman envisioned the four panels to depict the Indians as artists, the Spanish contributing agriculture and architecture, the Anglos contributing science and the fourth panel showing “the union of all three in the Southwest.” With his commission from Zimmerman, Adams was given complete artistic freedom to interpret and express this vision.

Upon seeing the mural panels myself, without knowing the history behind them, I based my this is bad response on what seemed to me obvious objections. Each different “race” is represented by stark color differences; the Indians and Spanish are depicted in subservient poses with heads bowed, with women kneeling, men engaged in menial labor wearing “native” work clothes; the fair-haired, blue-eyed Anglo doctor is responsible for delivering life as his identically-fair assistants are seated doing “scientific” work; and then the “union” of the three (male) races made possible by the Anglo in the middle facing outward with full facial features, with the Indian and Spanish now adopting the Anglo’s clothes, joined only through the patriarchial Anglo, both faces in profile without discernible features.

After reading the history of the mural and Zimmerman’s charge to Adams, the deeper issue to me is the underlying presumption that the three “races” had indeed “united,” with the clear implication that this union resulted through mutual and peaceful willingness. There is no hint of Spanish conquest (both through military force and religion) and subjugation of the native peoples, or the wars that Anglos (Americans) fought with the Spanish descendants and Mexicans, or the broken treaties, exploitative native-as-tourist-attraction commercialization of a culture, or the near eradication of that culture through patriarchal and dominating policies such as the Indian schools that the Anglos (Americans) perpetrated upon the proud indigenous peoples who had occupied these lands for over a thousand years.

Both in terms of the presumptions that created the vision, and the artistic expression of that vision onto the panels, I find the mural worthy of offended judgments, sincere objections and harsh criticism, irrespective of its otherwise “artistic” contribution to its historic home.

So … now what? The mural is there. What do we do with it?

Let’s consider a range of actions that are available to critics, perhaps along a continuum from the most benign (a “1”) to the most radical (say “5”). At the extremes, a “1” could be to do nothing, to just maintain the status quo, tolerate it, don’t draw attention to it, and let it be. A radical “5” reaction would reflect the harshest, most visceral offended feelings that might advocate elimination of the offensive material by any means necessary to deface or destroy it. Not surprisingly, I would not advocate either extreme.

A less benign approach (call it a “2”) for critics might be to request a meeting with the university administration to present their concerns about the presumptions and depictions symbolized by the murals. The objective of this approach would be to merely get the hearing, while trusting in good faith that the administration will act with good judgment after duly considering all the factors.

A less-than fully radical approach (“4”) would also include a meeting with administrators, but the objective of this more aggressive approach might be to demand a prescribed action. The demands could themselves be chosen from a spectrum of possibilities, such as to paint over the murals, to commission a more critical artwork to reside in the same room as a counterpoint to Adams’ murals, or to simply mount a small written display that explains to the viewer why the work was commissioned and why some find it objectionable.

The “3” option, per my scheme which reflects my own feelings, would be to dialogue (in the terms of critical theory) with the administration, the objective being to use the context of the murals as an ongoing learning opportunity on the university campus. Rather than scorned and despised by some while ignored by others, the mural could become an educational asset for all. Some examples: it could be a stop for all incoming freshmen during summer orientation with an informative briefing about the mural and its history so that they can interpret it in context, or to allow them to simply experience it for themselves and then discuss their reactions; it could be the source of assigned essays for many different courses from various perspectives (artistic, historical, sociological/cultural, psychological); it could serve as an example of how different our perspectives are now than they were 70 years ago, and as a basis for speculating how the perspectives of those 70 years into the future might differ from ones we hold today.

That’s what I would do about the Kenneth Adams mural. But since I’ve read Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks this week, I’ve wondered … what would bell hooks do? (WWbhD?)

I won’t attempt to seriously speculate an answer to that question, but based on her book, here are some reasons why I believe bell hooks might support my solution. First, she emphasizes throughout the book the importance of not just thinking and thoughts and words, but the resulting actions and behaviors; I don’t believe she would tolerate silence or be content with verbal outrage. Second, she advocates for living in community, which for her goes beyond simple recognition of diversity to what she defines as pluralism, or “commitment to communicate with and relate to the larger world — with a very different neighbor, or a distant community.” She recognizes the humanizing value of living with and among “folks not like us” (my term). Entering into the dialogue I’ve proposed initiates that type of communication. Third, she reiterates that those seeking to advance anti-racist, anti-white-supremacist attitudes (and behaviors) must be willing to accept and expect that change among the racists, et al, is possible, and that change can and must involve learning to unlearn racist, white supremacist, patriarchal ways and views. Therefore I believe that bell hooks would also see the potential for learning and opportunity for community building that the presence of the Kenneth Adams mural provides.

Would something like I proposed work? Does something, anything, even need to be done? What if nothing is done? It seems to me that the worst failing for an educational institution is for it to avoid a learning opportunity or fail to take advantage of a “teachable moment.” I’ve experienced this before. As I wrote in a column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in May 2008, two months earlier the trustees of TCU had run away from hosting an event to honor and feature the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, less than two weeks after then-Senator Barack Obama’s speech on race in America, which had been precipitated by video clips from Reverend Wright’s sermons. I asked then, what if Reverend Wright had been permitted to come as planned? What educational value might the TCU students have derived? “This community had an opportunity to go beyond talking about talking about race. We could have started the conversation.” The pressure to thwart that conversation was exerted by white male patriarchs whose primary concern was not educating the students, but rather not offending multi-million dollar donors. Here at UNM, there does not seem to be any existential pressure from either critics or the administration. So perhaps this is simply an essay written to complete an assignment. But it seems to me that someone should be considering if this could be a learning opportunity that’s too valuable to ignore. What matters isn’t the speculation about what bell hooks would do, but the consequences of what UNM does, or doesn’t, do.