The arts and taboo subjects

Are you familiar with the term “cultural appropriation” and the recent account of protests regarding Carnegie Melon graduate Tom Megalis’ painting “Within 2 Seconds, the Shooting of Tamir Rice,” depicting his outrage at this event in which police killed this 12-year-old black child?

The Associated Press article also reports an incident at the Whitney Museum of American Art in March of this year in which a black artist demonstrated because white artist Dana Schutz had used historic photographs as inspiration for a rendering of the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black child killed in 1955.

It seems as if in these two cases the protestors believe that only African American artists have a right to use these two young black men as subjects for artistic expression.

Do you believe in inclusion? If you do, does your personal history indicate that you have translated your personal philosophy into your life? I do and I have.

Have you ever been told that you needed to revise your resume because you had too much “diversity” in it and that it was off-putting to some responsible for hiring decisions? I have.

I have believed in inclusion and acceptance of persons unlike me since I was a young girl and two of my buddies were Norman and Sonny Wiiliams, African American brothers. My brother Bill, the two Williams brothers and I had adventures as we romped throughout our neighborhood playing cowboys and Indians.

As a college CEO for 15 years in states “from the Kentucky coal mines to the California sun” as Janice Joplin sang, I took positive, constructive action to let the communities I served know that the tent was large enough to hold all who wanted and needed an education, regardless of race or ethnicity. I also demonstrated by my actions that the tent could hold faculty, staff and administrators of color.

Minority communities embraced me and my work, and I am proud of the Barbara Jordan award given to me by an NAACP group in Texas and of my being named an honorary madrina by the California Latina Leadership Network.

A measure of the success of my work with inclusion, diversity, was obvious to the state when I was called before a California Assembly committee to explain why the diversity programs used when I was chancellor of Rancho Santiago College District were intentionally used to invite into the college persons of color who had previously thought that college was not in their future.

I write, and I’ve written in the past. As a white woman, should I be writing about women of color? What about other topics that some might consider off limits for me?

In the 1990s at Rancho, I wrote and directed a play entitled “Voces,” with the second iteration “Mas Voces.” The play was performed at 15 colleges, universities and conferences from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.

The work was an exploration of the lives of Chicanas, Latinas and Hispanic women in regard to their upbringing, education, marriages, religion and careers. In the discussions that followed performances-with the most lively responses coming from primarily Hispanic audiences — no one ever expressed an objection to a white woman writing the play. Occasionally, a person would ask, “How did you as a white woman understand our lives so well?’

My response was, “I observe, I listen, I understand.”

More recently, in 2016 at the Mayflower Theatre in Troy, Ohio, and at Edison State Community College in Piqua, Ohio, I directed a play entitled “Women’s Untold Stories.”

Although I invited others to submit monologues and they did, I wrote much of the play. My cast was diverse and included Anglo Americans, a Filipino American, an Asian American, an African American, a Jamaican American; females from age 17 to about age 90; and a person with a sexual orientation unlike my own. The monologues, many of which originated from stories of women I have known, featured drug addicts, a murderer and victims of abuse.

Since I am neither 17 nor a woman of color and am heterosexual, would some indicated that I had engaged in “cultural appropriation” and had no right to tell the stories of many of these groups? I’ve never been an addict, a murderer and any physical abuse I’ve endured was primarily at the hands of my brother Bill when we were children. I’m quick to add we exchanged blow for blow, so he would maintain, rightfully so, that I hit as hard as he did, and I was two years older.

Are we to wait to understand others until someone from the particular group is ready to paint a canvas, write a story, photograph a scene or sculpt the subject? And are we ready to accept that person’s rendering whether it qualifies as art from the persons who make such judgments? And what if we object to the message, the theme, that is presented?

When persons tell us that subjects are off limits if we are not a member of a specific group, it becomes censorship, a violation of the rights of the artist. This is neither Russia nor China nor one of the multitude of countries in the Middle East where voices are silenced when the ruling powers declare that they should be.

Can we imagine a world in which subjects are taboo if artists are not members of the particular groups they are depicting? Where does this aspect of political correctness end?

Contact Dr. Vivian Blevins at [email protected]

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