Still Separate, Still Unequal: Racial justice art events this summer

Shortly after starting my job at the Center for Education and Civil Rights, I learned about a unique art exhibit that was set to be installed at Penn State as part of a national tour. The exhibit is called “Still Separate – Still Unequal,” co-curated with Larry Ossei-Mensah, and it is the second part of a Race and Revolution series by curator Katie Fuller. It came to Penn State after stops in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, and it’s currently in Pittsburgh at the August Wilson Cultural Center through July 21st. If you’re in the Pittsburgh area, you should check it out – Admission is free! For those who can’t make it, I have a summary here with some thoughts on my favorite pieces. And, as I share below, there’s also a few ways to check out other parts of Race and Revolution series, including an upcoming event in the Boston area.

Broadly, “Still Separate – Still Unequal” aims to tell the story of the struggle for school integration since Brown. Pieces cover overarching themes in racial justice, and, at each tour stop, the curator tailors the installation to the specific history of the local context. I know from my experience working with Katie that she is extremely thorough and deliberate about this. For the Pennsylvania installations, we dug through obscure legal history to find poignant descriptions about the urgency for racial justice in education. Across the show, there’s a clear effort to engage the viewer in a non-threatening way, to break school segregation out of the black-and-white of civil rights era footage, and, ultimately, to get people to talk and think differently about contemporary racial injustice.

The pieces can really pull you in. This one – “Abandonment Series, Act #3” –  is a video loop of a dancer moving through a shuttered Detroit school created by Nicole Soto-Rodriguez in 2015. I found this one of the more powerful pieces of the exhibit. Like so much of the show, I felt an immediate personal connection to this piece- thinking of the many times I’ve seen teachers and students move with grace through a series of messes that they did not create. The random hugs, for example, that I’ve gotten from kindergarteners when visiting their classrooms as a researcher or the incredible dedication of the teachers I’ve talked with.

“Abandonment Series, Act #3” – Nicole Soto-Rodriguez

Some pieces are more directly interactive. Each installation, for example, features a large chalkboard with prompts for- What was your race moment? And, what was your class moment? Amazingly, Minnijean Brown-Trickey – one of the Little Rock Nine – just visited the Pittsburgh installation. As you can see in the photo below, she wrote that her race moment was desegregating Little Rock Central High in 1957. Incredible.

As a Katie says in this public radio story, “I don’t want people to shut down, I want them to stay open.” While some pieces – like the chalkboard – do that through direct engagement, others provide a positive/forward-looking vision to generate discussion about school integration should look like. In this photo series called “War on the Benighted” from L. Kasimu Harris, for example, young Black students stand in empowering poses in their schools or symbolically take direction over their own learning by writing the names of key African American social voices on their classroom chalkboard.

“War on the Benighted” – L. Kasimu Harris

For me, though, easily the most powerful part of the recent installation is the piece added for its direct ties to the Pittsburgh community. In a previous post on school discipline, I wrote about Antwon Rose who was shot at age 17 while running away from police in a neighborhood on the east side of Pittsburgh. Just a year before his murder, Antwon’s school was sued for fostering “a culture of abuse” in its form of school discipline. In the protests that followed, one former graduate of that school was quoted saying “When you think about where Antwon went to school…he saw his friends getting beat up by these cops and how the justice system works against their abusers. Would that not inform your interaction with police officers?”

A haunting precursor to the shooting that claimed his life, as a 10th grader, Antwon wrote a poem titled “I am not what you think” about the unconscious bias that fuels police violence against people of color. The Pittsburgh installation of “Still Separate – Still Unequal” features a stunning rendition of the poem. As you can see, the poem is chilling. Antwon’s mother said she wanted everyone to hear it.

“I am not what you think” – Antwon Rose

And, even more stunning, his mom, sister and niece were there to see it. His niece is wearing a shirt that says “justice for Antwon.”

As Clint Smith notes in this piece about the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, “the chances of black males coming into contact with the criminal-justice system increased with the resegregation of their high schools.” We talk about segregation and inequity often as demographic trends or funding deficits. While that is important, it shouldn’t distract us from the fact that this is segregation as well- a mother’s pain and a life ended far too early.

Importantly, the curator has also been thoughtful about extending the exhibits into education and action. When the installation was at Penn State, we created this very informal guide for educators in early childhood centers who wanted to bring young children to the exhibit. And, Katie – a former teacher herself – created this lesson plan guide for high school students. At the Pittsburgh exhibit, there is also a reading room, and, on June 29th, they will be hosting a talk with L. Kasimu Harris (the photographer mentioned above) and Thena Robinson Mock, a civil rights lawyer who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

Also, the Penn State installation featured artifacts from contemporary student protest for school integration, from groups like IntegrateNYC, Teens Take Charge and NYC Let Em Play. The banner in the photo below was used by NYC Let Em Play in a protest for sports equity at NYC City Hall- you can learn more and see the protest itself in this short video.

Beyond “Still Separate – Still Unequal,” there are great events from the same curator this summer in New York, Boston, and Seattle. Katie recently launched the third part of the Race and Revolution series: an exhibit on Reimagining Monuments, which “questions the relationship between historical memory and historical monuments and the implications of the histories that remain absent.” That installation is currently in Brooklyn through June 14, and Katie is working on a curriculum guide.

And, Harvard will host the installation of a new series: Unbroken By Bars, “a collaborative art and storytelling project that examines issues faced by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and girls.” This gripping series includes stories from three women who gave birth while incarcerated and, among other things, it raises awareness about the weak enforcement of anti-shackling laws. You can learn more in this short video and by following #unbrokenbybars on social media.

The opening reception is this Monday, June 3rd from 3pm-5pm at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A panel discussion will include two formerly incarcerated women discussing how they navigated re-entry. I’ll be there, and I’m looking forward to it. Harvard will also host a panel discussion on June 28th from 4pm-6pm that focuses on the issue of childbirth in prison. The exhibit is also at the Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle through June 15th, with a public reception on June 6th from 6pm-9pm. So, there’s lots of ways to engage! If you go to any of these events/installations, I’d love to know what stood out to you – as always, feel free to use comments or to email us directly at psu.cecr@gmail.com.

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