Education is essential to contextualize racist painting

By Alaina Perdon

Elm Staff Writer

There is no blemish on the face of American history quite like that of slavery. The nation we herald as great was built on the oppression and exploitation of enslaved Africans, and the racism that drove the slave trade is still found in our modern society.

So much of Chestertown’s charm comes from its strong ties to the past. Eighteenth century schooners and colonial tea parties celebrate history and add excitement to life in town. The town is a time capsule, perfectly preserving each phase of the growth of the Eastern Shore.

And institutionalized racism is just as easy to spot as Georgian houses and antique oyster knives.

A replica of the iconic painting “A View of Chestertown from White House Farm” hangs just inside the entrance of Bunting Hall on the Washington College campus. Created in the 1790s, the painting is adored as the only known painting of Chestertown at its peak as a bustling port-of-call. It is also the only known painting depicting the College’s original building.

The gleaming blue Chester River compliments the regality of the towering college on the horizon, but the foreground of the painting shows a cluster of enslaved Africans working on White House Farm.

Throughout the fall semester, the painting has come under heavy scrutiny for the racist message it conveys. While it is important to recognize even the darkest parts of history, this piece of art is one of the only representations of African Americans at our school.

“What messages are we communicating, not only to students of color but donors, to employees of color, or even to everyone — whether you identify as being of color or not. What are we saying when that is one of the few images of African Americans on campus,” Dr. Alicia Knight, associate professor of English and American Studies, said in an Elm article on Oct. 24.

Amidst countless portraits of the wealthy, white philanthropists that have contributed to WC, a single painting of slaves tucked away in the Bunting drives a wedge between white and black students. While the painting is of great historical significance, displaying enslaved Africans at a school attempting to make strides towards diversity shows questionable morality.

“I don’t know who chose to put [the painting] in Bunting, but when you’re a black student and you go in there, it just makes you feel even more out of place,” said sophomore Ama Amponsah, Black Student Union member and prominent advocate for African American rights on campus.

Slavery was undoubtedly an integral element of the success of Chestertown. Many original buildings on our campus were likely built using slave labor based on the time of their construction. But, centuries later, it is important to address the progress that has been made since then.

Currently, there is not adequate signage in Bunting Hall to provide context for the history behind the painting. To address this lack of information, it is confirmed that the painting will be moved to the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, where interpreters will be able to contextualize the work appropriately. Amponsah has been a notable figurehead in the movement, speaking on behalf of the black student population.

The current signage near the painting does not address the slaves depicted, despite their prominence. Rather, the caption only mentions the College’s building.

“One of the things I have an issue with is the caption underneath. They gloss over the slaves in the picture and I feel like if the caption explained the context and the time it was created, it would be so much better,” Amponsah said, “At the Starr Center, they have the opportunity to do that and to find the right language to explain why it’s even on our campus.”

Honestly and considerately depicting such a personal part of history is a precarious task. To ignore it means to grotesquely romanticize American history and condemn future generations to the same oppression. Passive displays appear dismissive of minorities’ struggles, and overly-celebratory exhibits are just as demeaning as the original act.

Educated conversation is the key. Contextualizing the piece separates WC from the racist message the painting conveys. While the school may have been founded in a time of racism, we have made strides toward equality in the centuries since that should be acknowledged. Using the painting as an educational tool to convey progress made throughout the years is beneficial to the African American community, while merely hanging a picture of slaves is a detriment.

It is possible to display this painting in a non-offensive manner. Explain the significance to the foundation of WC, memorialize the individual human element of slavery instead of confining an entire demographic to a single collective noun.

And, most importantly, the college must allow a space for black students to voice their discomforts and work together to assuage their uneasiness surrounding this issue. Our professors, administrators, and mentors are responsible for providing us the best environment in which to grow.

“The adults in charge of this school needs to be held accountable for handling these issues and protecting its students. I have exams — I can’t just go out and tackle racism,” Amponsah said.

But what is to fill the void left in Bunting once the painting is moved?

“There’s a local black artist with an exhibition going up soon featuring paintings that are a response to the Bunting painting. I’d like to see his work featured on campus,” Amponsah said. “If we leave that space in Bunting empty, I think it still sends a very ominous message.”

To leave the space where the painting once hung empty would only further affirm that there is no representation of African Americans on campus save for as subordinates. To bring representation directly from the black community would begin to mend the fracture forming between races on campus, celebrating the accomplishments of African Americans to the same extent as those of their white counterparts.

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