In 2017, I listened to a fascinating interview on the TED Radio Hour with the artist, Titus Kaphar, in which he movingly recalls his experience of taking his two sons to the Brooklyn Natural History Museum, when the infamous Teddy Roosevelt Statue still sat outside the main entrance. When his sons asked why the former president was able to sit atop a horse while the neighboring Native American and the African American had to walk, he found it difficult to answer. But the question lead to an idea: Perhaps one approach to problematic public artworks is to give contemporary artists the opportunity to “make new monuments that stand next to these old monuments and force those old monuments into a dialogue.”
I have often thought of Kaphar’s argument in light of the recent controversies over this past summer regarding other public works of art, honors and memorials; as readers doubtlessly know, these debates erupted anew because of the Black Lives Matter protests, spurred by the senseless and tragic death of George Floyd. Often, there really was not much of a debate for many of us; symbols and memorials of Confederate leaders or European Colonizers should have long ago been torn down for their affirmation of a racist past that further entrenched white privilege. But what about honoring people whose memory is more ambiguous and complicated?
Such a question has recently been raised regarding Flannery O’Connor, probably the most esteemed American Catholic author. The immediate cause was Loyola University Maryland’s decision in July to rename the student dormitory, Flannery O’Connor Residence Hall, after the remarkable Sister Thea Bowman in response to a student petition. This petition was inspired by Paul Elie’s article, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?,” in the June 22 issue of The New Yorker, itself stemming in part from Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s excellent, recent book on O’Connor and race, Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor. Needless to say, many O’Connor readers were not happy at Loyola’s decision, and a petition crafted by O’Donnell (and sent to Loyola’s president, Brian Linnane, SJ) was signed by such literary luminaries as Alice Walker, Richard Rodriguez, Ron Hansen and Mary Gordon, along with dozens of O’Connor scholars and readers. Basically, the controversy boils down to this: Do you honor a Catholic writer who acknowledged that she was born with white privilege, who exposed the intrinsic evil of racism in her fiction and who strived in her personal life to confront her own racism, but who also laced her letters with racist jokes and displayed little interest in becoming close acquaintances and friends with African-Americans?
Time for a full disclosure: After some hesitation, I signed this petition. My hesitation was similar to Cathleen Kaveny’s defense of Loyola’s president: Linnane’s decision was taken out of pastoral considerations for students of color, particularly amongst students who find themselves living in this dorm. As a person who has lived his entire life with white privilege, I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in O’Connor Hall as a student of color. Yet despite this hesitation, I decided to sign the petition for various reasons. First, the case of O’Connor is complicated considering her critique both of her personal racism and the racism of her segregated South; certainly, the issued deserved a greater debate than the timeframe allowed. Second, although the names of our buildings and public artworks on Catholic universities and colleges deserve careful reflection, one wonders at what point such discussions consume time better spent on tackling the truly difficult tasks of addressing structural racism in America, such as pedagogical training in the classroom to address white privilege, scholarships for students of color and sustained efforts to recruit and hire more faculty and staff of color.
Moreover, another reason I signed the petition is because O’Donnell, reminiscent of Kaphar’s argument, suggests that Loyola should honor both Bowman and O’Connor. “What could be more fitting,” she writes, “than to see these two Southern Catholic women’s names appear side by side, one white, one black, both pioneers of the faith who employed their talents and imaginations in the service of God, their Church and the greater good?” For my part, I’m not suggesting that we honor both Bowman and O’Connor by ascribing their names to the same dormitory; as Kaveny remarks, a student residence may not be the most appropriate place to honor O’Connor. But there is more than one way to honor a great Catholic writer, whether that be through an academic center, a statue or a painting, to name just a few possibilities. To honor both Bowman and O’Connor together on a Catholic campus (however that would be done) would be in the spirit of Kaphar’s argument that our public honors and artwork need to be in conversation with one another, one correcting the other, thereby compelling us to live in the ambivalent tension of our history.
Perhaps we should be even bolder on our Catholic campuses and consider giving space for non-Catholic voices to critique elements of our own tradition. What if all the buildings and honors named after Thomas Aquinas had a nearby Jewish or Muslim voice to counter his own anti-Jewish, Islamophobic writings? Imagine the teaching opportunities such dialogues would create. Kaphar remarks that “We can just change the name and pretend like that decision was never made, and no one actually has to take responsibility.” Or he says, we can strive to “create a space for conversation.” Are Catholic schools courageous enough to have this difficult conversation in the very structure of our campus?
Brent Little is a lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.