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Art, Censorship and Race in Small-Town Idaho

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Tamia, a fellow student at my daughter Emily's high school, painted a striking portrait of a young black woman wearing a yellow crown and a cornflower-colored dress with the words #BlackLivesMatter written underneath. Tamia is black.

Tamia's painting at Mountain Home High School lasted one week. Following online racial harassment and bullying by community members, the school announced all paintings would be removed. They cited the lack of approval for the paintings from the superintendent, as well as safety liabilities. Emily came home angry and said, "Well, I found out there are a bunch of racists in this town." I was speechless.

But I couldn't help thinking how alike my daughter and Tamia are. Emily participated in the Mountain Home Community Canvas this year. An alley downtown was cleaned up and murals were painted by local artists. Emily is passionate about horses, so it's no surprise that she painted one. The owners of the building in the alley preferred something portraying a "Western theme," so her depiction of a horse and their wall made an uncontroversial match. Emily is white.

Tamia participated in a fundraiser for seniors where she rented a parking space at the school and painted it. Once graduated, Tamia knew her painting would be removed to make space for next year's senior class. Different places and different spaces, but still both public art projects.

Tamia and Emily each followed the guidelines for getting their art approved by submitting "mock ups." Both worked many hours to finish their paintings and were overjoyed to express themselves. Moreover, they each have family who have celebrated their artistic accomplishments.

In the days following the announcement that Tamia's painting would be removed, many students recognized the injustice and defended her art. They protested the removal for two days.

A home across the street from the school, where a Confederate flag regularly flies, became the center of the counterprotest movement with people running up and down the street waving Confederate flags, shouting "All Lives Matter" and "White Power." In one instance, counterprotesters offered the students fried chicken and watermelon, saying, "Not that fried chicken and watermelon is racist or anything."

In the quiet of this past Sunday morning [Sept. 25], with nobody to witness but God and the approving eyes across the street, school officials painted all the parking spaces black, including Tamia's. I wonder who painted the spaces and how they felt. Tamia was not informed.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, "censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are 'offensive,' happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal, political or moral values on others." No matter what people think of the Black Lives Matter movement, it saddens me that an artist in our community had to bear the burden of their opinions to the point that her work was removed.

After this happened, I walked around and saw Mountain Home with a new understanding of the advantages and privileges I have as a white person. I noticed that much of the art and imagery in town is stuff the white culture can view quite comfortably. There's a pair of white hands cradling an apple with the words, "Whether given or received, education is always a gift." There are white guys getting tattoos; a painting of white children frolicking near water. One mural depicts the Mountain Home of yesteryear with a white family in a covered wagon, a white rancher with a rifle slung over his shoulder and a white family riding in an open-topped classic car.

In my effort to understand what had happened—and the way that it felt like history, current events and racial tensions just plopped right down in our town—I thought to listen to something on the subject of race on TED talks. I selected a talk titled, "The Little Problem I Had Renting a House." I don't know why, but I just happened to click on it.

Presenter James A. White, Sr. was reflecting on the 2014 killing of unarmed black man Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the unrest that followed. White talked of the trouble he faced as a young airman finding a place for his family to live because he was black. In 1960s Mountain Home, Idaho. I stopped my car and listened.

For a week our town had another voice—an alternative perspective. We were given the challenge to listen through Tamia's art and we failed. There are rules and I know there are distinctions to be made between Tamia's and my daughter's art. But this has become about something bigger. It is about fairness. It is about censorship. It is about racial harassment. It is about Tamia's right to have her art exist as it was originally conceived.

Tamia's mother told me, "We are a family that teach, preach and live love." I hope our community can rise to that aspiration, reject the censorship of Tamia's art and begin to reflect the culture and concerns, dreams and accomplishments of all citizens of Mountain Home.

I am optimistic. Someone in town etched in concrete one of my favorite quotes from local author Richard McKenna. He said, "Never stop playing with ideas." Pair that with love and I see no reason why we cannot succeed.