[By: Jennifer M. Wilmot]
Recently, KU became embroiled in a public debate over free speech and public art when Governor Jeff Colyer demanded an art installation at The Commons (Spooner Hall) be removed, which Chancellor Douglas Girod then complied. The piece “Untitled (Flag 2)” by German-born, New York-based artist Josephine Meckseper, was met with fierce and swift backlash from conservative politicians across the state. Proclaiming the piece disrespected the American flag and military personnel, critics transformed the critical discourse surrounding the original piece into some false babble about patriotism.
When we consider Meckseper’s own words about the art’s meaning, contrasted with the conservative response, it becomes painfully clear that Trump’s America has officially taken the helm of the University of Kansas. Meckseper’s describes “Untitled (Flag 2)” as “a collage of an American flag and one of [her] dripped paintings which resembles the contours of the United States.” She continues, “I divided the shape of the country in two for the flag design to reflect a deeply polarized country in which a president has openly bragged about harassing women and is withdrawing from the Kyoto protocol and UN Human Rights Council… The black and white sock on my flag takes on a new symbolic meaning in light of the recent imprisonment of immigrant children at the border.”
Citing “the conversation around [the] display” generating “safety concerns,” the flag was ostensibly removed by Chancellor Girod after Kansas politicians complained to him. Ironic, right? An altered American flag, or really the conversation around an altered American flag, not an unattended loaded gun in Wescoe Hall or 20 spent shell casings outside of Strong Hall sparked safety concerns and prompted immediate action. Congressional candidate Steve Watkins, one of the earliest outspoken opponents of “Untitled (Flag 2)”, stated “to those who would trample, burn, or deface the flag, thank a soldier. It hurts me to see a defaced flag fly at the University of Kansas.” I assume that Mr. Watkins has forgotten all of the military veterans dating back to WWII (especially Black ones) are still waiting on their “thanks.” Or, the 200-plus homeless veterans right here in Kansas that need more than a “thanks.” Our vets are facing high unemployment rates, battling PTSD, lacking access to quality healthcare, and face failure at every turn by our elected officials. But let’s “thank a soldier.”
“Untitled (Flag 2)” whose intent was to magnify our differences all in an effort to call for unity, has instead been molested and reduced to a prop of white supremacist thought. This isn’t about the flag, patriotism, or our men and women in service. In the age of Trump, this debacle is nothing more than white supremacy– and anti-blackness,– masquerading as free speech draped in the American flag. When we tether ourselves to a cloth used as frequently to defend the rights of select natural-born citizens, as it is to kill and maim other natural-born citizens of darker hues, we have already failed to understand how we deface our flag time and time again. We need only to look at the 2,300-plus children we’ve separated from their parents at the border to see our most recent defacement of the flag.
This entire controversy erupting so close to the Fourth of July holiday, prompts me to revisit the words of Frederick Douglass. On July 5, 1852 in a packed auditorium in Rochester, NY, Douglass made clear his feelings about a polarized nation:
The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
Douglass, like artist Josephine Meckseper, reminds us that the “united” in the United States is highly subjective; our country rests on the duality of freedom and oppression, of being unified and divided. So, in a state that prides itself on being free soil, in a town that prides itself on its liberalism, and on a campus that is public, we’ve stood by and allowed ourselves to be governed by dictators who sit on a hill in Topeka.
Shame on Chancellor Girod and interim provost Carl Lejuez who pandered to conservative threats, putting the interests of whiteness ahead of the rights of the KU students, faculty, and staff they are here to protect.
Shame on The Commons and the Hall Center for the Humanities for their paltry and hollow responses to the controversy. There is no amount of programming, conversations, or poetry that can unravel white supremacist thought when you are clearly afraid to disrupt the very institutions upholding it.
And shame on anyone else, myself included, who have not demanded that power concede itself in this situation. We have failed each other and we have failed our American flag.
“… lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival…” – Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852.
Jennifer M. Wilmot is a third-year PhD student in the School of Education at KU and the Project Coordinator for HBW.