Black Artist Censored By School District During Black History Month
San Francisco based artist Mark Harris was asked by the president of the San Jose NAACP to display his art in the administrative offices of the East Side Union High School District for Black History Month. Mark Harris is an African American artists known for work that carries with it enormous symbolism and graphic imagery that provokes thought and emotion tied to American history and culture. Mark has called his work agitprop, some may characterize it as protest art, what it unmistakingly does is draw serious attention to racial injustices, both past and present.
Mark got a 2 line email mere hours after he installed his artwork telling him his work had been taken down after ‘parents complained that it was offensive.’ Who actually complained, or why, was not made clear. All Mark knew was that his paintings had been removed. We never like to see an artist’s work censored by the government, especially in times like these. So we called Mark up and asked him about his message.
We asked Mark how he felt about being censored during Black History Month, he said:
“I was very disappointed that my work was removed. The moment that we are living in is historical, and what I want to do is get teachers inspired to get young people involved in the process. Most of the great social movements have been carried out by the young. My mom was in the south when the lunch counter sit ins were happening for example. These kids are witnessing a new movement, it’s history in the making, and we should be aware of that.”
“These High School students are right in the middle of it now, witnessing a time of police violence and injustice. Watching an African American president leave after 8 years and get replaced by a guy like Trump is like watching a light switch get turned off. We need to engage the young now more than ever.” – Mark Harris
“In San Jose there are no black areas or districts. Yet there are black kids in the school district, people should notice that these things have happened to black kids, its real, its not ‘these people are just complaining’, there’s a lot wrong today, and you can’t fault people who don’t know, and maybe people don’t want to know, because if they are ignorant of it they don’t have to take responsibility for fixing it.”
You’re an educator, how should we use black history month to enlighten students?
“In the past years we’ve taken the approach of highlighting iconic figures, and to say ‘this is what they did’, and we placate, they say, ‘at a boy’ and move on. But there’s African American history that is unfolding right now, there are killings in the street, and we need people to recognize that.”
There was this long and destructive protest in Berkeley this week, because Cal was letting a right wing pundit who has been widely accused of hate speech, give a talk on campus.
“Exactly, if a so called right wing hate monger can give a speech at a public University, why can’t my art be displayed on public grounds during Black History Month no less.”
After all the vandalism in Berkeley over the last few days, any advice/suggestions to students on how to protest/ get activated without destroying things?
“Don’t succumb to violence, you’re playing right into the hands of the system. You can’t help the cause if you’re in jail or in a court room. We have to play a smarter game.”
Are some students too young to see your work?
“Absolutely, but my work was displayed at the administrative building, not at an actual school campus. It was for the teachers and administrators to see.”
Since the superintendent pulled down your work, is there a message you’d like to get out right now?
“Nobody disputes the holocaust, but we don’t want to talk about the slow holocaust happening to African Americans in America everyday, right here, happening in the wealthiest country in the world…It’s American history, and this is Black History Month. When you sanction repression and segregation, towards any minority or group, you’re on a slippery slope to allow the repression of everyone else, if they can do it to one, they can do it to anyone. Our young people need to be aware, and they should be activated because we are living history right now.”
Mark was at school board meeting this week, and heard a young, African American student speak, he paraphrased what she said here:
“She said that the issue of slavery is basically glossed over in history class, she feels as an African American student that she doesn’t really have a voice- the district has almost 24,000 students and 600+ are African American, she felt that adults don’t take into consideration their feelings about what they see happening”.