I can only view it as divine intervention that today I am writing articles that advocate for racial justice in one of the newspapers that ran advertisements and gave high praises to “The Birth of a Nation.” Originally called “The Clansman,” the 1915 American silent film, directed by D.W. Griffith, portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes of the South during the Reconstruction Era. While this three-hour movie remains one of the most offensive films in American history, many schools, including Columbia, still revere and teach Griffith’s filmmaking techniques in film and art classes today. In fact, I was forced to watch “The Birth of a Nation” for the first time in my Introduction to Film and Media course. If Columbia is truly serious about anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion, then artistic disciplines must begin to acknowledge and improve their roles in teaching, contextualizing, and influencing popular culture through the arts and media.
There are generational implications for Black and Indigenous people of color when they are misrepresented in the arts by predominantly white producers and narrators who pass down procedural techniques, essentially laying the foundation for standards in contemporary art and design. More importantly, this is significant because in popular American culture, eurocentric narratives and stereotypes about people of African descent continue to shape cultural aesthetics. Representation is always at stake for Black people, and stereotypical portrayals of African Americans continue to evolve in the 21st century.
From their conception, these creative and artistic misrepresentations were not produced for the benefit of Black people nor with the input or guidance of African Americans. Centuries and decades later, these creative decisions have very damaging effects on the public image and safety of Black and Indigenous people of color. For example, America’s historical portrayal of Black men as aggressive and dangerous has, in the past, justified extreme violence against Black men by law enforcement and others. Similarly, the historical portrayal of Black women as angry and hypersexual has influenced depictions of Black female sexuality in entertainment and popular media today.
I believe Columbia is in a unique position to begin dismantling racism and cultural bias by implementing an artistic methodology of full participation in its approach to educational curriculum. While still maturing in its applicable form, full participation in artistic production is a process of collaborative creation that includes the perspective, aesthetics, and insights of people who are directly impacted by the contents of that artistic production. Full participation in artistic representation within an artistic production ensures integrity and representation by leaning on the wisdom, creativity, and lived experiences of the people who are being represented. For example, the full participation process within any artistic production representing people or places of African descent would ensure the inclusion and/or consultation of Black artists at every phase of production. In doing so, this process would recognize and prioritize the unique perspectives of African stakeholders who are involved in the production, as well as position them to be co-leaders and agents of change within the production. This methodology and storytelling process was developed while attempting to tell the stories of people who were incarcerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. This process ensures that the stories and the lives of the people in prison were accurately represented in artistic form.
Undoing traditionally racialized portrayals and targeting cultural misrepresentations in popular imagery is Columbia’s biggest opportunity to rectify its history of amplifying racialized art, repositioning its role in teaching, contextualizing, and influencing popular culture through the arts and media. In my opinion, each art humanity requirement should introduce students to the historic relationships between dehumanizing language, iconic imagery, the different forms of representation that have influenced America’s visual culture, and this visual culture’s impact on America. This would potentially enable students to see how cultural products such as works of performance, music, literature, and visual art are linked to social and political change. Giving students a working vocabulary for discussing images while using strategic messaging helps them better identify intentional artistic messages and understand how they produce dehumanizing narratives. This will help students develop the skills to identify controversial subject matters and, thus, not repeat it at the expense of another. Columbia can begin to have a better impact on the Harlem community, which feels the dominating and stereotypical effects of gentrification every day, by starting anti-racism work with the students and faculty that produce visual art, media, music, performance, and literature at this elite level.
Pastor Isaac Scott is a Five-time Change Agent Award winner, multimedia visual artist, and journalist. Follow Isaac @IsaacsQuarterly.
ISAAC I. SCOTT,
Five-time Change Agent Award winner, Multimedia Visual Artist, Journalist, and Independent Consultant.
© 2020 Isaac's Quarterly LLC. The images, pictures, and videos on this website are copyrighted and may not be downloaded or reproduced. These materials may be used only for Educational Purposes. They include extracts of copyright works copied under copyright licences. You may not copy or distribute any part of this material to any other person. Where the material is provided to you in electronic format you may download or print from it for your own use, but not for redistribution. You may not download or make a further copy for any other purpose. Failure to comply with the terms of this warning may expose you to legal action for copyright infringement and/or disciplinary action by Isaac's Quarterly LLC.