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Column: The University isn’t ready to talk about its racial past


The University has once again shown its desire to control the narrative on its racial past and present.

Last week, news broke that UNC had canceled a photography exhibit at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History. The exhibit, entitled “Tarred Healing,” was created by Black North Carolina native Cornell Watson, who joined the center last semester as a visiting artist in the Robert and Sallie Brown Gallery and Museum.

In a statement about the cancellation, the Stone Center cited the appearance of some of Watson’s images as a photo essay in The Washington Post, expressing concern for the exhibit being made public before it could be debuted at the University first.

Though the University relates the cancellation to issues of exclusive rights and ownership, Cornell Watson sees the decision as censorship — and I have to agree.

“Tarred Healing” combines conceptual and documentary photography to tell a story about race at the UNC, from the enslaved and free African Americans that helped to build the University, the Black trailblazers that broke the color barrier and enrolled as students and the enclaves of Black families that established community around the University. 

Watson asserts that it “is a reflection of our truth through places, people, and systems in Chapel Hill. It is an unapologetic archive of our feelings and emotions. It is a vessel for self-healing. Despite continued obstruction by whiteness, we will heal, even if it is tarred," in his artist statement.

This attention to the significance of place, memory and race for the African American community both at the University and beyond in Chapel Hill was of equal importance to the Stone Center. In a letter to Watson about his offer, the center highlighted applying a critical lens to the University’s process of self-examination. They even suggested certain places on campus for Watson to photograph, demonstrating how much control they wanted from the beginning.

The tension between Watson and the Stone Center began over disagreements on content. More specifically, the staff asked that he remove three documentary-style photos of student protests over the recent controversy surrounding tenure for journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. 

Additionally, they requested the exclusion of a conceptual photo staged at the Unsung Founders Memorial on campus with a shadow holding a noose. The center referred to these disagreements as “normal” and maintained that these images “ran totally counter to what we were trying to achieve and would detract from the theme.”

These images were published on Feb. 18 in The Washington Post, which has previously worked with Watson on showcasing his work. In 2020, Watson published his project titled “Behind the Mask” with the same paper, which brilliantly navigates the façade African Americans have used throughout history to experience joy despite the ongoing racism and violence against their people.

Ironically, it was seeing his work in The Washington Post that prompted the center to offer Watson a place in their Visiting Artist Program. His work was equally as powerful and thought-provoking but, I suspect, "Tarred Healing" hit a little too close to home. 

The debate over content led to delays in the opening and, in addition to the unsanctioned photo essay, caused the demise of Watson’s exhibit. While the Stone Center emphasizes the latter as the central reasoning, the more critical point was the content Watson included to publish outside of the control of the University. 

The student demonstrations showcase the ways in which the University has been unable to shake its past of racism. The parts of the collection that rightfully honor the historically Black Rogers-Eubank community is a safer choice for the exhibit because it is a story that can be wrapped up and enclosed in the past. The persistent issues raised from the Hannah-Jones tenure case last year is a story that reopens old wounds. One pushes racial reckoning to the past, and the other makes it relevant in the present.

Watson expressed his frustration to The Daily Tar Heel, stating that it “doesn’t make sense” to exclude the students given that they remain crucial to the experience of healing from this past they inherited. Further, the photos of the student demonstration parallel the past that helped create the very center that rejected his work.

In a tweet, Watson compares one of his photographs of Black students protesting the Board of Trustees meeting to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones to another documenting a similar demonstration in support of Sonja Haynes Stone.

Stone was denied tenure in 1979 despite being highly qualified. At that time, over 200 students marched in support of Stone, as others would nearly 40 years later for Hannah-Jones. 

Given the Stone Center is literally a physical symbol of this history, it’s surprising that staff would find it inappropriate to include it as a part of a collection that reckons with the history of race and racism at the University. 

“How can you reckon from something (when) you're not gonna acknowledge what you’re reckoning from?” Watson wondered. He found the 1979 image after initial pushback in a meeting with the center to help contextualize the relevance of his images. 

“The only thing that’s really changed about the fabric of the University are those curtains,” Watson said. “Everything still looks the same.” In his photo from the BOT meeting, students can be seen engaged in protest and UNC System Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Clayton Somers is in the foreground, fixated on the camera.

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The idea that nothing has changed conflicts with the University’s narrative that our healing from the past is nearly complete or that issues of racism are limited to the past. Watson’s striking work tells a richer story about race that is broad in scope and relevant to an accurate and complex representation.

The University should be open to telling this story even if it’s not convenient for its brand. Further, the gross exertion of control over a Black artist does not honor their supposed commitment to supporting “talented and visionary artists.”

“It’s not art anymore if you’re going to tell the artists what to do,” Watson declared.