Space, Love, and Racism

Bill Bryans from Oklahoma State University expressed my concerns exactly about the renaming of Thomas in his reflections on the potential renaming of Murray Hall on his campus:

I believe using the question of Murray’s name on the building offers the opportunity for discussing just what has been the history of race and prejudice both in Oklahoma and on the campus.  Such a discussion, it seems to me will generate greater understanding and reconciliation going forward than simply removing his name.

Having spaces on campus that openly contradict the rosy historical narrative of steady progression that the other makers of campus history (PR/communications and marketing offices, diversity office, development, alumni affairs, etc.) construct is important. This is not the outward message of the school, but a story for those in the school to understand and make sense of. In some ways it would be false to remove the traces of racism that exist. Rather than remove the aspects of racism that exist, it would be meaningful to have all students at some point in their careers at their college (perhaps orientation, but maybe later) participate in a program like “Black at Bryn Mawr” or “Black and Blue” to understand fully the institution that they identify with. Complicating your understanding is a sometimes-difficult process when you attach so much love and affinity for campus spaces.

I think particularly of the description given by Elizabeth ’37 of space on Mount Holyoke’s Campus:

I have always been crazy about the reading room. As you know it’s a replica of Westminster Hall in London, on a somewhat smaller scale. . . . I was thrilled when I was given a carrel. Honor students were allowed to have carrels in the stacks. I loved it because it made me feel like a scholar (283).

Thinking back on Helen Horowitz and Alma Mater it is clear that these spaces are designed with particular ideas about what it means to be academic. Because these spaces are made to turn us into scholars and therefore empower us, it is difficult to simultaneously understand them as representing racism, bigotry, and inequality for others.

This is why I am attracted to the idea of creating a layered map, drawn from historical perspectives and also contemporary students’ understandings of campus spaces. Each layer can serve as different interpretations of the same space. I was quite impressed by the way Erin Bernard handled this in her maps. I think maps are most often seen as truth (and thus objective) whether they are topographical maps, political maps, or transportation maps, though clearly they never can be without bias. Having a map with multiple perspectives calls into question the “official” map and allows for more voices than just those in power to be heard.  There can be interpretations of spaces as fostering love and community but also racism and hate.