An interesting little debate hit the streets of Prescott in 2010, the year before I left Arizona. A mural on the side of an elementary school, the side pointing toward a main intersection, was causing a fuss because the dominant figure in the mural was a black boy.
I never got the chance to see the mural before now. Since I had a week to relax and recharge my batteries, I paid the site a visit. I didn’t see anything wrong with it, but six years ago, the artists who created it were being pressured to lighten the skin tone on the children because they felt it did not represent the overall population of Prescott.
One of the councilmen at the time, Steve Blair, questioned whether the mural, called “Go on Green,” had anything to do with the community, according to an article in The Huffington Post.
“I am not a racist individual, but I will tell you depicting a black guy in the middle of that mural, based upon who’s president of the United States today and based upon the history of this community when I grew up, we had four black families—who I have been very good friends with for years—to depict the biggest picture on that building as a black person, I would have to ask the question, ‘Why?’”
He wasn’t the first one to be displeased at who was the dominant figure in the mural. In the weeks leading up to the big unveiling, the artists were greeted by passing motorists yelling, “You’re desecrating our school,” “Get the ni—ers off the wall,” and “Get the sp-c off the wall.”
Thankfully, not everyone saw the mural as an eyesore or an obscenity. Dr. Anita Fernandez, a diversity expert at Prescott College, had this to say in The Huffington Post:
“The ‘whitening’ of children’s faces is paramount to erasing the existence of an ethnic group, otherwise known as ethnic cleansing. The reaction of some in our community, including city council member Steve Blair, demanding that the faces of the children of color be whitened is a testament to the fear of growing diversity in Arizona. The irony here is that recent legislation outlawing Ethnic Studies in public schools perpetuates the ignorance of Arizona residents like those fearful of a mural depicting non-white children as representative of their community. What we need is more education from multiple perspectives infused into our public schools to prevent ignorant reactions such as these.”
It was definitely an odd reaction from a community known for its rich arts heritage, as well as a community with a Hispanic and Native American population. While black families are not a heavy presence in Prescott, they do exist. Art is about breaking the rules, and there is no mandate that a mural has to be representative of the community.
The main point on the mural, according to several articles in The Daily Courier, was to show green modes of transportation, tying into the fact that Miller Valley School was a green school. Sadly, some folks couldn’t see the green for the black.
I have to admit that I’ve wondered in the time I’ve been in Wisconsin whether or not a similar mural would cause such a ruckus in Shawano County. There is a predominantly white population in many segments of the county, along with three American Indian tribes. Would the mural be “whitewashed” to appease the community?
Shawano County has its own core of art. Besides the barn quilts, there are a number of murals that make up the Walls of Wittenberg project. More than 20 murals have been painted on buildings in Wittenberg, all decided through a committee, the same as the mural at Miller Valley School. Given the county’s Republican majority and the fact that the GOP has never been real big on having Barack Obama as president, I’m not sure whether a mural with a black person as the main figure would be greeted warmly. It might not face the same level of backlash, but there would be some who would find it obscene.
Then again, some people have a tendency to find anything obscene. Take the criticism with a grain of salt.
The mural still stands today, but I’m not sure how much longer that will be the case. The reason is that the school was closed due to budget cuts—It was one of Prescott’s oldest school buildings still in existence. Since it’s painted directly on the brick, it’s not like it can be transplanted to another building. It’s a sad commentary for a mural called “Go on Green” to survive the racism and bigotry of closed-minded people, only to possibly perish because a school district didn’t have enough green to keep the school alive. I’ll be watching when I return to Wisconsin and hope for the best.
I’m just glad I got to see it.