Erin Blasko | December 10, 2017
Artist Kara Walker’s “A Means to an End: A Shadow Drama in Five Acts” depicts a bleak, brutal narrative of slavery in crude stereotype, confronting the viewer with uncomfortable images of oppression and violence in the antebellum South.
So powerful is the piece, a five-panel silhouette featuring black cutouts on white paper, that it once was excluded from a show of prints at the Detroit Museum of Art because of concerns that its racial and sexual content was too graphic for casual viewers.
Nevertheless, as part of “American Media and the ‘Problem’ of Race,” a seminar hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Public Affairs, nearly three dozen local educators — a diverse group of K-12 teachers and administrators — viewed and discussed the piece in private recently at the University’s Snite Museum of Art.
For Kathe Streeter, restorative justice coordinator at Jefferson Intermediate Traditional School in South Bend, it was an illuminating experience, throwing into sharp relief the relationship between race and perspective.
“When examining artwork together, what I noticed after some time for reflection, others noticed right away because they have lived with it,” Streeter, who is white, said of the Walker piece and others.
“I have to look for the inequities in the system that people of color automatically see,” she said.
Part of Teachers as Scholars, a program that brings local educators together to study, discuss and reflect upon scholarly issues with Notre Dame professors, the two-day seminar analyzed how society frames race as a social problem through popular culture, from movies and TV to books and, increasingly, social media.
It also provided practical strategies for approaching sensitive topics of race in the classroom setting.
Now in its 17th year, Teachers as Scholars continues to engage local educators in discussions of race, religion and other relevant topics from an academic perspective. “American Media and the ‘Problem’ of Race” was one of eight seminars this semester on subjects ranging from discovery and conquest in the Caribbean to myth and meaning in religion.
But artwork was just part of the lesson.
Led by Jason Ruiz, associate professor of American studies at Notre Dame, the seminar examined a variety of cultural objects, from early textbooks to modern dramas, to understand how media and popular culture shape “ideas about race” in America.
Or, as Ruiz put it, “How does popular culture function as a (device by which) ideas and knowledge systems about race circulate?”