Black History Month Art Removed After Parents Complain

Detail of "Proverbs 22 v6" by San Francisco visual artist Mark Harris. This is one 11 paintings initially up in the administrative offices of the East Side Union High School District for African American History Month.

Detail of "Proverbs 22 v6" by San Francisco visual artist Mark Harris. This is one of 11 paintings initially up in the administrative offices of the East Side Union High School District for African American History Month. (Photo: Courtesy of Mark Harris)

The assignment seemed simple enough. Reverend Jeff Moore, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley Branch of the NAACP, approached visual artist Mark Harris and asked him to pull together a small collection of his artwork to show in the lobby of the administrative offices of the East Side Union High School District in San Jose for Black History Month in February.

That’s exactly what Harris did, curating together 11 paintings, in consultation with Moore, who works at the district’s Independence High School as a counselor.

“I would say it’s agitprop,” says Harris of the selection of works, done in mixed media, collage, acrylic and egg tempera. “It’s definitely something thought-provoking. It’s not something you’re going to walk by and not have a second thought about.”

A few hours after the artist’s paintings went up on display, they were taken down. Harris heard the news about the removal second-hand from Moore.

“Some parents who’d come into the administration offices were offended by the work.” Moore also said the district superintendent, Chris Funk said a school district shouldn’t take a political stance, “which I think is ridiculous,” Harris says. “The fact that the superintendent was uncomfortable with the exhibit was disappointing also.”

Detail of "Den of Iniquity" by San Francisco visual artist Mark Harris. "Whenever you tell a cultural group that they can't tell their own story, that's how things get whitewashed," Harris says.
Detail of “Den of Iniquity” by San Francisco visual artist Mark Harris. “Whenever you tell a cultural group that they can’t tell their own story, that’s how things get whitewashed,” Harris says. (Photo: Courtesy of Mark Harris)

Art has gone up on display to celebrate African American History Month at the offices for the past three years. Funk says that to date, there had been no concerns in part because the displays had been made up of historical artifacts like books, quilts, and representations of famous African Americans.

“I had no intention to embarrass or harm Mr. Harris,” Funk says. “He seems to be a very talented artist. I’m sorry he got caught up in a situation where Mr. Moore was not upfront about what his motives were and what his expectations were. I didn’t approve the art. I didn’t approve the artist. I didn’t have a chance to review the art beforehand. It was just — smack, hit you in the face — when you walked in. That’s why I took it down.”

Funk says there is a time and place for political expression, such as at the recent March on Washington or at last weekend’s airport protests. “But we’re not here to advocate one position or another as a public institution,” Funk says about his decision to remove Harris’ works. “I have Republicans and Democrats on my board, among my teachers.”

Moore says he did not intend to surprise Funk and his colleagues. He says he visited the offices to talk to the superintendent at one point before the exhibition went up, but that Funk was in a meeting when he arrived. Past displays, Moore says, have in fact included content that could be deemed as political, ranging, subject-wise, from African culture to figures like Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and President Barack Obama.

Much of the material for those exhibitions was pulled from Moore’s own home, as well as the homes of other people involved with African American Student Advocates, a district stakeholder group made up largely of adults.

“How many people were offended? How many people were upset?” Moore says. “White supremacy is a topic of conversation right now. I thought this was timely.”

"To Be Young Gifted and Criminalized" by San Francisco visual artist Mark Harris, who also teaches. "I want to inspire students to use their voices and be involved in this new movement that's happening. It's their future. If I can inspire them to use their voices, that's me doing my job."
“To Be Young Gifted and Criminalized” by San Francisco visual artist Mark Harris, who also teaches. “I want to inspire students to use their voices and be involved in this new movement that’s happening. It’s their future. If I can inspire them to use their voices, that’s me doing my job.” (Photo: Courtesy of Mark Harris)

Moore says the African American Student Advocates had a previously scheduled meeting Thursday night at which Harris was to speak about his art work at the administrative offices. Now, he will be talking about the fact it was taken down, and retrieving the paintings to bring them home.

“My artwork expresses the real visceral outrage that a lot of African Americans have about the violence we’re still subjected to in the 21st century,” Harris says. “For centuries, we have been told not to speak out about it. You don’t have to like it. It’s not only my history. This is American history.” 

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Black History Month Art Removed After Parents Complain 21 March,2017Rachael Myrow

  • Gibarian

    File under Barbara Streisand Effect

    • nunununu

      PERSON

  • Hillary Clintub

    And people wonder why our society is so divided and confrontational today. You think what our kids are being taught in schools might have something to do with it?

    • jayson

      That’s true. It’s definitely the fault of people who talk about African Americans being enslaved and killed, rather than the people who actually did the killing and enslaving.

      • Hillary Clintub

        I seriously doubt there’s a single person who killed and enslaved blacks in this country alive today. There aren’t any former slaves alive, either. You’d have to go to Africa to find any of those people now.

        • Andrew Benedict

          You should really look up human trafficking if you believe that.

          • homesickabortion

            he’s obviously talking about large scale slavery. And don’t act as if that only exists here; white slavery is huuuuuuuuge in the middle east and africa.

          • Andrew Benedict

            It is huge everywhere. There are over 20 million people enslaved worldwide THAT is large scale slavery.

          • amy dm

            Could you provide a source? I am searching, but all I find says the opposite, people of color are the majority

          • homesickabortion

            What are people of color? There are people of European descent, people of African descent, people of Asian descent, etc. Stop trying to lump everyone together against people with white skin to boost your numbers and attempt to bolster your position. It’s ridiculous.

          • Amy Em

            so, aside from your skillful deflection attempt (lol) , you cant provide any proof of that assertion.

            PS, I love it when people who are called on their lies assume I am not white

          • Hillary Clintub

            That’s not the slavery these people are protesting, though, especially since they’re the ones practicing it. But you’re right. That’s just one more reason we need to run blacks and Mexicans out of our country.

          • Andrew Benedict

            This work isn’t about slavery it is about oppression. The rest of what you said is too ignorant to even respond to.

          • Hillary Clintub

            If there’s anyone on earth that needs repressing, it’s blacks. Blacks are a virus we need to cure the world of. Mexicans are running a close second and Muslims are gunning for third place now.

          • Andrew Benedict

            This comment is proof that the biggest virus threatening this country is ignorance.

          • Hillary Clintub

            Blacks never did anything without help from whites or Asians. They couldn’t even educate themselves. To a large extent, they still can’t. Blacks are parasites everywhere they go on earth. They’re even parasites on themselves in Africa. Trying to civilize them is a thankless and almost impossible task. It’s not worth the trouble. They can’t even be housebroken. They’ll just burn their own houses down given half the chance, even in Europe.

          • Josh Homer

            this is a racist who doesn’t even know history. The French are standing on the necks of Haitians and so many other African countries. The British are the same way. Imagine if the countries in Africa could have kept their own resources.

            In the end you’re a racist. So no need to engage you any further.

          • Hillary Clintub

            Haiti is a perfect example of what blacks do with their resources when they get control over them. They stick them up their noses. Africans were floating in oil but had no idea what to do with it until the Brits showed them. Same with every other resource they have. If they can’t eat it, drink it or copulate with it, it’s just trash to them. Yeah, I’m a racist, and for good reason. Blacks are mostly worthless…or worse.

          • Josh Homer

            And like most racists you revel in your ignorance because you can hide behind the anonymity of the Internet. Cowards. The lot of you.

          • Yes, it’s only the white devil that is involved in human trafficking.

          • Andrew Benedict

            No every color is involved in human trafficking of every color. My point is simply slavery isn’t a thing of the past.

        • Josh Homer

          here is a person that knows nothing about a prison industrial complex, nor the harsher sentences blacks get for the same crimes as whites. A person who doesn’t understand how the minimum mandatory for crack cocaine is much hard than for the powered form. A person who doesn’t see a white men like David Becker and Kraigen Grooms who are rapists and pedofiles, but were both spared jail because the judges didn’t want to ruin their lives. Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with Brock Turner who raped an unconscious woman and tried to escape and was only given 6 months (got out in 3) while the same judge gave a Latino man guilty of the same crime (who also turned himself in) 3 years.

          Just because you’re not in a field picking cotton, doesn’t mean there isn’t another form of institution slavery that minorities are consistently funneled into.

          • Robert Caldwell

            Hey Josh, ever hear of a guy named O.J.Simpson? He committed a double murder and got off… Hey Josh, ever hear of a guy named Al Sharpton? He owes the IRS over $4 million in taxes… Hey Josh, ever heard the name Bill Cosby? He rapped women for over a decade before finally being prosecuted… You know what they all have in common? MONEY! Yeah… they’re black too but that’s not the point. Justice is still pretty color blind but the scales definitely tip in favor of those who are financially well to do and can afford major league legal representation. So quit throwing gas on race fire, it only goes to expose just how ignorant and racist you are.

          • Andrew Benedict

            The problem with your point is that you had to list millionaires to make your point. Josh simply listed white people.

          • Robert Caldwell

            Problem? There was no problem… I made my point clearly and concisely. Josh “CHOSE” to list only white people in the hopes we would believe only whites get preferred treatment. I chose my list to show that is neither factual or true…. no need to be a millionaire to get preferential treatment, being “AFFLUENT” in some capacity is usually enough. *FYI* Al Sharpton’s net worth is $5 million, he owes the IRS $4.5 million… That technically takes Al off the millionaire list. After the trials O.J.Simpson’s lawyers say that after all the bills and court awards were leveled against him, Simpson was $9.3 million “In The Red”…. Negative $9 million knocks O.J. off the millionaire list. And as bad as The Cos looks you’d figure him to be as broke as O.J….hardly. Cosby is worth over $400 million. So Andrew only one of the 3 is actually a “Millionaire”.

          • Andrew Benedict

            O.J was charged when he was a millionaire and technically wasn’t billed until AFTER he got off for the crime so he counts. And Sharpton is just a horrible example anyway. The IRS won’t arrest most people that work with them and make agreed upon figures. Technically not paying your taxes isn’t illegal anyway as long as you file taxes. The max penalty for simply refusing to pay what you owe (as long as you filed correctly) is being hit with a lien. Which he was, so technically they hit him with the max they could. And he had to become a millionaire to owe those millions so he counts. Regardless that breaks down to semantics. Josh picked no name white people who (aside from one decent swimmer) weren’t all that spectacular and are most known for the crimes they committed. It’s apples and oranges unless you can name 3 black males who are known for receiving remarkably short sentences for crimes they were found guilty of.

          • Josh Homer

            hahaha! “Hey you ever heard of this rich black people that could afford powerful lawyers in order to avoid jail time? I think those examples prove black people in general are not discriminated against”
            Do any research, in fact a study just came out about sentencing by white judges with black defendants. I’ll save you the trouble of Googling it. Turns out white judges give much harsher sentences to black defendants than they do to white defendants. Turns out black judges are impartial. If only there were more of them.

  • L.A. Canuck

    The question that I would have for the artists: Why do you portray ‘White’ Police killing black/African Americans (particularly male).

    Statistics have shown that
    a) Black/African Americans (male particularly) are more likely to be shot by another African American male. 91% of the Black/African Americans killed, are killed by… other Black/African Americans. Similar for White (84%)
    b) Statistics have also shown that Black/African Americans are less likely to be killed by a ‘White’ police officer than an African American/Black officer.

    http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-09-29/race-and-homicide-in-america-by-the-numbers

    • Goodoleboy42

      Dude, those quotes aren’t even in that article.

      And back to the issue at hand, I hope this exhibit goes up somewhere else so my kids and I can go see it. It’s awful that it was taken down because some unknown quantity of people were offended. If you’re offended by a piece of art, maybe you should examine the part of yourself that it speaks to.

      • L.A. Canuck

        Personally, I’m not offended by the art itself. I believe in the freedom of expression and speech. Do I think that portrays a skewed version of reality… yes. Do I think that this really portrays ‘Black History’ – No. The bottom painting in the article shows 3 bullet holes in a Black/African American bleeding, with another on the ground and what appears to be a ‘white’ police officer with a gun on him.

        I am less against the paintings than I am against the location. I could go and put up the Holocaust paintings and with the Jews as slaves – but I’m sure that it would spark outrage.

        • Andrew Benedict

          To be fair that work is totally open to interpretation. It could be a the picture of an officer arresting the guy who just killed a gifted child. It could just as easily be a commentary on how easy it is for even the best and brightest of the black community to be caught in the web of what is black on black crime and the officer bringing justice to the child with the arrest of the murderer.

          • L.A. Canuck

            This is true.

    • Josh Homer

      here we go with the “what about black on black crime” nonsense.

      • L.A. Canuck

        There’s white on white crime that’s just as relevant. When the narrative is being typically portrayed as white people murdering Black/African Americans… every race / culture tends to kill its own in higher numbers (by far).
        I don’t condone anyone murdering any one of any race.

      • Atheism is Unstoppable

        you think people killing each other is “nonsense”?

        • Josh Homer

          no that is not what I said, don’t try to reframe my statement.

  • What’s “white supremacy”? Is that the opposite of “black supremacy”?

    • Alex Warhead

      “White supremacy” is when an anonymous group of (presumedly white) parents can have set featuring the perspective of non-white artists removed w/o question or debate.

      • OK, so “Black supremacy” is when an anonymous group of (presumedly black) parents can have set featuring the perspective of non-black artists removed w/o question or debate.

        Gotcha!

        • nycguy

          When did that happen?

        • Alex Warhead

          right, and please site an example of that happening.
          and, before you run your little thought experiment: let’s assume that there was a similar event where a white student portrayed a KKK member or lynching. IF only black parents complained about it then that would be a colossus failing of the white community.

  • NotESUSD

    People may be upset to see this particular art but this is apart of Black history in America. Anyway you try to justify, it’s been the same. We can argue about how it started and blacks killing themselves and stats but really folks, if you were brought up or witnessed what this artist may have seen, would you be upset about it? No, you’d want to talk about it, show it, see how we can change and keep it from happening to anyone. The past can never be erased or swept under a rug. As free as this state claims to be, it’s a shame you recanted the art.

    Everything is political, and at what point do we stop and think about our children. Perhaps those that are upset about the artwork don’t live in San Jose or see the day to day or truth before them. They prefer their children to be in the dark with only one view, one truth. It’s time to open or eyes people and recognize art for what it truly is, interpretation from another’s talented eyes…not shun it away.

    At the end of the day, this sent a message to East Side Union students, all people arent to be seen, heard, expressed, or taught unless it depicted happiness. Who says those Black inventors and scientists, and bankers, chemists, etc were happy. What did they endure to get where they were? We all need to see where everyone came from, to see their struggles in order to change the future. Thats the conversation that needs to get started. Where can our children go or become if we all stay quiet.

    East Side Union… time to move my child elsewhere. He needs to learn about all people and their injustices, struggles, and achievements…not just what makes people comfortable.

    *not interested in responding to comments, just giving my opinion, open and free as I am and speaking for others.

  • Colleen Cabot

    This has been a hot topic of discussion in our Nextdoor neighborhood website. I think taking down this art was reactionary and many folks in our neighborhood agree. Here’s my Nextdoor post: “It has taken me awhile to decide to enter this discussion. It is the place of our schools to help our children and ourselves learn how to unpack an image like this. Certainly we don’t start with the picture in grade school, but by high school, yes. I am 66 years old and only recently have come to understand how my white privileged life has a foundation in the slavery of black people. That deep in my psyche I hold the denigration of a person that is necessary to enslave that person, how hate allowed my ancestors to dehumanize black people in order to use them so horribly. Yes, this image is shocking. Until we understand how shocking this is, our country will not win through to true freedom for all.”

  • Liat Perlman

    One of the main purposes of Art is to create discussion and dialogue irrespective of whether we agree or disagree. Art has often been ahead of the curve in commenting on societal problems or perceptions of problems which can be equally and sometimes more dangerous. Indeed this was a daring and provoking collection to be placed in a high school, however, I can not think of a better place in which to create a forum for this dialogue. These are the voters of the future and they need to learn how to express themselves, decent and agree peacefully. Critical thinking is an imperative. One of the most difficult things you could do if you want to create understanding is to learn enough about a topic such that you can debate it from a perspective opposed to yours. High school is the ideal time to learn this. I noted the comments quoting statistics and the ensuing debate and I understand this is a very difficult topic, however, I would prefer peaceful debates, protests and marches to riots and even disobedience such as shutting down bridges, train tracks, etc. How do you expect to limit or prevent the later without a platform for discussion. Please note: my initial reaction to the middle Art piece was entirely unexpected. I completely lost (forgot) I was reading an article related to black history.. What I saw in this photo was the pileup of bodies in concentration camps and normalized life proceeding without a care above it. Don’t kid yourselves, history does repeat.

  • Kelly Underwood Rozmus

    I am so grateful that this artist honestly displayed the experience of being a black person in America. Our comfortable homes WERE built on the backs of slaves (The White House being one of them.), and our young black men and black teens ARE being killed at alarming rates. It may be very uncomfortable to look at these images, but they are portraying reality. A reality we need to face.

  • Bob Dobalina

    The strangest comment by Mr. Funk is how he framed the discussion of race relations, crime, and law enforcement as a “Democrat and Republican” disagreement. That’s your idea of diversity in politics?

    Why should one’s party affiliation seek to deny a conversation on race, crime, poverty, or law enforcement?

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Author

Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow is KQED's South Bay arts reporter, covering arts and culture in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. She also guest hosts for  The California Report and Forum, files stories for NPR and hosts a podcast called Love in the Digital Age.

Her passion for public radio was born as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, writing movie reviews for KALX-FM. After finishing one degree in English, she got another in journalism, landed a job at Marketplace in Los Angeles, and another at KPCC, before returning to the Bay Area to work at KQED.

She spent more than seven years hosting The California Report, and over the years has won a Peabody and three Edward R. Murrow Awards (one for covering the MTA Strike, her first assignment as a full-time reporter in 2000 as well as numerous other honors including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the LA Press Club.
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