Museum Asks Kids to Tackle Tough Racial Issues

Docents at the St Louis Art Museum are encouraging student to explore the emotions and stereotypes evoked by works of art. 

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Brittany Woods Middle School students Jamesha Harris, Mikela Gray and Chanda Perry (Sid Hastings/St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Students attending an Anti-Defamation League-sponsored program at the St. Louis Art Museum are being encouraged to analyze a lot more than just the actual works on display, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. As Tabari Coleman, project director for the World of Difference Institute explains, "The docents aren't getting into the history but the emotions [the works] evoke. The stereotypes."

That means art-inspired conversations that cover everything from the racial overtones of Hurricane Katrina to the emotional burdens of combating negative assumptions about African Americans. So far nearly 9,000 students have used the 90-minute tour as a starting point for unpacking these and other tough issues in what organizers hope is a safe environment.

... This is the 14th year the institute has worked with the art museum for the Concepts of Beauty and Bias program.

It has encouraged junior high and high school students from about 75 schools to discuss stereotypes, bias and discrimination through art. It also provides the framework for students with sometimes fragile self-images to see that what is considered attractive has varied greatly over the years through the eyes of artists.

“We try to create a safe environment, so the students bring all of themselves to the table,” Coleman said. Doing so, he said, allows the students to better understand who they are as well as those around them.

The painting Lawrence commented on was done by John Steuart Curry, a white Midwesterner, and completed in the mid-1930s, well before the Civil Rights movement took hold.

“At the time, there was a lot of prejudice toward black people,” docent Gin Wachter told Lawrence and his classmates, all African-Americans. “This artist did not like this.”

At that time, she said, rescuers would assist white people first “and let black people fend for themselves,” Wachter said. And while the painting is nearly 80 years old, Monica Black, a facilitator for the program, said the image was eerily similar to photos of black families stranded in their homes during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The painting was used as a way to tie the past to the present and to make the students wonder if the imagery would have been different had a black artist painted the scene.

Read more at the St. Louis Dispatch.

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