Overreaction: College library director suspended over historical exhibit that included blackface photos from the 1920s

Inside Higher Ed reports an incident demonstrating the extreme sensitivity of American colleges over racial issues.  In this case, a library exhibit at Doane University in Crete, Nebraska included two photos from 1920s college yearbooks showing students in blackface. The librarian, alerted to the fact that these photos offended students, then removed them, but it was too late: she was suspended indefinitely. (It’s not clear whether she’ll be fired.) The overreaction, to my mind, was giving her the boot when she was already rectifying the situation.

Read the article by clicking on the screenshot below.

What happened is that the director of the campus library, Melissa Gomis, was responsible for a historical exhibit that included the photos. This ensued:

Doane’s library staff in March curated an exhibit of historical photographs and other memorabilia from student scrapbooks housed in university archives. In late April, a student complained about two photographs in a display called “Parties of the Past.” The photos showed students attending a 1926 Halloween party, apparently in blackface. A blurb from a local newspaper at the time indicated it was a campus masquerade party. But there was no accompanying note from the curators explaining why the photos were included.

Many historians have argued that there is value in showing the presence of racism at universities and in other parts of society, even if such visibility makes people uncomfortable today. Many also argue for contextualizing this kind of content.

What makes this problematic is that after two students complained about the photos, Gomis removed the offending material. But it was already too late for her:

After speaking with the concerned student, Gomis decided to remove the blackface photos due — according to the AAUP — “to genuine concern for the student while also recognizing the current atmosphere of elevated sensitivity on many college campuses.” Indeed, a number of campuses have this year been forced to acknowledge blackface incidents in their own not-so-distant pasts.

Then last week, under orders from the provost, the entire exhibit was removed. That same day, Gomis was told to collect her things from her office and suspended indefinitely.

The article is long and I won’t give more details except to add that both the American Association of University Professors, using guidelines from the American Library Association, objected to this as “external censorship” that was unwarranted given that Gomis had already exercised “self censorship.” They also cited it as a violation of academic freedom.

The University President issued a strong statement without mentioning Gomis’s own decision to remove the photos:

President Jacque Carter sent an all-campus memo saying that blackface “has a history of dehumanization and stereotyping, which perpetuates systemic racism in society.” He apologized for the photos and the hurt they’d caused.

“Such an insensitive action is unacceptable and will not be tolerated now or in the future,” Carter wrote.

Gomis was suspended under the University’s anti-harassment policy.

On the University administration’s side is the fact that the display didn’t give any context about the photos, explaining them and perhaps pointing out that blackface is racist and offensive. And there’s no denying that those photos are offensive and upsetting. Further, the display was in public and had no “trigger warning”, so that students encountered the photos without warning.

Yes, that might have been a misstep, although one could argue that the photos showed racism in the University’s past that was itself educational. But Gomis’s willingness to meet with an offended student, and then her removal of the photos, constitutes a recognition and rectification of the offense. That, and an explanatory note from the President to the campus community, should have ended the matter.

One could argue whether there was any value in including the photos in the exhibit. I think the answer is “yes”, perhaps with some context. Blackface is surely offensive, but so are Confederate flags, pictures of Nazi oppression of the Jews, photos of Alabama police unleashing dogs on peaceful civil-rights demonstrators, as well as many other things of pressing historical interest—all demonstrating how we now decry bigotry that was normalized not so long ago. Would a photo of Jews being offloaded from railroad cars at Auschwitz also be cause to suspend a curator? I don’t think so.

We can’t eliminate bigotry by pretending it never existed. Indeed, it’s salutary to point out the oppression of the past as a sign of how far we’ve come. That the photos weren’t explicitly singled out was an omission, probably an inadvertent one, but doesn’t warrant someone losing their job.

While I share some of the actions taken to rectify immorality in history, like removing Confederate statues erected after the war as tacit approbations of slavery, neither can we pretend that our forebears were moral by today’s lights. Such are the lessons of history, and support Steve Pinker’s data showing that morality is improving. How will we know how much bigotry has waned unless we show it at its height?

Yes, by all means give context. But do not fire people who tried to do the right thing!

Melissa Gomis (photo from IHE).

33 Comments

  1. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I would also believe that religion might have standing here in this decision or at least it should be noted. Doane’s is a private liberal Arts Institution affiliated with the United Church of Christ. The offended students should be asked if their offense is eliminated by removal of Mellissa Gomis.

  2. BJ
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    “’Such an insensitive action is unacceptable and will not be tolerated now or in the future,’ Carter wrote.”

    How dare you show historical pictures in an exhibit about history in a place that is used to house historical documents!

    I don’t think the pictures even need any context. We know the context, as it said it was from 1926. It’s not as if anybody doesn’t know that there’s a history of racism. A picture of the Holocaust at a historical exhibit doesn’t require context either in order to be shown. At least, that’s my opinion.

    Regardless, the fact that she’s suspended and may be fired is just a sign o’ the times when it comes to hypersensitivity.

    • Posted May 9, 2019 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      “Such an insensitive action is unacceptable and will not be tolerated now or in the PAST” Carter wishes.

      Get out the history eraser.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted May 9, 2019 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      It isn’t even genuine hypersensitivity, it’s hyper virtue signaling.

      How is history supposed to be taught, without images? Maybe even referring to bad things in history is offensive. Maybe nothing should be spoken of.

      “Students, I’d tell you about what has gone on in the past but it is all too upsetting, so let’s not even think of it.”

      • Curt Nelson
        Posted May 9, 2019 at 11:03 am | Permalink

        The solution is to tell the complainers to quit with their false outrage and get a life.

        Or maybe more realistically, to be told that reference to bad acts doesn’t constitute approval of them – the context conveys disapproval. And so they should shut up and get a life.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 9, 2019 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

        Yes and there is a whole genre of Nazi art. I loved looking at it as it showed how they used art as propaganda. I guess I’m a bike white supremacist Nazi now.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 9, 2019 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      ” A picture of the Holocaust at a historical exhibit doesn’t require context either in order to be shown.”

      Dunno if that’s quite an apt analogy, BJ. Photos of lynchings in a historical display on the evils of Jim Crow might be. But these were photos taken from former students’ scrapbooks. Some of those photos might’ve been of current students’ great-grandfathers — and, if recent political scandals have shown us anything, it’s that some college kids still seem think getting up in blackface is A-OK. So I think providing some censorious historical context would’ve been propitious.

      The better analogy might be to pics from a scrapbook showing former students dressed in Nazi uniforms at a costume party.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted May 9, 2019 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        But, can you really believe that kids in college today, 18, 19 years old are going to be highly offended by a picture? Most likely a black and white picture? I don’t think they have a clue or could really even explain what they were seeing. Very likely someone has to tell them to be offended about a picture from 1926.

        I saw pictures when I was a kid of my parents down in Texas. A couple of picture showed the Restrooms for whites only sign. Was I offended by those pictures. Please give us a break.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted May 9, 2019 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

          To think my elementary school regularly showed us documentary footage of Auschwitz where they pulled out emancipated bodies and uncovered mass graves. All this as part of the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies in the gymnasium.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 9, 2019 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

          “a black and white picture?”
          Racist!

          The correct term is ‘chromatically depleted’.

          cr

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted May 9, 2019 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        In my younger years I’ve used blackface myself, as Pete, Santa’s helper, in the Netherlands. I think they still do it, although there are more genuine black people available now. Of course, the subject is much less tainted there, they do not have a history of slavery (or lynching) there. [The Dutch did have slaves in their colonies, and were notorious slave traders, though.]

  3. Vaal
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    From the article:

    “to genuine concern for the student while also recognizing the current atmosphere of elevated sensitivity on many college campuses.”

    Yep, yep…..

  4. Peter
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Following protests against her suspension from staff at the University, the Librarian was reinstated on 7 May.

    • Posted May 9, 2019 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      Glad to know this! Glad that she got back her job, and that other staff members defended her. Normal people in pockets of madness must stand together, or else will be destroyed.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Poor freakin’ librarians are taking it in the neck from all sides these days.

    Shame of it is, they generally seem to be among the world’s most pleasant and conscientious people, in my limited experience anyway.

    • Posted May 9, 2019 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      And, in my experience, vigorous defenders of freedom of thought and expression.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 9, 2019 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

        And academic freedom.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 9, 2019 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

          This just shows that they are hopelessly out of touch with current cultural thinking.

          But then books, which privilege the author’s words in an unalterable hegemonic monologue, are equally defective.

          All didactic material must be issued in the form of user-editable documents to allow them to be updated in line with current thinking.

          cr

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted May 9, 2019 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

            “… books, which privilege the author’s words in an unalterable hegemonic monologue …

            I realize you’re being a bit sarcastic here, but literary “Deconstruction” (and post-structuralism more generally, from which much of post-modernism flows) and its immediate intellectual precursor, “Reader-Response Theory,” were actually all about breaking down this, as you put it, “hegemonic monologue.”

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Indeed, it’s salutary to point out the oppression of the past as a sign of how far we’ve come.

    Plus, there’s that whole Carlos Santana notion of learning some history so as not be be condemned to repeat it. (Ok, maybe that was actually George Santayana, but I like Carlos’s fingering on the fretboard better.)

  7. dabertini
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    The sad thing here is that someone is being punished for doing the right thing. She should be applauded for how she behaved.

  8. Curt Nelson
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Honestly, I think the only solution to this is to scold the complainers harshly. They are primarily interested in being treated as injured and receiving apologies. The more that response is elicited the more they cry foul to get the attention. Their behavior is absurd and illogical – reference to bad things isn’t an endorsement of them and false sensitivity is offensive in itself.

  9. Curtis
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I am not sure whether anybody else had the same thought as me. What does the photo look like? Two students out of dozens are in the racist, Al Jolson type blackface. Here is a link which contains the photo.
    https://www.diversityinc.com/library-director-at-doane-university-suspended-after-displaying-blackface-photos/

    I personally think history should be presented accurately warts and all. In any case, suspending the librarian is an over reaction.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted May 9, 2019 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      I see quite a few hijabs on that photo. Should celebrating the hijab not compensate?😁

  10. Jon Gallant
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Revealing that Evergreen-Middlebury Syndrome extends even to a 4th-rate institution in Crete, Nebraska. The librarian’s dismissal reflects a climate of hysterical virtue-signalling on the part of the administration, together with sheer administrative stupidity. There was publicity around the case of Va. governor Northam and some old blackface photos, so a ticket reading [blackface photo = bad] undoubtedly got nailed into the otherwise empty heads of administrators.

    The idiocy of administrations is evident on a broader scale. The whole, now widespread campaign of mandated Diversity “trainings”, with their virtue-signal clichés, agitprop, and caterwauling about “white privilege”, is transparently counter-productive: it will generate resentment and thus increase racial antagonisms. The social psychologist Jon Haidt points to surveys showing that this is precisely (and unsurprisingly) the case. This phenomenon is the best illustration since Lysenkoism of what happens when Leftist zealotry and administrative stupidity combine to save the universe.

  11. Caldwell
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    historical photographs and other memorabilia from student scrapbooks housed in university archives

    Obviously those archives should be burned: someone might see something and not like it.

    apparently in blackface

    Only a Welsh coal miner knows for sure.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 9, 2019 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      That link highlights the absurdity of entitled-to-their-grievances complainants who think it’s all about them.

      How about this one, from 1941:

      Yes they’re American kids, reciting the Oath of Allegiance. Not Nazis at all.

      (I think all saluting is inherently fascist, but that’s just me 🙂

      cr

      • Posted May 9, 2019 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

        Ah yes, the Bellamy salute, which was replaced by the hand over heart gesture after the fascists appropriated it.

  12. W.Benson
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Wouldn’t the appropriate action be for Doane University to revoke the diplomas of the offending students? Imagine, the university condoned their actions without comment for 93 years. [sarcasm}

  13. Posted May 9, 2019 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Once history has been sanitized of everything that might cause offence to anyone, the only thing future generations will learn from history was that nothing bad every happened.

    • Posted May 9, 2019 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      It is happening now. To me, the act of the two snowflakes who complained in order to harm good people is an order of magnitude worse than the century-old student party that would have been offensive if seen by blacks but was not even intended to be seen by them.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 9, 2019 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

        Most emphatically agreed.

        cr

  14. Posted May 9, 2019 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Today’s snowflakes conflate being disturbed with being offended. Anything that might put a hole in their bubble is automatically offensive.


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