Dear Fr. Jenkins, The Murals Must Go.
Dear Fr. Jenkins,
It is time for the murals to go. The twelve Luigi Gregori murals have adorned the main hall of the Main Building for over 130 years, greeting millions of campus residents and visitors with a highly problematic vision of Western triumphalism, Catholic militarism, and an overly romantic notion of American expansion. Christopher Columbus, as admitted by the University-published pamphlet and widely acknowledged by modern scholarship, was an owner and distributor of humans as slaves. Columbus’ fortune, fame, and wealth came from the destruction, mutilation, and transaction of Native American and African persons.
According to the University’s own pamphlet, the murals are specifically designed to “create a heroic impression” of someone who owned, traded, and sold humans as slaves, as well as someone who initiated one of the largest genocides in human history. The murals welcome every newcomer and greet every football fan with their place of honor in the Main Building, posing a clear answer to the question, “Who is Notre Dame?” And while the reasons for removing the murals have been repeated many times by many individuals and groups over the last three decades, we must continue to repeat them until something is done.
First, to any Native American student, staff member, faculty member, or visitor who enters the Main Building, the murals offer the most debasing form of insult. The Native persons are depicted as stereotypes, their destruction is gilded over, and their slavery is celebrated. The murals commemorate and laud the beginning of the centuries-long systematic removal of Native American persons and culture from the United States. While recent efforts to honor the past relationship between the Pokagon Tribe and Notre Dame are commendable, true progress will be impossible until the murals are removed.
Second, to any student, staff, faculty, or guest who identifies with an historically-oppressed group, the presence of the murals in 21st century America mocks every attempt to make campus more inclusive, more diverse, and more culturally sensitive. African slaves are depicted comically and Columbus’ incipient role in buying and selling of humans as chattel is depicted as a holy and Christian act. Once again, while the University has made strides to become more ethnically diverse in recent years, the continued central presence of the murals nullifies the inclusive message that, for example, the iconic image of Fr. Hesburgh and Dr. King attempts to demonstrate.
Third, art history is replete with racial biases and problematic tensions. Such tensions belong in museums where they can be studied, not alongside Notre Dame’s most honored award recipients and former presidents. This includes Fr. Sorin, after whose image Gregori modeled Columbus specifically in order that Columbus be more revered! To claim, as the University does, that one could revere other figures on the walls of the Main Building but view the murals dispassionately, “in an almost clinical way,” can only be described as willful blindness to the reality of the effect of the paintings.
Fourth and finally, the theological message of the murals is one the University should utterly disavow and repudiate. For example, several of the images offer the explicit theological message that the sufferings of a slave-trader are analogous to the sufferings of Christ. Many Popes have apologized and worked to make amends for the harm done to Native and African populations in the name of Christ. The Church as a whole regrets and repents the abominable actions of torture, enslavement, rape, and systematic execution that became commonplace with the advent of Columbus’ voyages. God will judge historical persons according to God’s own merits, but the Church demands that those of us following Christ today must strive for universal human dignity in order to begin to mend the broken global body of Christ. There is no place in the modern Church, not to mention in a modern Catholic university, for glorifying a Christianity of murder and enslavement.
Native students have been urging the administration to deal with the murals since at least the early 1990s. The administration, time and time again, has delayed, obfuscated, printed pamphlets, and denied any ability to effectively fix the concrete problems that the murals represent. As such, while it is tragic that a letter like this is necessary in 2017, as long as the murals remain unchanged, we must continue to protest, write, plead, and demand their removal. There are many different options available to the university moving forward, and more discussion is necessary, but status quo is not enough. The easily-overlooked pamphlets are not enough. In this era of political divisiveness and a renewed rise of dangerous nationalism, it is time for Notre Dame to remove its own version of a Confederate Monument. It is time for the murals to go.
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