Students at Chapman walked out of classes Thursday, driven by the conviction that controversial “The Birth of a Nation” posters should not be displayed on campus and anger at President Daniele Struppa’s initial refusal to remove them.
The walkout, led by Student Government Vice President and Black Student Union member Arianna Ngnomire, started at noon on the steps of Memorial Hall and drew around 200 people.
Students urged Dodge faculty to cast a vote in favor of removing the posters displayed in Marion Knott Studios. The faculty is scheduled to vote on the removal of the posters on April 22, according to Ngnomire. After the rally at Memorial Hall, protestors marched to Marion Knott Studios and staged a sit-in for an hour in front of the posters.
In 2018, students who identify as African American made up 1.6% of the undergraduate population, according to an article by Prowl. That translates to a mere 122 African American students, according to Ngnomire.
Students demanded that the posters be taken down and expressed disgust that their college would prominently display images they labeled as racist.
Removing the posters “won’t do an iota of good,” Struppa wrote in an opinion piece for The Panther. “It will take away an opportunity for students to confront a problematic past,” he said.
Then Struppa appeared to pivot. When asked at the BSU meeting about the removal of the posters, Struppa told students he will honor the decision Dodge Faculty is scheduled to make April 22, according to The Panther article published on April 16.
He followed up with an email to Chapman students on April 18 saying, “While I absolutely condemn the racism of the movie (and by extension that of the poster), I do defend Dodge College faculty and administration’s right to decide if it remains,” Struppa said.
The posters have been exhibited in the Dodge hallways since 2006, according to Ngnomire.
“The Birth of a Nation” is considered a landmark in film history. However, the film has been long used as a powerful tool in recruiting the Ku Klux Klan, according to Ngnomire.
“The conversation about “The Birth of a Nation” needs to change from its film aesthetics and editing techniques to, ‘Look what film can do, if it has a bad message,’” Ngnomire said.
“There is a difference between education and glorification,” said senior political science major Zacharias Estrada. “It is not censoring our history or trying to hide our history from anybody, but trying to relegate it to the place it belongs: in the history books, not in our popular discourse.”
Speakers said that the posters underscored their sometimes painful experiences as minority members at a predominantly white university.
“I’m from Houston, Texas – one of the most conservative states in this country – and I did not experience racism until I got to this school,” said junior film production major Jae Staten.
Staten said he is one of three black film production students in Chapman’s class of 2020 and its only black male.
“This is only such a small problem of a big iceberg,” Staten said. “All we want is to be heard.”
While “The Birth of a Nation’s” poster holds a place of honor on the Dodge walls, a poster for “Dear White People,” a Netflix series written and directed by black Chapman alumnus Justin Simien is displayed on a trash can.
“Being a black student here at Chapman is basically like genocide of yourself,” said former BSU President Troy Allen. People of color “have spent so much of our time having to educate people around us of what we feel on a day-to-day basis that we don’t really have the time to process who we are and who we are becoming.”
Students of different races attended the protest.
“I benefit from a lot of white privilege, especially at this campus,” said sophomore philosophy major Katelyn Antilla. “It’s disturbing that Chapman continues to perpetuate ideas of white supremacy.”
Ronald McCants, a Dodge professor, said he was grateful to see so many “different faces” in the crowd.
“It’s not a black issue, it’s a Chapman issue,” said McCants, who is black.
Passing “The Birth of a Nation” posters everyday forced McCants to relive the trauma and violence he endured as a minority. McCants lived in a predominantly white neighborhood in Springfield, Missouri and grew up picking cotton, he said.
“I find it very difficult for me to ask you, as a professor, to have pride and love in your school when it is not currently showing you that same love, pride, and respect,” McCants said. “If it hurts one person, it is at least worthy of a conversation. But if it’s hurting many people, doesn’t it make sense to do something about it?”
In an email to the Dean of Dodge College, Dodge professors, and President Struppa, Faculty Senate President Paul Gulino said he disagrees with how the debate has been framed as, “art vs. censorship.”
“I don’t accept that these two posters are art,” Gulino stated. “The poster collection is not in a classroom and isn’t in a museum. It’s time to recognize these posters for what they are: part of our hallway decor.”
The removal of the two posters “seems a reasonable accommodation to a reasonable objection,” Gulino said.
“If there is a desire to deploy them in the service of education about racism or racist ideologies, perhaps they can find a home elsewhere in which that context is clear,” said Gulino.
Dodge professors, including Johnny Jensen, Sally Rubin, Barry Blaustein and Bill Kroyer responded to Gulino’s email sharing their support.
“It’s a blemish on our school,” said Barry Blaustein. “To quote a colleague, ‘Joseph Mengele made contributions to the field of medicine, yet you don’t see his picture hanging in many medical schools.’”
“There is that old saying that the conflicts in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so low,” said Bill Kroyer. “This seems to be one of those times. It is a rather small, tinydeal to take down these artistically unremarkable posters. Clearly, the intense passion of the students outweighs the arguments to keep them up.”