In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, American public schools became less racially segregated. But research suggests that trend peaked years ago: Today, schools across the country are largely re-segregating. In the South, by some measures, schools are again as segregated as they were in the mid-1960s -- a decade after U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education, upending the “separate but equal” standard that had held sway for some 60 years.
Segregated schools, that is, are a thing of both the past and the present, the North as well as the South. Those are among the key points of “Race and Revolution: Still Separate, Still Unequal,” a touring art exhibit that comes to the August Wilson Cultural Center this week.
The show features work by artists and educators who explore what it means when some schools have too few resources, and students face discrimination.
Co-curator Katie Fuller got into curation as a career after a stint teaching English in public schools in New York City, where she saw the harmful effects of segregation first-hand. She was seeking new ways to draw attention to social-justice issues.
Works in the “Race and Revolution” rang from paintings to sculpture. The exhibit premiered in 2017, at Brooklyn art gallery Smack Mellon, and has toured nationally; in each city, says Fuller, it incorporates local content. In Pittsburgh, an open call for artists resulted in the inclusion of works by two local teenagers and emerging artists.
The 14 artists with work in the exhibit include New Orleans-based photographer L. Kasimu Harris, who contributes excerpts from his series “War on the Benighted,” in which young actors portray students in an imaginary school. The actors assume powerful stances – as though, says Fuller, they had taken control of their own education.
Fuller’s co-curator, Larry Ossei-Mensah, says some works are interactive. One, which incorporates chalk and a chalkboard, asks visitors to answer the questions, “What was your race moment?” and “What was your class moment?” Other works explore standardized testing and over-policing.
The idea is to show that school segregation isn’t just a problem for educators or social workers, says Ossei-Mensah, a Ghanaian-American curator and cultural critic based in New York and Detroit. He and Fuller want to foster “a broader conversation [so] that all Pittsburgh natives and citizens can really reflect on and figure out how they can be an agent of change to create more equity in the education system for all students.”
Fuller says she prepared for the Pittsburgh iteration of “Race and Revolution” by doing research with graduate students at Penn State University’s Center for Education and Civil Rights. Text accompanying some works in the show includes language from court rulings about school-segregation cases.
Topics like school segregation can be difficult to discuss, Fuller acknowledges.
“There’s a lot of resistance in people -- and when I say ‘people,’ I mostly mean white people -- wanting to have these conversations,” says Fuller, who is white. “We are very crafty in figuring out how to get ourselves out of talking about racism.”
“Art can really help us learn how to have conversations that we don’t want to have,” she says by phone from New York. “I don’t want people to shut down, I want them to stay open. … I want people to come to these understandings on their own.”
“Race and Revolution: Still Separate – Still Unequal” opens Saturday. Both Fuller and Ossei-Mensah will visit for a panel discussion May 13, among other programming keyed to the exhibition. Admission to the Center is free.
The August Wilson Center provides funding to WESA.