Back in November 2022, while on our way to the Stanley Museum of Art, we saw the two murals on the East Burlington Street Parking Ramp. It was the first time we saw them in person although photos were available last fall. The Little Village article published an article about them on September 30, 2021. It’s the Oracles of Iowa mural project, conceived by Public Space and the Center for Afrofuturist Studies partnered with the artists, Antoine Williams and Donte K. Hayes. The artists sought to stimulate a conversation in the community about how black and white people relate to each other.
The murals are painted on parking ramp at two locations along East Burlington Street. One says “Black Joy Needs No Permission” and the other says “Weaponize Your Privilege to Save Black Bodies.”
The Little Village article points out that a survey of public perception of the murals revealed that 64 percent of white respondents supported the murals while only 40-50 percent of minority respondents supported them. The stickler for minorities was the use of the word “weaponize” and the phrase “Black bodies,” which were thought to raise impressions of “violence” and dehumanization.
Because I’m a writer, retired psychiatrist, and a writer, the word “weaponize” made me wonder what other word might have been chosen in this context. The only definition of “weaponize” that I can find which makes sense to me is from Merriam-Webster: “to adapt for use as a weapon of war.”
I’m a retired physician, so I have a perspective on the “privilege” to “save” lives, and by extension to enhance health and well-being. I’m also Black. I grew up in Iowa and I can recall getting bullied and being called a “nigger.” I can remember my psychiatry residency days, which includes a memory of a patient saying “I don’t want no nigger doctor.” I didn’t have the option to switch patients with another resident. When I saw the patient on rounds, I did my best and every time the “nigger” word erupted, I left the room. It was one of a few episodes which were marked by frank racist attitudes.
I was given the University of Iowa Graduate Medical Education Excellence in Clinical Coaching Award in 2019, one of several esteemed colleagues to be honored in this way. Many of those who nominated me were white. It was one of many joyful experiences I had before my retirement in 2020, when the pandemic and other upheavals in society occurred, including the murder of Black persons, resulting in many consequences prompting the creation of the murals.
I have other memories. I was privileged to be given a scholarship to attend one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in this country, Huston-Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University). It’s one of the oldest schools and is the oldest in Austin, Texas. The scholarship was supported by one of the local churches in my home town of Mason City. I don’t think it had any black members. Although I didn’t take my undergraduate degree from H-TU, it was one of the most valuable learning experiences in my life. It was the first time I was ever not the only Black student in the class. It was marked by both joy and a struggle to learn where I belonged.
The murals did for me what the artists hoped it would do. It stimulated me to reflect on the meaning of racializing life. They stir me to seek perspective on whether joy has any color and why anyone needs permission for it. And I believe I would rather exercise my privilege to respect and care for others than to weaponize anything, including my sense of humor.