Empathy Is A Wave: The Banning of Palestinian Children’s Art (from the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland)

Empathy Is a Wave: The Banning of Palestinian Children’s Art  (From the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland)
Copyright © 2011 by Alice Walker


I was injured as a child; my brother shot me in the eye with a pellet gun, causing disfigurement and loss of sight.  The incident itself, as well as the trauma surrounding it: my father was unable to flag down a white driver (cars among black people were rare) to take me to a doctor, left me despairing and contributed to severe depressions that lasted for many years.  What helped?  I was able to get my hands on paper and pencil and began to write – not about what had happened to me – but about whatever arose from my melancholy, death-leaning imagination.  These early “poems” I was encouraged to share; so I showed them, albeit with head hanging low, to members of my family and to anyone I trusted who came to visit.  I am convinced this process of creating and sharing saved my life.

There was no museum in the tiny, segregated, Georgia town closest to where we lived; though I could be wrong.  I was fifty before I understood there was, somewhere hidden in the white part of town, a public library.  I do remember that the art of Jimmy Lee Brundidge, a young black folk artist, was shown on the walls of the local shoe shop.

The decision by the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland not to show the work of Palestinian children from Gaza makes me sad.  But not discouraged.  The art will be shown.  The walls of a shoe shop will be found.  We will all – those of us who care about these children, whose pain our tax dollars assured – go to see it.  Furthermore, we will write to the children to let them know we’ve seen their work and what we think of it.  This is the least we can do.

Such banning as this usually backfires.  I don’t think I was born yet, but I “remember” that, in 1939, Marian Anderson, the great black contralto, was refused venue at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolution because (gasp) the audience would be integrated!  Anderson supporters, including president Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, rallied to the cause and Anderson sang to a crowd in the tens of thousands while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

We will find a Lincoln Memorial.  We will eventually, on this issue of freeing the Palestinians, find a Lincoln.

I personally have never trusted museums. And I welcome this opportunity to explain what my classmates at Sarah Lawrence considered a really peculiar mind-set.  It is because museums, broadly speaking, live off of the art and artifacts of others, often art and artifacts that have been obtained by dubious means.  But they also manipulate whatever it is they present to the public: hence, until Judy Chicago, in the 1970s, busted open the art scene wider than it had ever stretched, few women artists were hung in any major museum.  Indian artists?  Artifacts only, please.  Black artists?  Something musical, maybe?  And so forth.

Do we really need them?  Or should we make more of an attempt to teach our young that art is everywhere around them: that every leaf and pebble is art?  Or, that the spirit that infuses so much folk art, spirit not often encountered in “museum quality pieces” of art, is that expression of the soul that joins human creative endeavor with the Divine.

Ah, well.

I was in Gaza a few weeks after the 22 days of non-stop bombing by the Israeli military.  I spent an afternoon with several social workers and psychiatrists talking about the damage done to the children who survived.  Hundreds of them died.  I realize it’s hard for grownups to accept that we’ve had a hand in making a small child armless, legless, eyeless.  We want to keep thinking Americans are generous, fun-loving, baseball crazed folks who draw the line, collectively, at child abuse.  At child murder.

That image was never true, and it certainly isn’t now, if we dare to acknowledge our complicity in the atrocities committed against the Palestinian people in Gaza, and, of course, the on-going destruction of Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank.

What will help us, now that we find ourselves standing, with Marian Anderson and countless others, in this unfair place.  Again.

Each child who sees the art should be given some background about war.  Any war.  For it is war that humanity must outgrow, wherever it arises.  Most modern children have seen on television more tanks and helicopters and missiles and guns of all kinds than I could have imagined as a child.  And, in fact, as a child I never had any war images in my imagination at all, since we had no television and the Civil War had ended over a century before.  (I did, unfortunately, because of movies, have images of cowboys and Indians).

I love the Bay Area for the diversity and creativity of its people.  We frequently exhibit an energy of inclusivity and sharing that is a delight. We can educate and increase the capacity for compassion among our children with this Art.  We can make something magical, even of the present disappointing dilemma. We can encourage ourselves, and our children, never to be afraid to feel.  No one dies from compassion, is a mantra they might like.

Empathy is a wave that need never be stopped.  If our children can catch this wave,  from the ocean of tears shed by Palestinian children, they might have a future in a more stable and saner world.

Alice Walker
September 11, 2011