Harriet Tubman Commemoration Day 

By Mahelate Solomon

The Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies held its third annual Harriet Tubman Commemoration Day Event the evening of March 10. 

This year’s event, formally titled “Wanted,” dived into the intersections between the romanticization and censorship of famous multifaceted revolutionary, Harriet Tubman.

The David C. Driskell Center was filled with over 70 in-person attendees, along with 105 virtual viewers, there to witness in-depth conversations from artists, curators and architects discussing the complexities of the politicization and romanticization of Tubman’s legacy within the public domain.

The origins of the event begin in 2020, when the department formally changed its name to honor Tubman, according to the event organizer, associate professor Michelle Rowley. 

“There is often this inclination to use someone’s name without remembering that person is a person,” said Rowley, “And as such, there is a kind of regard and respect to that person’s legacy.”

To Rowley and fellow members of the department, the responsibility of carrying on Tubman’s legacy is a heavy weight to bear. 

Before establishing the name change, Rowley shared that she and fellow members of the department traveled to receive formal approval from the remaining members of the Tubman lineage. 

“The Harriet Tubman day commemoration is one other instance of the way we are attempting to simply take that decision to change our name seriously, and to put thought, reflection and resources behind the decision we made,” said Rowley. 

Neda Atanasoski,  Stephanie Shonekan,  Ernestine “Tina” Wyatt,  Adrienne L. Childs, Nina Cooke John, and Mike Alewitz pose for a picture on March 10, 2023. Photo by Mahelate Solomon.

The beginning of Friday’s event consisted of an introduction from Neda Atanasoski, the chair of the Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and opening remarks from the dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, Stephanie Shonekan. 

This year, the department ventured to explore the impact of Tubman’s legacy through the lens of art. 

In a conversation moderated by art historian and curator Adrienne L. Childs, artist Mike Alewitz and architect Nina Cooke John deconstructed their experiences portraying Tubman’s legacy through public pieces of art. 

It is the role of the activist and the artist to help advocate for change in the world, said Ernestine “Tina” Wyatt, the great-great-great-grandniece of Tubman, at the event. 

Alewitz, a political activist, artist, professor and panelist at the commemoration event, echoed these sentiments in the Q&A portion.

Named one of the most influential artists of the millennium by the White House Millennium council, Alewitz considers himself to be one of the most censored artists in the world. From advocating for anti-war sentiments during Vietnam to protesting the current industrial prison system in America, he remains steadfast in America’s ability to produce change through art and activism. 

In 2000, after being commissioned to create a mural dedicated to Tubman and the fight for reparations, the artist faced major pushback for depicting Tubman with a rifle in hand. 

Despite being censored and decommissioned for the piece, Alewitz said he stands by the decision of including the rifle in the mural.

“[Tubman] fought with arms in hand against the slave system for revolutionary change in the United States,” said Alewitz. “She was willing to do that. What are we willing to do today?”

In John’s remarks, the professor and architect  shared her experiences designing memorials and dedications to Tubman, including her recent creation, “A Shadow of a Face.” The monument, dedicated to Tubman, replaced a former statue of Christopher Coloumbus in 2023. The work depicts Tubman’s face in full view, along with metal beams outstretched to represent her multifaceted nature. 

Many of the event’s attendees said they walked away from the discussion with new insights on the role that art plays in the curation of Tubman’s legacy.

“Most of what I learned about Harriet Tubman was in elementary school,” said attendee Tyra Bell. “It’s almost like I didn’t know anything about her, honestly, until I came here.”

After hearing about the event from a friend, Bell was intrigued to learn more about the importance of Tubman’s legacy.

Junior Joyce Milandu during the Q&A portion of the event on March 10, 2023. Photo by Mahelate Solomon.

“I found [the event] to be really enlightening,” said junior Journalism major Taylor Edwards. “Just to see it through an artist’s perspective is definitely really interesting.”

Edwards, along with fellow junior Neuroscience major Joyce Milandu, said that the event taught them the true importance of art in public spaces.

“There has been a push to censor a lot of history in public schooling, and the only source of history would be public space,” said Milandu. “Just exposing the public to art give[s] them a chance to appreciate it when they least expect it.”

Featured Image: Alewitz giving his remarks in the David C. Driskell Center on March 10, 2023. Photo by Mahelate Solomon.

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