At forum on controversial poster, some students have a message: ‘Take it down’

the birth of a nation
Grace Kabondo Mutangilwa, a senior political science major, sits next to Black Student Union president Naidine Conde at an April 16 forum about the controversial “The Birth of a Nation” poster’s display at Chapman. Photos by Mia Fortunato

During his first year at Chapman, film production major Jae Staten called the assistant dean of the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, concerned about a poster for the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” that currently hangs in the halls of the Marion Knott Studios.

Staten, now a junior, was one of about 60 people who took part in a heated community forum April 16, discussing the same poster that he said caught his attention more than two years earlier.

“It is so wrong and rude to put a Band-Aid over a broken window,” Staten said during the forum. “It’s one (expletive) poster. Take it down.”

The forum, held by Dean of Students Jerry Price in the Cross-Cultural Center (CCC) April 16, saw students and faculty sharing their frustration and concerns about the poster while debating Chapman administration’s approach to its debated removal.

The poster, which was donated by the Cecil B. DeMille estate, has drawn controversy on campus, as the film features actors in blackface and is thought to have contributed to the resurgence of the modern Ku Klux Klan.

Citing Chapman’s low percentages of black faculty and students – at 1.8 percent and 1.7 percent respectively, some students criticized the university’s advertisement of diversity and inclusion, saying that it doesn’t follow through.

“It is a privilege to walk by that poster and not be affected by it,” said senior Arianna Ngnomire, vice president of student government, during the forum. “‘The Birth of a Nation’ is symbolic for white supremacy, but it’s also symbolic of Chapman’s lack of diversity.”

“It is so wrong and rude to put a Band-Aid over a broken window,” said Jae Staten, a junior film production major, at the forum.

Among those who attended were members of Chapman’s Black Student Union (BSU), Dodge students, faculty and doctoral student Betty Valencia, who ran for Orange City Council in November 2018.

The recent controversy surrounding the poster began at Chapman after Arri Caviness, a first-year film production graduate student, tweeted a picture of herself and a group of students standing in front of the poster March 29. It took the school five days to respond on Twitter.

“Why does Dodge College, @THR’s (The Hollywood Reporter) 6th best US film school, still condone the celebration of white supremacy?” she tweeted.

Caviness told The Panther that she has given her “thoughts and sound logic.”

“It seems like neither have really been as effective as I would have hoped,” she said.

“It’s one (expletive) poster. Take it down.”

President Daniele Struppa has argued that the poster should be kept up for educational purposes – and to give students the opportunity to confront America’s “problematic past” – but many don’t agree.

Debate over the poster’s presence has gained momentum among students and faculty, resulting in Struppa taking part in a BSU meeting April 15.

Kennedy Hammock, a senior political science major, talks to Dean of Students Jerry Price at the April 16 forum.

At the April 16 forum, students suggested solutions for dealing with the poster’s history, including adding a description next to the poster about its history and implications, or moving it to a museum-like setting. Some said the poster should be replaced with plaque to explain its removal. Others petitioned to have the poster removed in its entirety.

Price acknowledged that the poster’s “current situation” is “poor,” but asked attendees if an educational opportunity could be missed if faculty or administration rush into a decision.

“Is there not a temporary solution?” Price asked.

After debates over the poster’s future, the conversation shifted to what it’s like to be a black student at Chapman.

Grace Kabondo Mutangilwa, a senior political science major from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), made a point that drew nods of agreement.

“It was only until I came to this country that I had to learn to be black,” he said at the forum.

Mutangilwa told The Panther after the forum that when he lived in the DRC, he was not self-conscious, because the majority of its population is black. But, he said, he now realizes what it means to be a black man in America.

“It means I could be shot because the idea of being black is as terrifying as the crimes that have been committed,” Mutangilwa said.

Former BSU president Troy Allen, who is transferring after this semester, said during the forum that her experience at Chapman “has taken a huge toll on (her) psyche.”

“Navigating the climate is a psychological minefield,” she said during the forum. “I am constantly traumatized by being on this campus.”

Naidine Conde, president of BSU, said in the forum that she feels her mental health has been impacted by the discussion about the poster.

“Why am I educating the president of my university, who has more degrees, before I have even gotten mine?” she asked.

Some students proposed that the posters displayed should be of work created by Dodge graduates, like 2005 alumnus Justin Simien’s film and Netflix show “Dear White People.” A poster for “Dear White People” was once displayed on a trash can outside of Marion Knott Studios.

“Why am I educating the president of my university, who has more degrees, before I have even gotten mine?”

Lawrence Brown, the associate dean of student affairs at Chapman’s School of Pharmacy, said that he believes if the poster were related to rape rather than racism, it wouldn’t be displayed at the university.

“I have a 17-year-old-daughter who just got accepted into Chapman,” Brown said. “I don’t want my kid to go through that, so that does concern me.”

Ron McCants, a Dodge adjunct professor, told The Panther after the forum that he includes discussions about “The Birth of Nation” in his course.

“When you know that ideas and stories can impact millions of people and those ideas are seated in your formative years, you know the importance of understanding the perspective of other people,” McCants said. “It requires for educators to step outside their box, to stand up and say, ‘This is important.’”

Lawrence Brown, the associate dean of student affairs at Chapman’s School of Pharmacy said his daughter was recently accepted to Chapman – but added that the poster “concerns” him.

McCants suggested that the poster be given to a museum, like The Broad or the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, where it can be “appropriately dealt with.”

“It doesn’t have to be on this campus,” he said.

Price told The Panther that he has his own “professional perspective” on an appropriate resolution.

“I’m disappointed that we didn’t visit this issue on our own,” Price said. “It is a tough experience for most of our black students. We’re trying to understand that, to see what things we might be able to do to enhance that experience.”

Ninety-two people have marked themselves as “going” to a protest planned for April 18, where students will call for Dodge College Dean Bob Bassett to schedule a faculty vote. The protest will begin at noon on the steps of Memorial Hall.