Spatializing blackness in New Mexico.

Author:Howard, Natasha
Position:Report

Three People's Mural by Kenneth Adams (1939). Represents the three cultures of New Mexico: Anglo, Hispanic and Native American. Murals are situated in the main hall of Zimmerman Library at the University of New Mexico.

In February of 2018, the Albuquerque Journal published a story about a conflict surrounding a public art exhibit at the University of New Mexico (https://www.abqjournal.com/1128938/new-course-for-an-old-conflict.html). The Three Peoples Murals was completed in 1939 by artist Kenneth Adams and is comprised of several large panels which sit prominently in the main campus library. These murals have stirred quite a bit of controversy over the years, with arguments both for and against their removal. In the 1970s the murals were defaced on multiple occasions, only to be repaired and re-displayed with each occurrence of vandalism. The murals are said to represent the three cultures that have contributed to the multicultural formation of the state of New Mexico. These cultures are: Anglo, Hispanic, and Native American. Though the public narrative explicitly focuses on each group's cultural contributions, I argue that the murals tell a story about the racial imagination in New Mexico-The Land of Enchantment. More specifically, I argue that despite the invisibility of people of African-descent, an imagination about the threat of blackness unquestionably shapes how racial formation is remembered and multiculturalism is practiced in the state.

During the spring of 2018, the University of New Mexico's College of Fine Arts organized a class around the study of public art, with a focus on the murals. Some of the guiding questions related to the murals included: Do the murals accurately depict the state's multicultural history? Do the murals intentionally leave out the contribution of other groups, namely African Americans? While I am open to the conversation that the murals make invisible the contributions of African Americans to the state's history, I am far more concerned with how the murals, like other public art exhibits throughout the state, sustain a spatially situated racial mythology with an ever present theme about a threat of blackness.

In her book, Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison (1992) cautions against assuming that blackness is not part of the imagination, even in those spaces that are presumed to lack a significant presence of Black people. I draw upon that awareness here as I disentangle the spatialization of blackness in New Mexico. How, for example, has blackness been imagined despite a narrative that eliminates Black people, and ultimately blackness, from the historical memory? George Lipsitz (2011) argues that the white spatial imaginary is organized to define White space as exclusive of Black people. Imagining White space as superior space has always been predicated upon the removal of Blacks from the spatial environment. Lipsitz (2011) states,

A white spatial imaginary based on exclusivity and augmented exchange value forms the foundational logic behind prevailing spatial and social policies in cities and suburbs today. This imaginary does not emerge simply directly from the embodied identities of people who are white. It is inscribed in the physical contours of the places where we live, work, and play..." (p.28). Lipsitz makes a case for how Black people have been segregated from physical spaces in order to preserve the purity of whiteness. However, I want to think about this in relationship to how blackness is imagined in the process of that exclusion.

Rashad Shabazz (2015) adds another element for how we might think of the anti-black spatial imagination. He suggests that practices of containment have always been part of Black experiences. In his study on antiblack spatial practices in Chicago he notes that, "Surveillance, policing, and containment continues to be the fabric of Black environments" (p. 4). The question I am concerned with here is, how does this also come into play with environments where Black people have represented what some might regard inconsequential part of the population? New Mexico is unique in that it has long held the title of being a Hispanic majority state. Hispanic-identified people represent about half of the state's overall population. Native Americans represent another 10% of the state's population. New Mexico has the 4th largest Native American population in the United States. Anglo Whites represent around 38% of the total population. African American or Blacks represent less than 3% of the overall population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017). Much of the discourse surrounding Black people in New Mexico would have you believe that Blacks simply have not been part of the state's landscape and thus are not part of the state's identity formation. Historical narratives typically situate Black people in the New Mexico landscape as Buffalo Soldiers, part of the military, transient cowboys traveling through the territory or as part of Spanish colonial convoys.

Given these small demographics, and a public narrative about a lack of Black presence in the state, I speculate about whether blackness in New Mexico has also been "surveilled, policed...

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