Michigan State University apologizes for display of black figures hanging on tree

"Regardless of the intent of the display, its impact cannot be ignored — people were hurt and offended," Emily Guerrant, a university spokeswoman, said.

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By Janelle Griffith

Michigan State University has apologized for a campus gift shop display that depicted prominent black figures hanging from a tree.

Krystal Davis-Dunn, a student at the university, uploaded photos to Facebook last week of doll-like figures hanging on tree-shaped displays at a gift shop in the Wharton Center for Performing Arts, saying the imagery evoked lynchings.

Among the figures in the display hanging by twine from the tree were former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and the singers Prince and Diana Ross.

"At the Wharton they are hanging prominent black figures from trees," Davis-Dunn wrote in her post, "what a way to honor Black History!"

Her post had drawn more than 2,300 comments and 7,100 shares as of midday Monday.

Davis-Dunn said her intention in posting the images was to vent and "highlight the continuous acts of microaggressions" she has experienced as a black student at Michigan State University.

The symbolism in these photos explains itself, she said, adding, "I don’t care about the artist intent nor the Wharton Center for Performing Arts gift shop intent, it’s the impact of it and the culmination of all the culturally insensitive events that has happened at MSU."

In a separate Facebook post Friday, Davis-Dunn shared another photo of dolls in a separate women's suffrage movement display at the gift shop that she said further denotes a lack of cultural humility evident on campus.

"Seeing these prominent civil rights leaders hanging from trees felt like a degradation of the women suffrage movement and white synthesizers that were lynched during that era of civil rights," Davis-Dunn wrote in the post. "Non-people of color may not be provoked or triggered by these displays, but for me and the group of people of color I was with... it was a visceral experience."

Davis-Dunn said the subtle and subliminal messages "evoke feelings of harm and a sense of being unsafe."

Emily Guerrant, a spokeswoman for the majority-white university, described the display as "a tree-like rack," which was used to hold the historical black figures.

"Regardless of the intent of the display, its impact cannot be ignored — people were hurt and offended," Guerrant said.

"We sincerely apologize to our community members and have immediately removed the display," Guerrant said. "Additionally, after the Wharton Center reported the incident, it has agreed to provide employees and volunteers with racial bias training that focuses on the impact and understanding of intentional and unintentional racial bias."

Asked about students' claims that the gift shop displays were the latest in a series of racially insensitive incidents on campus or at the school, Guerrant said university President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. announced in January that the school had begun its search for a chief diversity officer.

"We recognize that we have more work to do to make MSU an inclusive and safe campus, and we’re committed to making those changes," Guerrant said.