If you need an example of white fragility, look no further than Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
A painting on display at the school has been stolen — TWICE — and the student government is circulating a petition to have it banned. The painting, "Mama," depicts the Virgin Mary holding her dead son in her arms, in the Pietá style. What's the controversy? Mary and Jesus are Black, and Jesus bears an uncanny resemblance to George Floyd.
Kelly Latimore is the artist who created this thing of beauty, and Jonathan Capehart gave him space to explain how the painting came about, and why the controversy surrounding it is not only painful, but deeply unChristian. Capehart began by asking Latimore why he painted it.
LATIMORE: Well, after the sad and horrendous events of May and June of 2020, watching that with my partner and I and amongst our community here in St. Louis, we were just, as so many others, just really gobsmacked about what was going on in the country. For us, the most striking thing I remember when watching that horrible video was the last words of George Floyd, "Mama." And that just kept ringing in the back of our ears, these conversations that we were having with people in our community, and so my partner commissioned the work and what really came out of this idea, how do we not only mourn the loss of George Floyd, but how do we then maybe possibly create an image that is going to spur us to action so this doesn't keep happening?
So we dove into the sacred art images that have come from the past and the Pietá image immediately came to mind, George calling out for Mama, a mother holding her son, a man of color who is unjustly murdered by the state 2,000 years ago, that the same thing is continually happening, and using that historic image to then convey and move us towards contemplating what had happened.
CAPEHART: And, Kelly, to that point, you know, folks, control room, put the painting of "Mama" back up, because in the New York Times you mentioned this, the style, in the New York Times, they note, "rather than looking at the body of Jesus, the Virgin Mary is looking at the viewer." They quote you as saying, "She's asking, what are you going to do so this doesn't keep happening?"
LATIMORE: Yes. And I think one of the striking things that happened in that summer is we had saw another image going online of George Floyd's mother holding him, cradling him as a young baby, and it is in the same image that mothers are continually losing their daughters and their sons who are unjustly murdered by the state. And it is the sad truth that in America that if the -- this is the work of theologian James Cone, who very much influenced the work that the -- for the American Christian, if they want to understand the cross and the terrible horrendous use of the cross 2,000 years ago for Christ, the metaphor we have now in our time is the lynching tree, which is very provocative, the work of Cone. But what he's trying to say there is that for Cone, if we're going to understand the evil that is white supremacy, and in our time, that the modern day lynching is something that we're going to have to talk about and address as American Christians.
CAPEHART: And, Kelly, one more question, we're out of time, but I want to ask this, I need to get your reaction to the controversy at Catholic University over your painting.
LATIMORE: Ultimately it just really saddens me. I'm an artist. I'm not a theologian. I'm being trained how to see. I think this is just a situation where I've been asked, "Is it George Floyd or Jesus? The answer is yes. It is a dualistic question, it's not an either or. That's fine for the sake of conversation, and simplification, but not for the sake of the truth. It is Christ. But it is, as Mother Teresa said, Christ can be dressed in disguise. Matthew's Gospel says he can be found in the least of these and among those who suffered as George Floyd did. I think that being both is hard for people to understand.
It is these very people in our midst that -- these are the conversations that we need to have and it is our hope we won't be like Peter in the Gospel, that we're sitting around the fire when the rooster crows. That when we're asked to stand with Christ and to suffer with him and have a hard conversations, that we unfortunately instead run away and act like they don't exist.
Naturally, the bigoted, narrow white minds at Catholic University couldn't stomach the image of a Black Virgin Mary and Jesus. Wouldn't widen their religious lens enough to consider this extraordinarily sensitive artist's motivation for having chosen the style he did. They rejected the minimal, most basic religious flexibility that would have allowed them to see the metaphorical connection between Jesus' suffering and Floyd's that Latimore sees so instinctively.
Unsurprising, but shameful, nonetheless.