For this post, the Material Collective welcomes Zaina Siraj, a senior at SUNY-Albany majoring in Human Biology and minoring in Public Health and History. Zaina is applying to medical school with the hopes of becoming a physician, and is an active digital artist. You can follow her on Instagram @zainaartistry.
As a student of science, I didn’t understand why art and architecture are important. How could they be anything more than something nice to look at? What are buildings but walls and a ceiling? What are paintings except a random assortment of colors and lines? A mixture of shapes that a stranger put together? It wasn’t until I sat in a Gothic Art and Architecture class that I found my answer—communication. The people in the past convey their stories—and therefore the passage of history—through their work. It is more important than ever to decode these stories, as they are the roots of our modern day values, perceptions, and practices. After all, the past is what shapes our future.
One decoded story in particular caught my interest. During a lecture, the professor explained Madeline Caviness’s theory about how the portrayal of human skin tone in various artworks has changed throughout the centuries. As she displayed sequential artworks over centuries, a color gradient emerged from earthy brown and tan skin tones to a blinding porcelain white. She explained that this was a result of the Crusaders, white European Christians, being exposed to people from other races and cultures who had darker skin tones. A majority of these people were African Moors and Arab Muslims, who, at the time, were comparatively advanced in academia, warfare, and general society. A possible theory for why these skin tones shifted in artwork is that whiteness was used as a way to show superiority over the other races.
The lecture was a very eye-opening experience, firstly due to the fact that I hadn’t heard about the history of Muslims in a positive light from secular classes. Learning the advancements Muslims made in world history was empowering and allowed me to relate to the topics in class on a personal level. In class, the professor would often talk about the “White Middle Ages,” meaning how we tend to think of medieval times consisting of European knights in shining armor. The problem with this narrative is that the rest of the world is missing from this view. There are always examples in history for white people to identify with, and they are taught in every U.S. school no matter what your race or religion. Explicitly or by omission, the other cultures are remembered as lacking, primitive, or barbaric. This paradigm goes on to shape the judgements we have of other cultures and can lead to ignorance.
To make things clear: I am not anti-European history, but when classes are labeled as “World History,” I expect them to be as diverse as their title. If I have to memorize every King John and Queen Elizabeth who ruled England, I should also learn about every Sultan Mehmet who ruled the Ottoman Empire. Without cultural diversity in history curriculums, the white-washing of history will remain the standard that individuals inherit and defend. They will assume contemporary races weren’t aware of other cultures and therefore had no obligation to talk about history in the other culture’s perspective—a very real argument made by my peers in the same class. This argument is the consequence of the version of history that still thrives today. In our educational system, history is looked at through the lens of only one race—the white race—so much so that it doesn’t seem natural to think of other cultures during a time such as the Middle Ages. On the contrary, there are artifacts such as this medieval map from the Islamic world (Figure 1), which shows Europe as a tiny triangle on the lower right—a stark contrast from the centrality of Europe we are always taught. I am tired of hearing about the White European’s story—of HIS-tory. I want to hear about mine— MY-story.