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Michigan State Gift Shop Apologizes For Tone-Deaf Display Of Historical Black Figures Hanging From 'Trees'

AFP Contributor/Getty Images; Krystal Rose Davis-Dunn/Facebook

Michigan State University is hoping to tackle both intentional and unintentional racism after their campus shop displayed an offensive ornament rack.

Unfortunately, it is not the school's only incident of racial ignorance and insensitivity.


Graduate student Krystal Rose Davis-Dunn was the first to point out the display from the Wharton Center for Performing Arts gift shop at MSU.

Davis-Dunn was shocked to see the store's display, which featured dolls of African-American historical figures hanging by their necks from a tree.

The similarity to lynching was undeniable.

Felt dolls modeled after famous African-Americans Barack and Michelle Obama, Harriet Tubman and others hung from the tree that Davis-Dunn posted a picture of. She later said other trees did have some Caucasian figures, but the majority were Black.

She told Lansing State Journal about her initial reaction:

"It's African American people hanging from twine. That is problematic. You're lynching Black people from trees."

Lynching is a violent method of murder associated with the post Civil War era through the Civil Rights Movement.

Hate groups like the Klu Klux Klan notoriously murdered and lynched black people to instill fear in Black communities. PBS described the lynchings as, "an act of terror meant to spread fear among Blacks, served the broad social purpose of maintaining White supremacy in the economic, social and political spheres."

The store's employees missed the subtle yet disturbing imagery.

Davis-Dunn asked the store's staff if they noticed anything odd about the displays, but the employees didn't get the hint. Davis-Dunn then decided to post a picture of the tree on Facebook.

Davis-Dunn wrote a post about what she saw:

"At the Wharton Center they are hanging prominent Black figures from trees #MSU what a way to honor Black History!"

She explained that this was not an art display, but a tone deaf sales tool.

"This is was not art display... this was a product brought by Michigan State University and sold at a gift shop and displayed by staff on trees... it's just that simple!"

She vented that this was just one of many times she's felt uncomfortable as a Black person at the school:

"Update: My intention posting these images was to vent and highlight the continuous acts of microaggressions I've experienced as a Black student at MSU. The symbolisms in these photos explains itself.

Davis-Dunn went into more detail about why it was problematic.

"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. These images evoke a visceral experience... trauma lives in the body. enough is enough!"

People on Facebook immediately recognized the display's resemblance to a lynching.

Pamela Nemeth-wilson/Facebook


Kitty Smith/Facebook


Lydia Enos/Facebook


Debra R. Lloyd-Wilkinson/Facebook


Corey Taylor/Facebook

Others thought that people were overreacting, and that they were typical Christmas tree ornaments.

Sheila S. Andreason/Facebook


Mark Hovsepian/Facebook


Kevin Collins/Facebook

MSU did not try to defend their campus store.

Univeristy spokesperson Emily Gerkin Guerrant released a statement to address the gaffe.

Guerrant said that the intent of the display did not matter, but that people's feelings about it did:

"We were made aware of an inappropriate and insensitive display at the Wharton Center gift shop which used a tree-like rack to hold historical Black figures. Regardless of the intent of the display, its impact cannot be ignored – people were hurt and offended."

She apologized on behalf of the school and assured that action was being taken.

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

She then spoke on MSU's goal to be considered a safe space for everyone.

"We have work to do, and MSU remains committed to creating a culture that is inclusive and safe for all faculty, staff, students and visitors."

Guerrant then acknowledged that it was Black History Month and its importance.

"As we enter Black History Month, it's important we not only recognize the many contributions of African Americans, but we remember history and confront all bias."

MSU does actually have a lot work to do when it comes to making their African-American students feel comfortable.

Davis-Dunn is no stranger to the racial issues going on on campus; She spent the previous day in meetings with university leaders about bringing more diversity to the school, where people of color make only up only 21.5 percent of the students.

The campus has been disturbed by several racist incidents in the last few months.

According to the New York Post, in October of 2019, a Black student found a noose on her dorm room door. Not long after, a professor's survey to students was removed over complaints that it contained racist and derogatory language about people of color and LGBTQ people.

President of MSU's Black Student Alliance said of the campus's culture:

"The Black Community is sick and tired of having to see something racist at every turn. I struggle to keep the hope alive that MSU will change and turn the campus climate around. There are a thousand 'Hate Has No Home Here' signs around campus yet as a Black student hate slaps me in the face each and every day. It is literally exhausting."

You can learn more about MSU's Black Student Alliance, their mission, and their upcoming events here.