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After Phoenix said 'no' to one Black Lives Matter mural, artists paint 28 to amplify Black history

In downtown Phoenix, artist Giovannie Dixon is putting the finishing touches on a mural that depicts three pioneering Black doctors. It's part of the Shining Light Foundation's Black History mural project. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)
In downtown Phoenix, artist Giovannie Dixon is putting the finishing touches on a mural that depicts three pioneering Black doctors. It's part of the Shining Light Foundation's Black History mural project. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)

Artist Giovannie Dixon spray paints the finishing touches on a 13-foot mural in Phoenix that says “Black History Matters.”

He uses a delicate touch to put down fine layers of black paint on a portrait of three Black medical pioneers.

“A lot of times in art, they tell you not to use black,” Dixon says. “But I think as far as murals go … with the sun being so harsh, I think it helps to push blacks, then it creates more depth so it looks more realistic and there’s more pop.”

As Dixon spends time with the faces on the mural on a recent February afternoon, he learns more about who they were.

Dr. Vivien Thomas discovered a method to treat blue baby syndrome through surgery in the 1940s.

Dr. Charles Drew was key in developing ways to transport blood which led to the establishment of blood banks and blood transfusions.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was the first man to conduct a successful open-heart surgery.

“I get to learn about Black men that have come before me and done significant things in areas and places that we don’t usually get credit for,” Dixon says. “I feel like that’s what I’m doing, too. My craft is an area that we often don’t get credit for.”

Gizette Knight watches Dixon paint. She’s the organizer of this Black history mural project and also serves as president of the nonprofit Shining Light Foundation.

She says although the doctors in the mural were pioneers in their fields, they faced significant challenges as Black men.

“Dr. Vivien Thomas wasn’t getting credit for a lot of the discoveries that he came upon and so you could just imagine how many more Black people discovered and invented things [that] they didn’t get the credit for,” Knight says. “So that’s why this project is significant. We’re acknowledging them and giving them their flowers.”

Knight has commissioned artists in Phoenix to paint 28 murals in total over the 28 days in February that mark Black History Month.

The larger-than-life pieces recognize 85 influential Black Americans, like Olympic athletes Alice Coachman and Thomas “Tommie” Smith. They also tell the story of the four little girls who died in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963.

Knight says the project is being duplicated in other cities including Dallas, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

And now, local students are getting involved in the effort — writing essays about the figures.

There is a lot of learning to be done in Phoenix, Knight says, where just 7% of the population is Black — a far cry from other big cities like New York where she is originally from.

“When we are putting these murals up, [locals] don’t know who these people are, specifically Black folks,” she says. “So it’s evidence showing that, you know, the stories aren’t being taught in school, so we’re basically taking that up.”

In New York, there were principals, doctors and firefighters that looked like Knight.

In Phoenix, she says she doesn’t necessarily see that.

“When you look at the city council in Phoenix, there’s not one Black person on the Phoenix City Council. The governor, has there ever been a Black governor in this state of Arizona?” she says. “So there’s no representation for Black folks, and then there’s limited representation for Latinos. I mean, I just feel like there’s so much more that’s not being touched.”

The reason Knight started the Black history mural project goes back to September 2020. With the country in turmoil over the death of George Floyd and the fight for racial justice, the city rejected Knight’s plan to paint the words “Black Lives Matter” on a street in downtown Phoenix.

The city manager said it wouldn’t be safe.

Since Phoenix wouldn’t let Knight have the one mural, she says she decided to try to paint 28 more.

There’s also another motivating factor: Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is trying to ban critical race theory from being taught in schools. Critical race theory is the idea that racism in the U.S. is deeply embedded in American history and institutions.

A bill recently passed the statehouse that would make it illegal for classroom lessons to make any student feel discomfort or guilt because of their race, ethnicity or sex.

“Arizona schools should be instructing our kids in the Golden Rule — to treat one another with respect, and judge people as Martin Luther King Jr. taught, on the content of their character and not the color of their skin,” Ducey said during his State of the State address in January.

Knight says she thinks it’s wrong that most of the history taught in public schools is white history.

And that’s exactly why, at the end of the day, artist Dixon is proud to paint a mural of pioneering Black doctors that he had never heard about until recently.

“Black history matters to me because I’m a Black man in America, and I also believe that Black history is American history,” Dixon says. “It sucks that I grew up not really being taught any of it. So it matters to me … And it also shows me what I can do.”

To learn more about the murals, reach out to Gizette Knight at info@shining-light.org.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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