Banksy and Black Mermaids

Houston-area high schoolers learn how to get up close and personal with storytelling, worldmaking, and public art through Rice University’s Public Humanities Initiative


On the morning of Friday, February 7, a diverse group of 15 students from all walks of life gathered in a small classroom in Rice University’s Moody Center for the Arts. We were there to kick off the HRC’s civic humanist program for the spring semester.

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our programming schedule, prior to campus shutdown, the civic humanist team was able to enact our goal as public intellectuals: to expose Houston metro-area high school students to the vast, diverse world of research in the humanities.

In signing up for the day’s events, Crystal Reppert, an English teacher at Westbury High School, emphasized her commitment to expanding her students’ intellectual horizons.

My goal was to expose them [high school students] to ideas outside their comfort zone,” she said.

annie lowe lectureWorking outside our comfort zones was the theme of our morning. The first of our campus visits for the semester, our program that Friday began with inauspicious circumstances.

To start, I had difficulty connecting my laptop to the smart TV, and the mirroring display system was not cooperating.

One of our lecturers was in the midst of her comprehensive exams and was overextended and tired (don’t worry, she rallied and did amazingly, like the consummate professional she is).

Lastly, to top it all off, the bus set to pick up the Westbury students and their two chaperones was 45 minutes late, adding unneeded stress to Reppert’s eventful day.

Despite the hiccups, we were eventually able to start the program as planned, albeit a bit later than scheduled.

Our two fellows, Annie Lowe, a sixth-year doctoral candidate in English literature, and Deanna Daniels, a fourth-year doctoral student in religious studies, delivered two interlocking, interactive lectures, both of which highlighted the dynamic importance of reading practices.

From Banksy to Black Mermaids

Annie’s lecture tackled the different ways one can read art. To do so, she helpfully guided students through a brief history of Western art practices. Her presentation included a jaunt through the original aspirations of Renaissance art and its symbolic expression divine symmetrical perfection, Marcel Duchamp’s tongue-in-cheek works of urinal fountains, and the notorious Banksy’s renegade stenciled graffito that shredded on command at a Sotheby’s auction after selling for $1.4 million.

Collectively, Annie argued, this genealogical narrative from early modern to contemporary reflects shared literary and aesthetic artistic values across time.

These media function as portals through which artists and writers alike explore the purpose of their fictional creations, and in doing so, the works are playful hoaxes that trick the audience with tongue-in-cheek verisimilitude on the one hand, and blatant distortion of reality on the other.

Deanna then followed with a vibrant presentation that emphasized the legacy of black mermaids. Her lecture tackled the long history of worldmaking in the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, as well as the imaginative fictions outcropping from the group’s characteristic resilience and resistance in the face of generational trauma and discrimination.

In tracing the history of the African slave trade through black-mermaid folklore, Deanna was able to make connections to contemporary media with which teenagers are well-acquainted: the live-action Disney reboot of The Little Mermaid, imaginative techno-EDM music, and yes, even the fantastical mermaid representation in works by black female icons, like Rihanna and Houston’s own Beyoncé Knowles Carter. 

Shifting Perspectives

In connecting the past to the present—and comparing artistic fictions to our rooted realities—the goal of Rice’s civic humanist program is to show metro area high school students both the expansive breadth that studying humanism affords and the value of interpretive analysis that the humanities disciplines can offer.

Responding to the day-long program, Reppert said she was “delighted to see their responses.”

Many of them are hesitant to speak out for fear of being ‘wrong’; the attitude of the instructors overcame that reticence.”

High school junior Yahir Gomez considered our lecturers’ openness to differing modes of interpretive analysis to be one of the program’s greatest strengths: “It seems that the humanities program in college is more diverse and in depth which truly gives a wider perspective to our history.”

The program was planned with these intentions in mind, from the interactive lectures themselves to the space in which they were delivered. For example, the Moody Center was the ideal venue to share with ambitious high school students the breadth and depth that studying the humanities affords.

A mixed-use space that harbors exhibits, studio art workshops, and daily undergraduate seminars, the Moody demonstrated to our young visitors the intrinsic value of the building’s collective purpose, that function follows form.

In learning about the active “influence” of art on viewers, our group transitioned to touring the current exhibits on display at the Moody, titled Radical Revisionists: Contemporary African Artists Confronting Past and Present, where these conversations continued into the docent-guided tours.

“I learned about different perspectives of art, and how it can influence the viewers,” tenth grader Manayshia Durham emphasized.

The high schoolers saw firsthand the value of engaging up close and personal with artworks that ranged from traditional portraiture to virtual reality.

“Learning about interaction and different perspectives” of storytelling, worldmaking, and the visual world was particularly impactful for Durham:

Everything has a deeper philosophical meaning.”

D’Juan Jones, another of Reppert’s students, emphasized, “The art that I saw was very deep in African culture. I appreciate the opportunity to see the beautiful work.”

“I enjoyed the hospitality and the warm surrounding you gave as well as the beautiful lectures,” Gomez added.

Toward Accessibility and Equity

Reppert’s students highlighted that the chance to engage with public art was well supplemented by the interactive environment Annie, Deanna, and I consciously curated. The civic humanist programming for the high school educator went above and beyond what she envisioned when she originally expressed interest in the program.

“The experience exceeded my expectations,” Reppert noted. And while she was initially “concerned it might have been over their heads,” Reppert emphasized the commitment to accessibility that our fellows espoused:

Everyone went out of their way to clarify and interact with the students to draw them in.”

For Reppert, this programming has lasting impact for her role as a high school educator, one that assures her of the importance of the humanities as a set of disciplines and its capacity to support “a well-rounded education.”

The lectures, in turn, reinforced the themes that Reppert has been teaching all year, especially the “myths and reality and how they affect society both positively and negatively.”

“Annie’s presentation [made] an excellent connection to the problems of not looking beyond the surface. Deanna’s amazing presentation showed the problems with assumptions and the need to seek rather than accept at face value everything you hear,” Reppert gushed.

The Westbury educator noted that the civic humanist program exuded an environment of inclusivity, equity, and community that humanities educators set out to create.

Your program makes it feel as though [I] am not alone in the fight to make humanities real and accessible.”

Words and photos by Alexander Lowe McAdams