Aurora Library Director on Controversial Poem: "This Was a Mistake That Does Not Represent Us."

A poem, deemed offensive, racist, and Islamophobic, was removed from an exhibit at the library at the Aurora (IL) Public Library.
Update: Aurora Public Library communications manager Amy Roth has resigned. She explained her decision, and her thoughts on the poem and controversy in an interview with The Beacon-News. It was a dizzying few days for staff at the Aurora (IL) Public Library, which became the central point for a heated debate on hate speech vs. free speech after an exhibit included a poem that celebrated a boy stealing a hijab off a Muslim girl's head. "I believe wholeheartedly in free speech, it’s part of why I became a librarian," says Daisy Porter-Reynolds, the library's executive director. "On the other hand, I don’t believe the library needs to promote hate speech. That’s spelled out in our policy. This should not have been put up." Porter-Reynolds spoke to SLJ about the exhibit, the events of the last few days, and what the library is doing in response. She hadn't seen the individual pieces in the National Poetry Month exhibit before it went up on April 2. While she walked through several times, she hadn't seen the poem in question until the complaints started late last week. The poem, called “Hijab Mean Jihad," was written by Lewis University philosophy professor George David Miller. Superimposed on a Confederate flag, it read, in part: “Hijab to me means jihad So keep that s--- out of The country I love.” While the exhibit, of about 50 poems with photographs, had been up for weeks, the controversy didn't begin until social media posts about the poem last week. On Friday, the library responded with a Facebook post that said the author's intent was satire and offering a definition of satire for those unfamiliar with it. In response, some debated free speech vs. hate speech, and whether this poem was, in fact, satire, or just offensive. (SLJ’s Teen Librarian Toolbox blogger Karen Jensen provided her take on the debate in "Sunday Reflections.") Many demanded it be removed. On Saturday, Miller went to the library to give a public talk about the poem. "This was before the social media blow up, so it may have been that he just had a smaller crowd," says Porter-Reynolds, who didn't attend. "I was told that went fairly well. I think, in person, he was able to explain that he was actually writing in defense of Muslim women, which is certainly difficult to grasp from reading the text on the bare face of it." A tweet that included the poem and encouraged people to call the library and demand its removal kicked off a social media firestorm that reached far beyond the Illinois community. According to a statement, library board president John Savage became aware of the poem on Saturday and had it removed from the exhibit. Sunday morning, he issued a statement apologizing for the "offensive display" and vowing to conduct an internal review. Porter-Reynolds is already making changes. The library's exhibit review process will now always include more staff members, and her and staff will receive sensitivity training on issues of diversity. "The other thing we’re going to do is engage with the affected community [and] make sure we do programming to highlight Muslim art," she says. "We're going to discuss race publicly. We have a history of doing that here in Aurora. We're going to continue to do that and do even more to try to recover from this. "What it comes down to for me is: I want the Muslim-American community to feel safe to come to the library. I want them back." Porter-Reynolds has spoken with Muslim members of her community and is heartened by those discussions. "I am grateful that the Muslim people with whom I have spoken," she says. "Many of them have offered to come and do training themselves. They appreciate that we took the poster down. They want to help us move forward. I’m sure it’s not unanimous, but the people I have spoken to, I really appreciate their kindness of spirit." While she is focusing on her community first, she has a message for people outside of Aurora as well. "I want people to know that the Aurora Public Library is better than this—we will do better going forward," says Porter-Reynolds. "This was a mistake that does not represent us." Miller, the author of the poem, did not respond to an interview request.

The timeline of events and library statements

On Friday, the library acknowledged the controversy the poem was creating in a post on its Facebook page: We have noticed some good discourse on Facebook today about our exhibit, “Placeholders: Photo-Poems” by George Miller, the chair and professor of philosophy at Lewis University. There is a lot of discussion about Dr. Miller’s poem titled: “Hijab Means Jihad,” which is superimposed on a Confederate flag. Some have commented on the satirical nature of the poem. (Satire: Writing that exposes or ridicules conduct, doctrines or institutions either by direct criticism or more often through irony, parody, or caricature.) Others view it as “hate speech.” We are pleased that people are talking. The pat on the back for being conversation starters ended a day later when someone posted a picture of the exhibit on Twitter and the angry outcry got much louder. Staff pulled the poem from the exhibit under public pressure and instruction from the library board president. A new post on Saturday stated: A specific panel in our current art exhibit has been the topic of discussion on social media as well as within the library. The panel features a poem that some have construed as condoning violence against Muslim women. While the intent was satirical, according to the poet, we are aware that this is not the message the panel is sending to our community. We want every to feel safe and welcome at Aurora Public Library, and we will remove the panel before we open for business tomorrow. Thank you for sharing your concerns with us and for the thoughtful discussion that has taken place. Many of those who commented on the post noted the lack of apology for displaying the piece in the first place. They received that apology the next morning when Savage issued his statement that included an apology and a promise of an internal review “of both the people and process that allowed this to happen.” The statement said, in part: “When I read the words in that display, my heart ached. I was disgusted by the language and saddened by the face that every person who read it could believe this was condoned by the Aurora Public Library because it was allowed to be on display in our main branch. “I am angry that still in 2018 these examples of hate and prejudice are alive and well—and now being shrouded under the banner of 'art.' Whatever the artist’s intention, this will not be tolerated in our community.”  
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Did you reach out to the poet to get his take on it? If not, why not? He's merely a well-known satirist, and a professor at Lewis University with a doctorate in philosophy from DePaul. In fact former chair of that department. He is not some bigot or a kid with an attitude. Why not ask him if the library might add an explanatory note to his bio making it clear this is satire? Catholic New Yorkers tolerated Serrano's "Piss Christ" at the Brooklyn Museum. Police families tolerate BLM displays. Surely satire can be tolerated. If not, no more satire.

Posted : Apr 27, 2018 08:01


"Miller, the author of the poem, did not respond to an interview request."

Posted : Apr 28, 2018 09:30


Unfortunately my experience has been a willingness to remove writings deemed offensive to any minority or religion other than Christian. Whites, esp white men, are fair game. Likewise Christians. Is the same sensitivity being shown to these groups?

Posted : Apr 26, 2018 02:26


I took it for satire when I read the description and the poem, and so I probably would have kept it up for the length of the display. That said, you'll probably get different reactions depending upon where you would have the poem posted. In conservative areas, you'd probably get complaints of being anti-conservative. In the south, it would possibly been seen as labeling all southerners as anti-islam. If he had used a cross, as opposed to a stars and bars, you'd have many christians offended. If you had a yarmulke snatched, the jewish community would have been offended. Maybe they could have a display with the author's stated intentions so as to promote a discussion about free speech.

Posted : Apr 25, 2018 03:10



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