By Kelsey Murrell (Kansas & St Cross, 2012), Deputy Director, The Rhodes Project
Just over a week ago, the 2016 American Rhodes Scholars were selected. Every year, as finalists prepare for their interviews, I reflect on the weekend that changed my life irrevocably four years ago. I remember that I had brought a book with me to the interviews that weekend, a book that for me represented the power of literature to create empathy and to move others to action, a book in which my mentor had hidden a note for me to find at the interview. I remember discovering the talent and goodness in another finalist and thinking, ‘I don’t even care if I win as long as this person does’. That person was Kate Niehaus (South Carolina & Trinity, 2012). I remember that when they announced who had won, I didn’t hear my name even though they said it first. They called Kate’s name second. She was standing next to me. I turned to hug her and said “Congratulations.” It wasn’t until, still embracing each other, she said, “You too!” that I realized I had also won.
Since that weekend four years ago, the weekend I didn’t hear my name called because it was just too implausible to me that I had been selected to join this group of people, the Rhodes Scholarship has become a part of who I am, a part of my identity. Not everyone feels a strong connection to the Rhodes Community. For some, not belonging may be a choice, but for others it is because they have been shut out. Some of us occupy an in-between space in which the Rhodes is an important part of our identity but we are told over and over again that we are not truly a part of it. Perhaps they have not been overtly told, “they do not belong.” But there are signs, symbols, subtleties.
One need only consider the recent vandalism of the portraits of black professors at Harvard Law School or the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford (and globally) to know that symbols matter. Portraits and statues are not just decoration or history, they are symbols of what a community values and stands for.
This is why it has meant a great deal to me to be involved in the Rhodes Project and the Rhodes Trust’s commission of the first portrait of a woman Rhodes Scholar to hang Milner Hall in Rhodes House. During my time as a scholar in residence, I often found myself in Milner Hall. It is where I was officially welcomed to Oxford by the Rhodes Trust. It is where I had my “Coming Up” dinner and where I attended my first ball. It is where I attended many lectures, had Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners when I wasn’t able to fly home, and where I socialized and built community. Looking around Milner hall, I saw Bill Clinton, Alfred Milner, Nelson Mandela,and Wilder Penfield, among others, looking back at me. I saw only (mostly white) men. The view will change on December 11th, 2015 when the Rhodes Project and the Rhodes Trust unveil a portrait of Lucy Banda Sichone (Zambia & Somerville, 1978), the first female Zambian Rhodes Scholar, a lawyer, activist, and journalist. The artist is a Rhodes Scholar in Lucy’s class, Deirdre Saunder (Rhodesia & Somerville, 1978). Three Rhodes Scholars have come together to support its commission: Dr. Ann Olivarius (Connecticut & Somerville 1978), Charles Conn (Massachusetts & Balliol 1983), and Tony Abrahams (Australia-at-large & Balliol 1998).
It was less than 40 years ago that women were first elected as Rhodes Scholars. We know from data collected by the Rhodes Project that the first generation of women Scholars are still not equal. Sadly, we know from discussion groups and profile interviews we have conducted with recent scholars that women at Oxford still face many of the same barriers women struggled with 40 years ago, from being talked over, not called on, left out of meetings or important social events, harassed by fellow students or supervisors, to experiencing physical violence and rape. In the face of structural inequalities, violence against women globally, and even the kind of hatred and injustice that leads to violence like the recent attacks in Paris, perhaps it seems insignificant to hang a new portrait.
It is just a small change in one building in one city. But symbols are powerful. Portraits symbolize what we value and celebrate. What untold effect could this portrait have on future generations of scholars and the work they go on to do in the world? My hope is that it sends a message to all who step into Rhodes House that women matter, Black women matter,they belong in this community. I hope it says that the kind of advocacy and social justice work that Lucy Banda Sichone devoted her life to matters and that we do not merely celebrate wealth or fame.
Janet Hoskins, an anthropologist, writes about the dialectical relationship between people and objects. She states that objects, such as works of art, can be said to have “instrumentality” because they can stimulate an emotional response and are invested with the intentionality of the object’s creator. Every time I return to Rhodes House throughout my life for conferences, alumni events and reunions, I will look up at the portrait of Lucy Banda Sichone.I will think of all that she stood for and all that this portrait symbolizes and I will carry that with me.