When six African-American students walked out of second-period classes on April 12 to air their grievances with the school’s handling of race relations, their frustrations were not generated in a vacuum. They come in the context of the school’s official yearlong inquiry into race issues that has dominated campus discussion since September. As evidenced by the walkout and subsequent conversations, many students left this yearlong study of race feeling like it lacked the conviction or the scope to adequately address the topic, while others allege it created the conditions under which students of color felt empowered to talk about their issues with race on April 12. This second part of the Eagle’s series on race will focus on the school’s yearlong discussion of race and its implications for students of color and the larger community.
Much of the recent conversation began with a controversial Martin Luther King Jr. Day ecumenical service on January 15, 2016 that attempted to link the Civil Rights Movement in America to the fight for civil rights in Ireland during the Troubles of the late-20th century, in which the British and Irish conducted a low-level guerrilla war for control of Northern Ireland. The service was capped off by the drama department’s performance of Brian Friel’s The Freedom of the City, a play about the events of Bloody Sunday, an Irish massacre in 1972. The performance, the lengthiest part of the 2016 BC High Martin Luther King service, featured just one black actor out of thirteen in the show.
Many students and a few faculty members left the service feeling like the school’s sizeable Irish contingency had exploited Dr. King’s legacy and his significance to the African-American community to talk about their own history.
Drama teacher Mr. Adrian Hernandez, who directed The Freedom of the City, defends his decision to put the play onstage at the MLK service. “The play is about civil rights,” he said, “We were trying to show the universality of civil rights… Black people don’t need to know about racism; they live it. [We were] putting it in the context that the [white] majority would understand.”
He argues that the reason that the backlash to Freedom was so strong was not that it was performed on Martin Luther King day, but that the students weren’t adequately prepared by the faculty or administrators for the experience. “The play was discussed [beforehand] with everybody except for the students,” said Hernandez. He thinks that had the students been adequately prepared to see Freedom and appreciate the link between Freedom and Dr. King, the outrage that followed could have been avoided. “MLK was a huge motivator for the Irish,” he said.
Still, Mr. Hernandez is happy that the show went up at the service and that it seemed to have a tangible impact on the community. “The fact that people were talking about race… I consider that a huge victory.”
Mr. Jair Ahmed agrees that preparing students more beforehand might have precipitated the negative reaction. But he contends that focusing Martin Luther King Day on Irish heritage robs African-American students of something integral to their identity at an institution where they do not always feel represented. “What happened during the MLK service wouldn’t be an issue if black students felt represented in other places on campus,” Ahmed said.
The 2016 Martin Luther King service fell squarely in the middle of the 2015-16 school year’s study of gender and sexism, and as that school year drew to a close, the faculty took up another major discussion on campus: that of race and racism.
The conversation had already begun with the all school reads of “The Other Wes Moore” and “Just Mercy,” accompanied by the schoolwide presentation by Bryan Stevenson. To further that discussion, the faculty centered the Joan Melville Institute, a two-week annual faculty development workshop for fifteen teachers, on race issues. Faculty members who participated heard from five guest speakers who spoke at length about the historical and current implications of race for Hispanic, African-American, and Asian-American students. Administrators spoke about how race issues play into their day-to-day responsibilities. And, most importantly, the faculty members listened to a panel of current students of color in order to better understand their experience.
The Melville did lead to a cavalcade of guest speakers the administrators invited to address the faculty and student body. Last October, Simmons College Executive Director Dr. Roland Davis spoke to students about unconscious bias, white privilege, and institutional racism. In December, Harvard professor Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad presented to upperclassmen about the history of race in America, from slavery through the Jim Crow Era, and up to the present day. Also in December, Jesuit Conference Senior Policy Advisor Mr. Matthew Cuff gave students a Jesuit perspective on mass incarceration, while in February, Ms. Onawumi Jean Moss used storytelling to bring the Civil Rights Movement to life for Arrupe students.
At the walkout, students expressed the opinion that before and after speakers like Dr. Davis, Dr. Muhammed, Mr. Cuff, or Ms. Moss present, the school does not adequately engage students about the subject material in the classroom.
In August, each academic department committed to holding discussions about different, specific aspects of race and racism in each of their classes. Teachers were given a great deal of latitude as to how to approach the subject depending on their comfort level.
The recent revelation about harassment in the freshman class was particularly saddening because it came on the heels of two major successes for African-American students. The first was a matter of reclamation. One year after the 2016 MLK prayer service with an Irish slant received criticism for not adequately involving students of color in the process, the 2017 MLK prayer service was directly overseen by students from the Black-Latino Student Union, with guidance from Director of Equity and Inclusion Ms. Ruth Evee. The students invited former Boston NAACP President Michael Curry to be the guest speaker. Trevor Barrant ’17 said that having an MLK service that was truly theirs to direct was “the most important moment of my BC High career.”
Second, after much debate across campus, the drama department in March produced Honky, a 2014 comedy by Greg Kalleres that pokes fun at race issues in advertising and across the country while also raising poignant and probing questions about the way Americans perceive people who are different from them.
In the months leading up to the play’s opening in Bulger Theatre on March 9, the drama department worked closely with administrators, students from the Black-Latino Student Union, and the Cultural Alliance Supporting All (CASA) – a parent group that meets weekly and that is dedicated to removing barriers that may exist at the school for students of color. Between those constituencies and others, according to Director of Equity and Inclusion Ms. Ruth Evee, the groups sought to present the play and its language in a way that would be provocative and stay true to the message of the playwright without giving the appearance that the n-word, as it appears in the play, is acceptable in any other context on or off campus.
The constituencies decided to present the play essentially unedited for content (though it was shortened for time), but with a preface delivered by an administrator previewing the use of language in the play and condemning it in other contexts. The three performances of the play at BC High also featured a nightly talkback with two cast members and members of the faculty about major themes.
Some critics of the process have alleged that the months-long debate over whether to approve Honky for production underscored the school’s unwillingness to engage with aspects of race that could make people uncomfortable, thus undermining the integrity of the community conversation. Others praised it for its thoroughness and incorporating students into the decision-making process, in contrast to the 2016 MLK service.
Honky advanced to the semi-finals in the 2017 Massachusetts Educational Theatre Guild (METG) One-Act Play Festival competition. This marked the second year in a row that a BC High play had advanced to METG semi-finals, following The Freedom of the City the year before.
BC High’s discussion of race this year has been cited by administrators as creating the conditions that empowered black students to speak out on April 12 in the form of a walkout. It has also been attacked for trying to address race in ways that can seem like one-offs – hosting speakers and movie nights on the topics of race without always having the classroom discussions that will enable students to carry the movies’ and speakers’ messages forward.
The greatest and at times the worst aspect of this school’s culture is that it is built from the ground up. The students, and their receptiveness to learn and grow, are the ultimate dictators of how the school approaches race. Both the greatest strides, the MLK Service this year and Honky, among other works, and the greatest setbacks, such as when the school was rocked by harassment, came about because students made choices about what they wanted their school to be.
Administrators and faculty certainly had an impact on this year’s discussion of race. The speakers and movie nights provoked moments of thought and conversation. The Melville Institute helped fifteen faculty members develop a better approach to race in their classes. Mr. Hernandez, Mr. Hughes, and the parents of CASA in particular were instrumental in planning Honky.
What is also clear is that the path towards a more honest discussion of race leads through more classroom discussions. Students at the school still feel underrepresented in the core curriculum, and many feel that the classical BC High education needs to shift to adapt to the growing diversity of the student body.
In the third and final part of this series on race, the Eagle will examine how the school should move forward in a community that still feels the sting of racial tension, and how to bridge the gap between discussion and action.