When the mother of a black ninth grade student at a private school in Charlotte, NC, learned last month that her English class was going to study “Fences,” by August Wilson, an acclaimed play examining the racism in 1950s America, she complained at school.
The drama, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 and was adapted into a critically acclaimed film starring Denzel Washington in 2016, is about a black family and is strewn with racial slurs from the front page.
Faith Fox, a lawyer and single mother, said in an interview that she imagined her son’s predominantly white class at Providence Day School reading the dialogue aloud. She said her main concern was that the themes were too ripe for the group and would promote stereotypes about black families.
After a series of emails and a meeting with Ms Fox, the school accepted another lesson for her son, Jamel, 14. The school also discussed the complaints with the parents of four other students. Ms Fox’s disagreement escalated. She introduced it to a parent’s Facebook group, then sent an email that school officials said was a personal attack on a faculty member.
The day after Thanksgiving, the school informed Ms Fox that Jamel would no longer be attending school, the only one he had ever known.
Her mother called it an eviction. The school called it a “termination of enrollment” which concerned the parent and not the student. Either way, what was meant to be a literary lesson in diversity and inclusion had somehow cost a 14-year-old black boy his place in an elite private high school.
Jamel had recently been on the school’s basketball team and said in an interview that he hoped to graduate as a Providence Day lifer. “I was completely crushed,” he says. “There wasn’t, ‘Please don’t send me away, I won’t say this, I won’t say that, my mother won’t say this, my mother won’t say that.’ to go to public school in January.
This year has brought an account with running in many American institutions, including schools. When widespread street protests erupted after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, young people across the country took to social media to speak out against racism in their schools. At Providence Day School, black students shared stories of discrimination and callousness on Instagram, and the school was among many who posted statements against racism.
“For black members of our community, we see you, we hear you and we will act,” the statement read. The school also revised its bias complaint process and created alumni, faculty and student diversity groups.
But Ms Fox said she believed the school’s treatment of her son proved it was all lip service.
“You can have the important conversations about race and segregation without destroying the confidence and self-esteem of your black students and the black population,” Ms. Fox said in an interview. Just over 7% of the school’s 1,780 students are black, about 70% are white, and the rest identify as members of other minority groups.
School spokeswoman Leigh Dyer said last week officials were “saddened” that Jamel had to leave.
“As a school community, we value diversity of thought and teach students to engage in civic discourse on matters on which they may not necessarily agree,” Ms. Dyer said. “We have the same expectations for adults in our community.”
The November 27 termination letter cited “bullying, harassment and actions of racial discrimination” and “slanderous accusations against the school itself” by Jamel’s mother.
Ms Dyer made a statement that Ms Fox had committed “several personal attacks on a person of color in the administration of our school, making her feel intimidated, harassed and in danger” in discussions about the “fences.” He also said Ms Fox used to make “toxic” statements about the faculty and other people in the school, but did not provide examples.
Ms. Fox denied this. “Instead of fixing the problem, they are trying to make me look like an angry and declaimed black woman,” she says.
The New York Times examined the emails and Facebook posts Ms Fox provided and also interviewed two other Providence Day parents who said they had similar concerns about the play and a video the school was using to facilitate conversations about racial insult. They spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their children.
The school informed parents in early November of the lesson plan in an email. Noting the frequent appearance of insult in dialogue, he indicated that students would instead say “N-word” when reading aloud. He said the time would be “spent examining the word itself and some of its more nuanced aspects of meaning”.
The email included a link to a PBS NewsHour interview with Randall Kennedy, a black professor at Harvard, discussing the story of the insult while using it repeatedly.
“It wasn’t something I thought appropriate for a room filled with elite and elite affluent white kids,” Ms. Fox said.
His son was also dreading the lesson, which he allegedly witnessed via video due to the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s really embarrassing to be in a class of predominantly white students when those words come in,” Jamel said, “because they just look at you and laugh at you, talk about you as soon as you leave. the class. I really can’t do anything because I’m usually the only black person there.
Ms Dyer, the spokesperson, said the school introduced the study of “fences” in 2017 in response to black parents who wanted more lessons about the race. In the past few years, there had been only one complaint about the coin, she said.
After her son was offered an alternate assignment, Ms Fox posted articles about “Fences” on the Facebook group. Other parents said they too had concerns about the play and the PBS video. One comment directed her to an online essay by a college student from a previous year that described the “dagger” she felt “deeper and deeper” with each mention of the insult in the video.
It was at this point that Ms. Fox emailed the school’s director of equity and inclusion, calling her “shame on the black community.” Ten days later, Jamel was kicked out of school. Ms Fox said she was surprised but didn’t regret sending the email in the heat of the moment.
After Jamel’s expulsion, a letter signed by “concerned black teachers” was sent to the parents of the four other students who had complained, arguing for the literary merits of “Fences”. He said that great African American writers don’t create perfect black characters when trying to show “the damaging legacy of racism.”
This is a view shared by many critics and academics. Sandra G. Shannon, professor of African American literature at Howard University and founder of the August Wilson Society, said schools should not shy away from “the harsh realities of the past.”
Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Katie Rieser said “Fences” is taught widely in middle and high school, but she also urged it to be done carefully.
“It’s telling a story about a black family which, if it is the only text or one of the few texts about black people that students read, might give white students in particular the feeling that families black are all like this black family ”. she said.
Ms Fox said the struggle to be heard as a black parent in a predominantly white private institution had been “exhausting”.
She remembers when Jamel came home upset from elementary school after a field trip to a former slave plantation. After complaining, the school ended annual trips, she said.
The other day she said her son told her he finally understood “why Black Lives Matter is so important and not just about George Floyd and all those people dying on the streets, but it has to do with it too.” with the way we are treated. everywhere else.”