Now is the Time to Discuss Race

Matt - Mill Valley, California
Entered on January 19, 2009

Now is the Time to Discuss Race

A few years ago, one of my history colleagues decided that he wanted to generate attention and discussion around politics and race. My colleague was born, raised and educated in South Carolina and had received his doctorate in political science from the University of South Carolina. On the day of Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, this teacher posted happy birthday Strom posters around the main commons of the upper school. He also made a cake for Strom and put 100 candles on the cake. To garner attention to this event, he wheeled the cake through the main commons first thing in the morning with the candles lit. He used a computer cart to transport the cake and draped the Confederate flag over the sides of the cart. Without batting an eye, he waltzed straight through the commons and into his classroom. He then shut the door behind him.

The entire commons sat in stunned silence. No one could believe what he had just done. Word quickly buzzed through the hallways of the school that one of the teachers had brought the Confederate flag to school and was celebrating segregationist, Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond’s birthday. Students called their parents, teachers went to the head of school and the school day began with a firestorm. The history department chair knocked on the door of this teacher’s classroom and entered to find a lively discussion going on around the looming mid-term elections and the importance of race in American politics. The teacher had prepared a lecture on Thurmond’s legacy in reorienting the southern political landscape in the years after World War II.

We all soon learned of this teacher’s passion for politics and race. He had written his dissertation on the Dixiecrats. However, we did not know this vital piece of information at 7:30 in the morning on the day of his “stunt.” Students and teachers had all jumped to conclusions and made assumptions based on the visual and historical power and legacy of the Confederate flag. For the community, this event brought the importance of context, especially concerning the topic of race, to the surface.

I shared this story at a faculty meeting recently. I used the opportunity to have teachers think about how they would react in a similar situation. Instead of disclosing the full story right away, I gradually peeled back the layers and allowed for discussion and debate over appropriate actions to take place at different stages of the incident. The first question arose over what to do with the posters in the commons. Should they be taken down? What message did they send? Who had put them there in the first place? The second question centered on what to do after the teacher had shut the door to his classroom. Should an administrator be called? Should another teacher enter the room to ask what was going on? Should no action at all be taken? What is the role of the observer in a situation like that? These types of open-ended questions ignited a healthy dialogue over how to handle this explosive (literally and figuratively) scenario. While there was mild disagreement over whether his actions served a valid educational purpose, the group united in their belief that he stirred the community into a discussion of race.

An incident of this dramatic nature does not have to occur every day in schools to mobilize a discussion of race. President Obama has already signaled the okay to deal frankly and openly with race. He addressed it head on in his campaign, in the mode of the iconic Lincoln. While schools nationwide gear up to acknowledge the inauguration, it is important that they highlight the historical lessons of this particular inauguration. The larger lesson of America’s journey through the race landscape needs to be kept front and center. Slaves built the White House, Bull Connor blasted hoses at peaceful African-American demonstrators in the civil rights era, and Rodney King endured a beating at the hands of white police officers in the early 1990s. Now, America bears witness to the peaceful transfer of power to Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president. Schools need to scaffold the history behind this incredible moment in America and seize the opportunity to have direct discussions of race and American history.

I do not know where my former colleague is now, but I do know that he would grab the teachable moment we now have before us. But, I believe that a single teacher should not have to ignite and provoke this discussion with a “stunt.” Schools across America have a unique opportunity and responsibility to pause, reflect, consider, and embrace a deeper, broader and richer sense of America’s history.