Students from a high school in an affluent Chicago suburb showed insensitivity and upset peers from a high school on Chicago South Side when they performed a 45-second skit that featured a mock slave auction during which slaves wore chains around their wrists and, at one point, around their neck, the Washington Post reports.
The schools in Chicago’s suburbs have for many years been disconnected from those in the city itself, which is one reason conferences like the Illinois Junior Classical Convention are held: these events bring together students from the city schools and those from the suburbs. It’s a time of sharing and learning, especially about Latin, the Romans, the Classics, and other topics in the domain of the Junior Classical League.
But in Itasca on the last Friday in February, things went sour when students, parents, and teachers from Chicago’s Kenwood Academy saw Barrington performing the skit. Some parents from Kenwood called it an open display of racism and said they were deeply offended.
“There were gasps—audible gasps—in the crowd,” said Danielle McDaniels, a parent of a Kenwood student.
The Barrington School District 220 apologized in a statement, condemning the actions of the school’s students.
“I think the staff and students are going to learn a life lesson from this,” Superintendent Brian Harris said shortly after the convention at a regular school board meeting. “I think it’s an opportunity not only for us as a school community to better understand the challenge that our society deals with today and learn from the past, and hopefully moving forward learn from these situations and become better citizens as such.”
The National Junior Classical League released a statement:
The National Junior Classical League along with its parent organization the American Classical League regret to hear of the incident which took place this weekend at the Illinois Junior Classical League Convention. We echo the apologies issued by the Illinois JCL as well as the sponsor, the students, and the school district involved.
This incident in no way reflects the values we have as an organization which seeks to promote the study of Latin, Classics, and the Ancient World. The NJCL is predicated upon the values of brotherhood, friendship, scholarship, and inclusion. We deeply apologize for the hurt this incident has caused.
In response, the kids at Barrington High School produced a video, emphasizing the diversity among students and staff at the high school.
The incident has been handled in a positive way, and the schools plan to get together either toward the end of this school year or early next year to continue the process of open communication between this suburban school and one in the city.
That doesn’t erase the fact that the staff at Barrington cleared such a skit initially, perhaps without the knowledge that slavery and the mistreatment of an entire race of people by another is offensive and should probably be left out of skits that are designed to bring people together, not to antagonize them or even stimulate heated debate about some topic.
It may have been naïveté that caused the skit to happen in the first place, but we need to expect more of school leadership, lest racism continues to grow in our communities.
We Americans today all come from this past, but the enemies we face today are bigger. Perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of President Barack Obama will be the one he will certainly leave for African-American children, giving them an actual face behind all the theories they have heard from whites through the years that anybody can be president with enough hard work.
He has given African-Americans a heightened opportunity to express themselves by simple virtue of the undeniable and undisputed fact that he has occupied the Oval Office for eight years and has won two elections. What we do in our schools, including the mostly white schools, quite frankly, can’t touch that.
Sure, racism still shows up from time to time, and one can’t deny its clear existence. And President Obama has perhaps been silent on large black movements, like the #BlackLivesMatter groundswell. But give these young black Americans a few years, a decade, maybe more, to grow up and to find their voice in this wilderness we call America. We will look back on skits like this—and at the slavery of our past—and wonder what America that possibly could have been. It once was, and it will be no more.