The question you have got to ask yourself

February 27, 2017

Dear Friends,

I hope you had a glorious break with your kids.  There were certainly some gorgeous spring days to revel in!

One of the highlights of my week was going to see Dr.  Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, a Center School alumni parent and professor at Smith College speak on a panel as part of the the annual UMass W.E.B. Du Bois Lecture, this year on Kara Walker’s artwork (showing now at UMass Museum of Contemporary Art).  The show was amazing and devastating:  a display of huge silhouettes depicting scenes of slavery in subversive and powerful ways.  This exhibit has a lot of content exposing the sexual violence of slavery and what it means to be an African American woman with that horrific, inherited ancestral narrative.  Therefore, it is not for children, however the question came up in the discussion with the panel afterwards about at what age the despicable details  of slavery and racism can and should be taught.  There were some folks in the room who said, what choice do we have, racism comes to black children anyway, others said yes but, we have a responsibility to teach children, both black and white, about powerful African Americans of today and yesterday and not depict everyone as hopeless victims first.

Most of the students in the audience said that they felt that their schools should have done more on the history of slavery, but at what age could not really be decided upon. All agreed that stories like from the film Hidden Figures could be taught very young.  All agreed that by college, students should have a solid understanding of the history of slavery and racism in this country in order to dig deeper and in a more nuanced way in college.

My own white son said recently, that he wonders if he’d be racist if he had never been taught anything about racial stereotypes and discrimination.  He felt as if it was the learning of that that made him “see race” and therefore sometimes discriminate involuntarily.  I said I thought there was no choice for anyone to avoid race and racism, and that it is what you do with the knowledge that’s important.

But it brought be back to something Liz Pryor had said at her lecture; that she wished her students could “have already seen, but not have to go through seeing the Kara Walker show.”  In other words, the act of viewing it was so painful and so triggering that the art bordered on glorifying and eroticizing the slavery Walker was seeking to expose and denounce.  In experiencing the critique you join in the violence.

I was challenged and moved by the grappling and the struggle that I experienced that night.  White people must face the horrors of slavery and racism and be willing to make change happen– they need to see that slavery and race define America.  This continued when I went to see I am Not Your Negro, the film based on James Baldwin’s writing.  I recommend the film and Walker’s show, to people looking for ways to address systemic racism. I leave you with a quote from Baldwin:

“The question you have got to ask yourself — the white population of this country has got to ask itself — North and South, because it’s one country, and for a Negro, there’s no difference between the North and South. There’s just a difference in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact. If I’m not a [n-word] here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”



Charlie Spencer, Head of School
Contact Charlie: Email
Phone: 413-773-1700
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