A Letter of Support to the East Ridge High School Students Who Read A Black Panther Poem

by R.L. Stephens II on March 22, 2013

Personally, I’m proud of the homies that participated in the announcement, and I would like them to know that they are not alone and that their courage did not go unnoticed nor unappreciated.  Thank you.  After the recent controversy, I submitted a letter to the local newspaper and my Mother went to the school board meeting and entered it on the record.  An edited version appeared in the Woodbury Bulletin, here it is in its entirety:

Being one of the few Black male graduates in Woodbury High School’s class of 2006, I was greatly concerned about the recent controversy over high school students reading about the Black Panthers over the school’s intercom.  My senior year I and other Black students read Black history facts on the PA system, one of which included an homage that I wrote to militant Black nationalist Malcolm X.  So, I appreciate the students and teacher that shared a poem by the Black Panthers and briefly explained their complex historical significance over the intercom.  In response, a few community members have mistakenly compared the Black Panthers to the Hitler Youth, which demonstrates a reactionary lack of understanding. The shallow moral outrage in opposition to the Black Panthers’ militancy rings all the more hollow when considering that conference school Hastings High is named after Henry Hastings Sibley, a man responsible for murdering Native Americans during frontier expansion.

I wish that I had a teacher like the one that encouraged the announcement; perhaps my experience in the district would not have been so hostile.  Instead of a history teacher that embraced nonwhite cultures and struggles, I had a social studies teacher who, during class, downplayed the holocaust in order to defend Hitler, said that most of the school’s “nonachievers” were Black, and spoke positively of the “white man’s burden” to civilize the world.  The district employed him for 20 years and he retired without having to answer for these actions.  In that climate, the announcements during Black history month were one of the few times that I had the chance to have an empowering educational moment. Although “additional context”, as some have suggested, would’ve been appreciated, its absence does not preclude reading announcements about controversial struggles. However, affirming the unique histories of nonwhite cultures requires more than the rote recitation of token achievements.  To quote my recently deceased father, Black history captures the story of a people striving to “mitigate the cycle of pain inherent in the decadence of America society”.  It isn’t about only highlighting the stories that make people, particularly White people, comfortable, or preserving the false illusion of a “post racial society”.  Black history is often abrasive, confrontational, and militant; the dark reminder of the unsavory truth brewing below the surface of this nation’s soaring rhetoric of freedom and equality.

Additionally, I would like to point out that one of the main online persecutors of these students is a right-wing blogger from the community.  In one article she even posted over 10 screenshots of the Black high school kids’ completely harmless conversations over Twitter, like a total creeper.  Such acts exemplify the desperation and lack of genuine ideas found in many of the opponents to the announcement.  While I believe that people like the writer of that blog will soon lose interest in this story, I think that it’s important not to allow them to bully and intimidate students trying to find their identities and create empowering learning experiences.

Finally, the same day as the March school board meeting, my Mom led a training with East Ridge teachers that explored how they were processing the controversy. She reports that the meeting went well and there weren’t any objections to the announcement among those that attended the gathering.  At the school board meeting, my little brother was there, and I even quoted my Dad in the letter that my Mom read, so it was truly a family affair.  It’s fitting that the meeting occurred nine months to the day after my Dad died, he would have been proud.

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