There’s a story out of Colorado Springs regarding a white second grader who appeared at his school history day as Martin Luther King, Jr while wearing black face paint to appear as an African-American. The child was participating in a history presentation in which students dressed up as various historical figures for a "wax museum" display and when he came to school, the teacher and administrator were surprised to discover that he was wearing black make-up to cover his face; they asked his parents to remove it and when they refused to do so, they took him home. It is unclear who contacted the media and the slant of the story appears to be that this is once again political correctness run amok as a poor second grader is punished for attempting to do a realistic display on an individual.
Let’s start with the premise of the history project, since Youngest’s entire grade was involved in a similar extravaganza this past week. The premise is that each student chooses an historic figure to study and in Youngest’s grade, make a short presentation about that individual in the first person. Each student must research the life of that figure, write a three paragraph report in the first person – I was the indian maiden who led Lewis and Clark… – and then pull together a costume for the presentation. Each student has two minutes to present themselves to the listener, and the wax museum approach means that the student adopts a frozen stance that’s meaningful to that personage. Starting from the pose, the student then presents the report to the various listeners, who then move on to the next student at the end of the two minutes. In Youngest’s history session, entitled Blast From the Past, each student is at a station in the school’s multipurpose room and at the end of the two minutes, a bell rings and the listener moves on to the next student; the idea is to mimic what you’d find in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.
I can appreciate what the child was attempting to do since baseball-loving Youngest opted to report on Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to break into the major league after the end of the Second World War. His research was decent and he asked if we could somehow get a retro Brooklyn Dodgers uniform and we sprang for a jersey with Robinson’s number and name on the back. About three weeks prior to the event, Youngest also asked if I would help him put black shoe polish on his face so that he could truly get into character. I asked him if his teacher approved of this and he assured me that she would be and when I subsequently saw her, she agreed that the presentation would be better with just the uniform and report and the makeup plan was consigned to the trash. We talked about the rationale for not using the makeup and it was here that he learned of stereotypes and old-time minstrel shows. Curiously, the three African-American boys in his class all opted for non-black figures such as Davy Crockett, Abraham Lincoln and Wayne Gretzky. For this presentation, Jackie Robinson was white and Wayne Gretzky was black.
What I find curious and irritating about the story is the question of who sent the story to the media. According to another AP article, the school wasn’t aware before the child showed up that he’d be in the makeup and they asked the child and parents to remove the makeup before the event started. When the family refused, they – the parents – subsequently removed their son from the event; this action was a parental action, not a school action. Had I been the teacher or principal, I would have also asked the parents to remove the face paint. The schools are public institutions charged with serving all members of an increasingly diverse society and there has to be some sensitivity to their heritage; permitting black face makeup would be akin to serving pork at a school function celebrating children with Muslim or Hebrew heritage. While Political Correctness has been carried to unacceptable extremes, the school officials do have to exercise common sense and this situation is one of simple common sense and not political correctness.
A reporter also contacted Steve Klein of the King Center in Atlanta for his comments and Mr. Klein was frankly correct in his assessment that there was no intent on the boy’s part. The child was asked to portray a person of historic significance and Dr. King’s race was central to his significance, as was Jackie Robinson’s. Frankly, the kid wanted to do the best job possible and if Dr. King was black, then he thought that he should be as well.
Ultimately, my criticism unfortunately lies with the parents here. They probably didn’t consider the minstrel show stereotype given our sorry understanding of our own history and to bring the kid to school in that makeup can be chalked up as oops, I didn’t know that… But with current controversies about the shooting of Trayvon Martin or whether some local police departments are understating the issue of black youth gangs, to allow your child to appear on television in black-face makeup is placing him in a charged and critical limelight. Our job as parents is to raise the kids and if there’s going to be media coverage about them, it should be in a positive light; allowing them to become poster children in an ongoing controversy about political correctness – or any other divisive issue – is akin to putting a figurative target on their back. Several years ago, the comic-actor John C. McGinley appeared on Glenn Beck’s radio program and politely called Beck on the carpet for using the term retard on his show. McGinley apparently has a child with Down’s Syndrome and simply, and eloquently, stated that using the terminology was piling on, picking a fight with someone who was incapable of fighting back. This boy’s parents have unfortunately allowed him to be placed in a situation in which he’s liable to be forced to contend with a situation for which he’s unprepared. There are true believers with agendas for whom their agenda is all that matters and the person in the way of that agenda is simply fodder for the media cannon.