When the mother of a black ninth grader at a private school in Charlotte, NC learned last month that his English class would be studying August Wilson’s Fences, a celebrated play examining racism in America in the 1950s, she complained to the school.
The drama, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 and was turned into a critically acclaimed film starring Denzel Washington in 2016, is about a black family and is littered with racist slurs on the first page.
Faith Fox, a lawyer and single mother, said in an interview that she imagined her son’s mostly white class at Providence Day School and read the dialogue aloud. She said her main concern was that the topics were too mature for the group and encourage stereotypes about black families.
After a round of emails and a meeting with Ms. Fox, the school agreed to an alternative lesson for their son Jamel Van Rensalier, 14. The school also discussed complaints with the parents of four other students. Mrs. Fox’s disagreement escalated. She took it to a parent’s Facebook group and later fired an email school officials described as a personal attack on a faculty member.
The day after Thanksgiving, the school announced to Ms. Fox that Jamel would no longer be attending school, the only one he had ever known.
His mother called it an eviction. The school called it “enrollment termination,” which was related to the parent, not the student. However, what was meant to be a literary lesson in diversity and inclusion had somehow cost a black 14-year-old his place in an elite private school.
Jamel had recently formed the school basketball team and said in an interview that he was hoping to graduate as a Providence Day Lifer. “I was completely down,” he said. “There was no” please don’t kick me out, I won’t say that, I won’t say that, my mother won’t say that, my mother won’t say that. “He’s making plans to go to public school in January.
This year has anticipated race in many American institutions, including schools. When widespread street protests erupted in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death by police officers, young people across the country used social media to expose racism in their schools. At Providence Day School, black students used Instagram to share stories of discrimination and insensitivity, and the school was one of many to publish statements against racism.
“For the black members of our community, we see you, we hear you and we will act,” the statement said. The school also revamped its bias complaint process, creating alumni, faculties, and student diversity groups.
But Ms. Fox said she felt that the school’s treatment of her son had proven this was all lip service.
“You can have important conversations about race and segregation without destroying the confidence and self-esteem of your black students and the black population,” Ms. Fox said in an interview. A little more than 7 percent of the 1,780 students at the school are black, around 70 percent are white and the rest identify as belonging to other minority groups.
A school spokeswoman, Leigh Dyer, said last week that officials were “sad” that Jamel had to leave.
“As a school community, we value diversity of thought and teach students to engage in civil discourse on topics they may not necessarily agree on,” said Ms. Dyer. “We have the same expectations of the adults in our community.”
The November 27 resignation letter quoted “bullying, harassment and racial discrimination” and “defamatory allegations against the school itself” from Jamel’s mother.
Ms. Dyer made a statement saying Ms. Fox “carried out several personal attacks against a black person in our school administration, which made that person bullied, harassed and unsafe in the” fence “discussions.” Ms. Fox was also said to have made “poisonous” statements about faculty and others at the school in the past, but did not provide examples.
Mrs. Fox denied this. “Instead of addressing the problem, try to make me look like an angry, raging black woman,” she said.
The New York Times checked email and Facebook messages Ms. Fox provided and also interviewed two other parents on Providence Day who said they had similar concerns about the play and a video the school is talking about made racial fraud possible. They spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their children.
The school had informed the parents in early November about the lesson plan in an email. In view of the frequent occurrence of the arc in the dialogue, it was said that the students would say “N-word” instead when reading aloud. It was said that time would be “devoted to contemplating the word itself and some of its more nuanced aspects of meaning”.
The email contained a link to a PBS NewsHour interview with Randall Kennedy, a black professor at Harvard, which discussed the history of the bow of repeated use.
“It wasn’t something I thought appropriate for a room full of elitist, wealthy white children,” Ms. Fox said.
Her son also feared the lesson he would have attended via video because of the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s really uncomfortable to be in a classroom with mostly white students when these words come up,” said Jamel, “because they just look at you and laugh at you, talk about you as soon as you leave class. I can’t really do anything because I’m usually the only black person there. “
Ms. Dyer, the spokeswoman, said the school introduced the study of “fences” in 2017 in response to black parents who want more classes on race. There has only been one complaint about the piece in recent years, she said.
After her son was offered an alternative job, Ms. Fox posted the Facebook group “Fences”. Other parents said they too had concerns about the play and the PBS video. One comment referred her to an online article by a previous year student who described the “dagger” she felt “cut deeper and deeper” every time the bow was mentioned in the video.
At that point, Ms. Fox emailed the school’s Justice and Inclusion Director calling it a “shame on the black community.” Ten days later, Jamel was kicked out of school. Ms. Fox said she was surprised but that she didn’t regret sending the email in the heat of the moment.
After Jamel’s expulsion, a letter signed by “affected members of the black faculty” was sent to the parents of the four other students who had complained and argued the literary merits of “fences”. It is said that great African American writers do not create perfect black characters when trying to show the “harmful legacy of racism.”
Many critics and scholars hold this view. Sandra G. Shannon, professor of African American literature at Howard University and founder of the August Wilson Society, said schools shouldn’t shy away from the “harsh realities of the past.”
Katie Rieser, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said “fences” are common in middle and high school, but she also urged that they be done with care.
“It tells a story about a black family that, if it is the only text or one of the few texts about black people that students read, could make white students in particular feel that black families are all like that black family.” She said.
Ms. Fox said the struggle to be heard as a black parent in a largely white private institution had been “exhausting”.
She remembered when Jamel came home upset to elementary school after a field trip to a former slave plantation. The school ended annual trips after complaining, she said.
She said the other day that her son told her he finally understood “why Black Lives Matter is so important, and it’s not just about George Floyd and all these people dying on the streets, but also about how we are treated everywhere else. “