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  • Reverend James Squire

Black Face



 

The important moments of school life were held in the Class of 1944 Chapel. This included sports assemblies, special moments to be celebrated, as well as the three graduations of the three units of the school. Of course, in addition to this, there was a chapel service everyday in chapel including the Eucharist one day a week. The Vestry would often use the chapel as a place for plays or skits to highlight a character or moral truth. It could also be used to act out a biblical passage that was usually done in Middle School Chapels which linked the chapel service to the course work in which they were engaged. It was the most used worship space in the Philadelphia area.

 

We always seemed blessed in Upper School for the Vestry to continue the tradition of using chapel for giving skits with a moral truth. We seemed to always have gifted writers in doing this. One such Vestry member recently received a Writer’s Guild Award for her script for a movie in Hollywood.

 

I interfaced with the chapel program by reviewing most addresses and skits to make sure that what the students said or did would conform to proper decorum. Sometimes it was both a member of the Vestry or me who looked over addresses. This was not done for censorship as it was to make the addresses as clear as possible and to avoid lines or moments that would turn the congregation off from hearing the whole of what the person had to say. Most of the time this process became routine. Students volunteered to do this to honor the sacred space.

 

But there was one occasion that got by me that contained an overtly racist moment. The play included a character who wore a mask that symbolized black face. The student wasn’t wearing the mask when I asked the Vestry if they were ready with the skit. When the skit began the person with the mask put it on as he entered. I could hear the silence instead of laughter that this person meant to occur. We have seen various politicians caught in their college photos in black face during Halloween, etc. They had paid a price.

 

This is a microcosm of what is going on regarding protests on college and university campuses today. The macrocosm that has caused so much alarm in handling what appears to be protests including antisemitism has been a major issue.

 

As I sat there in my chair near the play, I could have shut it down right then and there. Hindsight being 20/20 vision others might conclude that would have been the best way to handle it. That would have made me look good, but it would have thrown my Vestry under the bus. Some faculty saw it as a missed opportunity. I chose not to do that because I knew that the student with the black face mask was an astute and sensitive student. I didn’t want to throw the Vestry or him under the bus. Stefanik would say I should have done that and probably add a letter that I should resign and step down.

 

Chapel is the most special place on campus. What goes on there should reflect the best in humankind. This action of black face would have gotten embarrassment if it happened in the public domain theater, but to have it happen in chapel made it an even bigger problem. For one thing, everyone on campus knew that I was a “diversity guy” so many were mystified. They also thought that I review everything that happens in chapel which I did not.

 

It is rather unbelievable but true that someone in chapel can make a call to an alumnus in California about what happened in chapel usually if it is perceived to be wrong, and I will hear from the alumnus before I get back to my office. Yes, I received calls from as far away as California! We were a national and international community.

 

What I did do was to field the angry calls from outside and inside the school and used my classic line, “I will take care of it!” I didn’t have time to think. I was in pure what would work mode, pure instinct. I gathered the Vestry together and told them the issue. The student who wore the mask felt horrible. He was not clued in to the harm that was done. I instructed them to have lunch in the chapel and to invite our Black Student Organization to join them in chapel for a discussion of the morning event during the play. I gave the Vestry a crash course in black face and racism.

 

(There is a difference here from a college President. Everyone in the room knew me and the students knew one another.) This meeting about black face was difficult but educational for everyone. A few things occurred that helped resolve the issue. We were there certainly to discuss a problem, but we were there together to find a solution as the school was swarming with conversation about the play and the black face reference. Everybody loves gossip! The other thing that made it work was that the black students quickly accepted our apology and all the students spent most of the time getting into each other’s shoes. After welcoming the students, I said nothing but thank you when they concluded. The students handled it.

 

I did ask them to do one thing for me. When they return to the community after lunch, let the people know what occurred here. It seems that the whole school knew of the luncheon.

 

As I was told at the end of the day, that there was still a group, (there always is) who wanted to stir the pot of complaint. It seemed that the Vestry and the Black Student Group told those who wanted to keep the matter alive that simply, “Our two groups and the Rev handled it. It’s not an issue.” It turns out that Michael Gladwell was right when he said that person to person communication is more powerful than just making a blanket statement about a controversy.

 

I think that the above is a microcosm with the ingredients needed to turn the protests into a positive experience of the macrocosm of the protests on college and university campuses about another important issue. The two groups solved the mistake together which put them in that powerful motivating place of doing something for the community and not for their selves which brings meaning, purpose, and happiness. They had a higher calling!

 

Leaders don’t wait. They initiate and have others react to their actions. The leaders of the college and universities that have successfully dealt with protesters didn’t wait around before initiating their approach to solving the issue that was before them.

 

Notice something else. The administrators are not the most important people in those institutions. The faculty and students are because they interface with one another daily. Faculty were left out of decision making for too long regarding the protests. I know from experience if you leave them out for a significant period, everyone will pay a price. The board cost the Penn and Harvard presidents their jobs because they were saying we are a board focused institution instead of one where the key players are the faculty and the students. The present Penn Interim President is further behind than his predecessor. The best administrators see themselves as servant leaders not the King of the Hill. Faculty and students don’t forget when you hijack their authority. That is why Johnson and Stefanik were disasters in bringing about healing.

 

The current President of MIT is still firmly in place thanks to a board that wouldn’t be bullied or run scared. The boards at Penn and Harvard lacked intestinal fortitude, in student language, guts. That is character trait #1 for true leaders. Dr. John Crosby made Radnor one of the top schools in the nation because he stood his ground with people who tried to scare him or do as they wanted when he didn’t think was the right way.

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