By Mark David Blum, Esq.
There is a fire that has erupted at a local high school over the production of the stage play, The Wiz. Cicero-North Syracuse High School scheduled the play, cast the play, and then ran head first into the NAACP. What sin did the high school commit? Apparently no students of color were picked as cast members. Yes, The Wiz is a ‘black play’ (whatever that means). For some reason and for some members of the community, the production of The Wiz without having Black cast members is a social faux pas requiring a mass community dialogue.
Back in 2006, I have a similar dialogue with some high school kids. What follows is my tale of that experience and the lessons learned.
I was told by a gathering of bright young students at Fowler High School yesterday that a white person is never allowed to use the “N” word. Not now, not ever, was the unanimous verdict. Understandably that word has so much hate and evil history behind it that its use can erupt anger in the most gentile among us. As a Jew, I can relate as we have our own share of historical slurs.
As I was dressing to leave for a Career Day presentation, I caught a news clip about a play. The Fowler Drama Department had produced and ran successfully for two nights before it closed, the play ‘Fences’. From what I understand, the play is set in 1950’s America, features an all Black cast, and uses the ‘N’ word so often, you would think the dialogue was written by Shug Knight himself. Scripted heavily into the dialogue, “nigger” is generally how characters in the play refer to each other. From all accounts, the play was a hit and well received by the community.
Of course, Fowler High School is predominately minority, non white, and is treated as the pariah of the School District. How kids manage to succeed despite the public’s attitude and the internal politics says quite a bit about the human spirit. From what I hear and see, a student who succeeds at Fowler has not only tackled the grades and classes, but managed to stay alive and out of the line of fire and achieve despite the distraction.
So as I sat at a round table discussion with about ten kids thinking of a career in law, we wandered all over from college to classes to ‘defending the guilty’ to money. Over and over, they kept asking me the same question and I couldn’t understand why. “What does it take to be a successful lawyer or to be successful at getting into law school.” I tell them over and over to find something that lights them up, learn it, chase it, make it their own and then use an education as one of the many tools in their arsenal to further their passions.
There is no magic pill or secret formula; though I will say that success or failure is more dependant on endurance and patience than upon any level of intellect. You don’t quit; you make them throw you out.
One common theme and lesson I try to entrench in these impressionable young minds and hearts is the fire and zeal that drove our nation’s founders. I speak constantly of Thomas Jefferson and libertarianism and the uniqueness of the America experiment. Through words and example, I doggedly push these young Americans to accept that they as individuals are the source of all political power and only those rights and liberties that they volunteer to surrender are lost to them.
The arena of speech and schools is one ripe with examples of how liberties are taken, freedoms are stripped, voices silenced, and there is little if no opposition. Children learn early on to respect adults and to take orders from adults. Independence and asking “why” is a skill that takes years to develop. So when I am asked about the one thing that makes the difference in becoming an attorney, the answer is simple: “Always be honorable and never be afraid to speak truth to power.” At this point I usually find a way to challenge the authority of the teacher --- just a tad --- to demonstrate.
Yesterday, I was lucky enough to have had a shot at the Superintendent of Schools, Dan Lowengard who paid Fowler a visit during Career Day. After chatting with the kids for a bit, then the announcements, some disjointed flag salute, an amazing a cappella singing of the National Anthem, and a speech by the Super. The moment he stepped from the microphone, I told the kids to watch and I made a beeline right up to Dan. He told the students in his presentation that if they do not graduate high school, their lives will end up as failures. As a recovering High School drop out myself and as someone who knows at least one other attorney similarly situated, I wanted to make it clear to Dan that not everybody moves at the same pace or achieves the same ends following the same processes. To brand someone a failure because they cannot or will not follow the traditional path was dangerous and a terrible message to be sending to children.
So why all the niggling?
In the midst of this lively discussion, I decided to throw in some chaos. It was clear the Principal and others were more paying attention to our table than they were doing their own thing.
“What would have happened,” I asked loudly, “if instead of at Fowler, the play ‘Fences’ was produced and performed at Fayetteville Manlius High School?”
Every student who had just told me there was nothing wrong with producing the play ‘Fences’ suddenly announced they would have been protesting in the streets. Feigning shock and surprise, I asked why. Simply put, I was told that White People do not have the right to say “nigger”.
“But”, I said, “it’s the script of a play; words written in furtherance of a story. How can an audience punish an actor or be offended by production of the play just because the actors MIGHT be white and would use the word ‘nigger’ freely as part of the dialogue?”
This is when we came to one of the hardest lessons of the First Amendment that I try to instill on kids. With freedom, comes responsibility. But, while there is an absolute right to free expression, there is no right whatsoever to not be offended by what you might see or hear. Our Founders did not protect your right to not be offended and instead made sure I retained the right to call you a nigger, or kike, or chink, or beaner, or whatever word should strike me at the moment. That is what freedom and liberty is. The responsibility part comes with knowing your audience and dealing with the response you get when you choose your words. Being careless or reckless with language can lead to violence and harm. At the same time, being cautious and niggardly with word selection can still get the point across without inflaming irrational passions.
I think Fayetteville Manlius High School should produce ‘Fences’. It is time we had this discussion. Generations of Americans have been brutalized by our ancestors and there is deep seated ingrained anger and hurt shared by some of us against the rest of us. That is not how our Founders felt we should be pledging our fortunes, our lives, and our good names to further a greater good. We are polarized and divided; not United.
Nobody has the right to tell me whether I can use the word ‘nigger’. More importantly still is that when we start censoring language or limiting words to one class or another, doing so puts distance between us as citizens and tears apart the fabric of the nation. Inserting hyphens before ‘American’ in self identification, isolates us one from another. We are one nation, indivisible, with Liberty for All.
The last thing any American should tolerate is being ‘jewed’ out of their right to free expression.