STUDENTS REPEAT A ‘S SLURS, SURPRISING THE POETS AND AN ELITE BRONX SCHOOL
The poetry assembly on Tuesday morning at the Horace Mann School, in the Bronx, was meant to be provocative. The visiting poets who led it asked students to write words on index cards — remembrances, colors and references to pop-culture icons — that would then converge as poems.
The poets had set the tone for the exercise by reading a poem they had written together, which uses startling, offensive language and has in its first three lines the harshest slurs against blacks and gays. The same slurs emerged on the cards, written by students in anonymity, then read out loud by peers who picked the cards at random from a pile stacked on a desk.
The reading went on uninterrupted for 30 minutes at least, one of the poets, Denise Duhamel, recalled in an interview on Friday. According to articles published on Friday in the school’s newspaper, The Horace Mann Record, it set off a mix of disconcerted laughter, confusion and, most of all, soul-searching among teachers and the 700 students in the audience at first, and then throughout the school.
By Tuesday afternoon, David Schiller, the head of the school’s upper division, had visited many classrooms, apologizing. Dr. Schiller declined to comment, beyond providing a letter he sent to parents on Thursday, in which he took the blame for what had happened.
From NY Times online 11/5/2011 by Fernanda Santos
Whether we like it or not these words born of hate and fear are some of the most powerful words in our language, because we will not face up to the fact that we live in a culture that has closed down the discussion of the hard issues of racism and fear of the other. We live in a deeply divided and conflicted nation, but mostly unless something specific comes up, we go about our lives ignoring the fact that racism and homophobia exist even in those who consider themselves open minded. Fear of the other is embedded in our cultural DNA so deeply that we can’t recognize it anymore except in those words. Slurs and epithets express most clearly the fact that we human beings do terrible things to one another out of fear, greed and a desire to feel like we are better than someone else.
There is no one who is unaffected by these stifled oppressions. Everyone participates in some way, but we cannot discuss the situation in real and bloody terms that will bring about some deep change. These are the doorways to a truth we would rather not visit. They rip away the many layers of blindfolds that hide the uncountable crimes, large and small, that continue unbroken from the beginning of our nation to our present lives. They should make us feel uncomfortable but not stop us from examining what is behind their power. If we only apologize quickly every time they slip out in some public way and distance ourselves, we miss an opportunity to honestly examine and deal with our own feelings and reactions. Facing the discomfort could open a door to discussion and maybe some enlightenment. Instead we treat the incident like the sensitive trigger, we must carefully work around so the bomb won’t go off, or like a hot potato passing it on to the someone else to deal with. The only way to disarm the words is to open them up and see with unblinking eyes what they are made of and how they came to be.
I understand the motivations of the poets involved in the Horace Mann event. They chose those words for their power to incite, and because they remained anonymous they did not fear the repercussions of their use. Whether or not they were right in using the words, the words came out in a clearly nonspecific way. They were brought forth as words for consideration. We should consider them but not just as the reactions and feelings that they invoke. We must look beyond the power to the source and keep talking to each other about what we see no matter how ugly it is. We must keep looking and talking until we understand more about living together as human beings.