Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

CHS Student Defends Her Work in Wake of Special Dance Controversy

Editor’s note: After this year’s public performance of the Columbia High School Special Dance Company, a controversy erupted when some faculty members reportedly told administration they felt “unsafe” after seeing a dance choreographed by senior Kendi Whitaker based on the song “Strange Fruit” about the lynching of African Americans. Whitaker spoke during the public comments portion of Thursday’s Board of Education meeting. The full text of her statement is below.

The Village Green is following up on this story and will report more fully on it in an upcoming article.

Good evening. My name is Kendi Whitaker. I’m a senior and a member of the Special Dance Company at Columbia High School. I sit before you all today to discuss something that has been covered up, ignored, and denied for far too long simply because of the belief that our town is “woke, stigma free, and according to some people, colorless.”

About a month ago, I choreographed a dance titled “Four Score and Seven Years Ago” and performed it in the Special Dance show along side two other dancers. After seeing the performance, white faculty and staff, mostly from the physical education department as well as one black faculty member, who identifies himself as British, felt uncomfortable and afraid. One faculty member even said she was “checking for the exits because she feared for her life.”

Instead of carrying themselves like adults and expressing their “concerns” to our dance director Kandice N. Point Du Jour, who is in their department, they all gathered in a room to gossip like middle schoolers in her absence and discuss their opinions which were both ignorant and blatantly racist. Three weeks later, I was graced with the opportunity to talk with two of the teachers. While expressing to me why they felt uncomfortable and had issues with the dance, one said that she felt as though I was disrespecting and generalizing the police force and the FBI. When I choreographed this dance, I was not targeting the police force, the FBI, or the government.

The dance has nothing to do with that. If these people were educated they’d understand that the song “Strange Fruit” is about the history of slavery and lynching. The voice overs that were added to the song spoke on police brutality and the discomfort that black people feel every single day. The only people who should be able to say they felt any type of pain from this piece are black people and that’s because we have to sit and relive and listen to what our ancestors had to go through as well as what our brothers and sisters go through on a daily basis. Unfortunately my heart is unable to ache for these teachers who are complaining about the discomfort they felt for four minutes because they had to simply LISTEN to my history and LISTEN to the pain that their people have inflicted on my people for years because I’m far too busy navigating my blackness everyday because of the skin I was born with.

In the meeting, the same teacher tried to inform me that her Italian grandparents came over on the boat and went through the depression, and because of that she’s able to understand what black people went through and what they go through on a daily basis. Last time I checked, white people are NOT marginalized. They are not targeted day in and day out. They are not shot down and killed everyday by the same people that are supposed to protect them. They are not discriminated against in every way, shape, and form because of the color of their skin. They have not had to wait for more than 400 years for their Constitutional and God given rights.

The list goes on and on, but what I refuse to let go on and on is this. Something has to be done. This can no longer be ignored. These teachers teach your children and my peers every single day. We are supposed to feel safe as soon as we step into the school building but how can we feel safe when the very same teachers that are supposed to educate us, won’t even take time out of their day to educate themselves? If they will not educate themselves, it is the district’s responsibility to make sure they get the necessary training to stand in front of children of color, or remove them from doing harm to black children. Fair disciplinary actions, fair grading, fair treatment, the ability to understand, all of these things go out the window because racist thoughts and opinions override it all. Racism, sexism, islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, white supremacy. None of these are “political views”, it’s just hate. There’s no need to hear both sides, but what there is a need for is change.

Thank you.

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