Black student athletes face abuse during games. What all of us read can make a difference.
Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" was among more than two dozen books removed last year from a school library at Goddard following a challenge by a parent. The books have since been returned to the shelves. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum, a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and deputy executive director at the ACLU of Kansas.
When I heard my son’s voice for the first time as he entered the world, his cry punched right through me. I gave him his first bath and shampoo. I fed him first. I held him in my lap and stared down at him for hours.
I was there when he lost his first tooth, when he skinned his knee the first time and for his first play in Wichita Children’s Theater. As I wrote my first book, he slept beside me on the couch as I pounded a laptop, stopping to feed and change him when he woke up. I tried to attend his performances.
I didn’t make all of them, including some in rural areas where it seems more common for audiences to racially target Black student athletes from the stands. Recent news reports termed descriptions of what happened during a Valley Center basketball game “exaggerated” or “overblown.”
Well, exaggerated and overblown didn’t stop some legislators from falsely claiming critical race theory dominated school curriculums. It hasn’t stopped parents and others from protesting books about Black lives in school libraries. If people believed in the deep harm from learning history or even reading about Black people’s experiences, where’s the commensurate concern about Black student safety?
Challenged books week Kansas Reflector opinion columnists read books challenged by parents and residents and give their thoughts. Monday: Clay Wirestone on libraries.
Tuesday: Lori Brack on “All Boys Aren’t Blue.”
Wednesday: Iridescent Riffel on “Melissa.”
Thursday: Mark McCormick on the stakes for students.
Challenged books week
Kansas Reflector opinion columnists read books challenged by parents and residents and give their thoughts.
Monday: Clay Wirestone on libraries.
State education officials need to step in here with the same urgency of the CRT make-believe scare and library challenges for this actual danger. Facing mobs can prove terrifying and traumatizing for Black students.
I’m chairman of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission. Fellow commissioner Jonathan McRoy, who represents Wichita, reached out to me about the Valley Center incident. I told McRoy that Valley Center wasn’t alone.
My cousin who works with Wyandotte High students, for example, said students witnessed similar behavior in Augusta. A former colleague said she’d experienced racist taunts in Derby. Hispanic students elsewhere have heard “Build That Wall!”
My son, now a college student, said he’d experienced this.
When he traveled to Chaparral High School for a football game in which he was the only Black child on his team, he said that crowd waved Confederate battle flags and Trump flags. He was sent on an errand, alone, into that crowd.
Some of his Independent School classmates, he said, called him the “N-word.” Others called his mother “Chewbacca,” the bellowing, ape-like creature from the Star Wars franchise. One of his white teammates literally spat on a Black teammate — and remained on the team.
When he played for Olathe East and his football team traveled to Gardner, he said people targeted Black players with ape sounds. He didn’t share these incidents immediately. They seeped from his memory as his struggles mounted.
I’d tried preparing my sons for racist behavior. I shared books like “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Before the Mayflower” that talked about the challenges faced by Black people. But along the way I wondered if I were stealing their innocence.
My son, however, called this intervention “life saving.”
Author Stephen King once described isolation as horror’s key ingredient. That was what my son said he felt. He described not just Chaparral but also private school life as, at times, horrifying.
He said he struggled to maintain his cultural identity but watched some Black students assimilate to the point where they’d amputated any racial semblance of themselves. He described this absorption as a kind of death.
“What I picked up most when you were teaching me about Black history was if you don’t know where you came from, especially as a Black man, a part of you, dies.
“I never wanted to be the person who died.”
There were echoes of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” that my son successfully navigated — he understood his intrinsic human value, whether or not his skin was white and whether or not his eyes were blue.
There were echoes of Toni Morrison’s 'The Bluest Eye' that my son successfully navigated — he understood his intrinsic human value, whether or not his skin was white and whether or not his eyes were blue.
– Mark McCormick
Many Black children become adults who succumb to toxic, racial beauty standards.
This trauma is what we force on students by not stopping this behavior. It comes from not sharing the perspectives of others through literature and other means.
My adult niece, who now has a child of her own, used to perform with a Valley Center High School dance team.
“I can assure you, this is a normal thing that the student section does during basketball games!” she said. “I HATED having to stand with the student section hearing things they would shout and say about Black players.”
A high school classmate who attended Valley Center elementary and junior high schools said, “it was very difficult dealing with the very open racism that was carried out by the students and staff — yes, even some of the teachers.”
Another high school classmate, however, said she’d attended games and insisted the behavior in question “was not racial.”
So why did the Valley Center School District apologize?
“They did have a reason to apologize,” she wrote. “There was an inappropriate yell at someone shooting a free throw. That was addressed quickly. But there is no evidence of all the other stuff they say happened.”
She added: “The Topeka crowd was harassing VC crowd after the game. But (news media) did not mention any of that, did they?”
Interesting how it was the mob that was threatened in her view.
A news website blurred crowd photos taken at the reputed Valley Center basketball game. The blurring of the photos seemed sadly on brand. The privacy of people accused of bad behavior seemed more important than the actual safety of Black youth subjected to ugly, public behavior.
I propose that superintendents and school boards watch this issue closely, so the next time Black student athletes experience this, they’re not facing the hecklers alone, but with the full-throated support of the moral majority behind them.
If nothing else, we owe them protection.
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