Atlanta second-graders’ blackface masks draw outrage, apology

Some parents said they were so upset, they went straight to social media to express their frustration.

An Atlanta charter school apologized for a black-history program that featured second-graders with masks depicting blackface.

The Kindezi School at Old Fourth Ward said it will provide "cultural competency" training for teachers after parents expressed concern about the Thursday performance, during which children recited Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "We Wear the Mask" while holding up masks that looked like minstrel-show makeup. White performers in those 19th-century shows ridiculed blacks through exaggerated dialect, gestures and grotesque face paint.

The school issued a statement Friday to apologize and accept “responsibility for the hurt, anger, frustration and disappointment caused by the poor judgment we made in having students use masks that mimic blackface.”

Kindezi said it is investigating the matter and is committed to making sure "this never happens again."

A video of the performance posted on Facebook amassed more than 830,000 views in 18 hours. It sparked outrage from around the internet and questions from parents.

“The children have been rehearsing for months, dress rehearsals, staying after school … There’s no way in the world no one saw this. They allowed this to get on stage,” said Ari Lima, a parent who attended the program to watch her third-grade son perform in a different segment of the program.

The live performance was met with very light applause, she said. “You could kind of feel the uncomfortableness in the room.”

Although Black History Month is celebrated in February, the school schedules its performance when it works best for the schedule. This year, that was in March, said Kindezi spokeswoman Elizabeth Sharp Broderick.

The Dunbar poem, published around the start of the 20th century, speaks to pain endured by African-Americans. It begins, “We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.”

The historical context of blackface as “a tool of oppressors” to poke fun or inflict harm was not part of the children’s presentation, Lima said. She said the performance overlooked the fact that “blackface, of course, is not a black invention” and said it was inappropriate to have white or black students hold the masks without providing additional context.

“I can’t even think of how the teacher may have looked at her white students and thought this was OK to put it in front of their faces,” she said.

White performers wore blackface while acting in minstrel shows beginning around the 1830s in the United States, said Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The shows, and the offensive stereotypes they perpetuated, spread through white society.

Kindezi plans to provide teacher education to ensure “staff has a thorough understanding of our shared history regarding race and racism in America, and how to engage in productive conversations with our students and the community.”

The school also plans to speak with students about the “historical context” of the imagery and the poem and planned a parent forum.

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