Skirmish Over ‘Fences’ Gets Black Student Expelled, Mom Says

The mother of a Black ninth-grader at a private, mostly white school in Charlotte, N.C., said her son was expelled after she complained about the reading by students of August Wilson’s 1985 play “Fences” which deals with racism. The play’s dialogue, she said, is inappropriate because of the amount of racial slurs used in it — which would have been read and spoken by the white students.

“You can have the important conversations about race and segregation without destroying the confidence and self-esteem of your Black students and the Black population,” the mother, Faith Fox told The New York Times.

The play, which received a Pulitzer Prize in 1987, centers on a character named Troy Maxson, a former Negro League pitcher who is employed as a Pittsburgh city sanitation worker. The themes of the play revolve around how Troy deals with multiple issues ranging from his disappointment with his station in life, how racism has pigeonholed families like his and, confronting the mistakes he’s made in life and how it all has affected his family. The language of the play tends to be coarse and blunt in getting its message across.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in a 2016 film version of the play, also directed by Washington. Davis won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

RELATED: ‘Fences’ Movie Review: ‘Give Viola Davis Her Oscar!’

Fox, who is an attorney and a single mother, found that the play’s themes were not age appropriate for the group at Charlotte’s Providence Day school and feared it could perpetuate stereotypes about Blacks. She met with the school’s administrators and came to an agreement on an alternate lesson plan for her son. Four other parents — it is unclear if they are all Black — had also complained about the language and context and the standoff continued.

Last month, the school told Fox that her son, Jamel, 14, would no longer be allowed to attend, calling it a “termination of enrollment.” She, however, calls itan expulsion. A letter from the school dated Nov. 27 accused Fox of “multiple personal attacks against a person of color in our school administration, causing that person to feel bullied, harassed and unsafe.”

But Fox fired back, telling the Times: “Instead of addressing the issue they’re trying to make me seem like an angry, ranting Black woman.”

Other parents who spoke to the Times said they also had issues with the reading of the play, as well as a video the school put out to discuss its content. In November, parents were notified about the plan to introduce “Fences.” They were told that slurs would appear in the text and instead of using them, the phrase “N-word” would be said by students during a reading of the play followed by further discussion on the nuances of the slur.

Fox, expressed her disagreement with all of it. “It wasn’t something that I thought was appropriate for a roomful of elite, affluent white children,” she said. Jamel, who would have participated via online learning because of coronavirus precautions, also felt uncomfortable with the lesson on the play.

“It’s really awkward being in a classroom of majority white students when those words come up,” he said, “because they just look at you and laugh at you, talk about you as soon as you leave class. I can’t really do anything because I’m usually the only Black person there.”

RELATED: ABFF Honors Acceptance Speech: The “Fences” Cast Dedicates Their Award to August Wilson

The school had brought the study of “Fences” into its lesson plans in 2017 in response to Black parents who wanted to see more discussions on race in the curriculum. After Jamel exited the school, Black faculty members got together and addressed the other parents who had an issue with the play, explaining that Black writers can sometimes create flawed Black characters when the “damaging legacy of racism” is depicted.

To Fox’s point, Kate Rieser, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education told the Times that teachers should introduce “Fences” carefully when teaching it.

“It’s telling a story about a Black family that, if it’s the only text or it’s one of only a few texts about Black people that students read, might give white students in particular a sense that Black families are all like this Black family,” said Rieser.

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