“Ragtime” controversy from a Black choir student perspective

The removal of the N-word waters down historical content


Amira Warren-Yearby

Last year, when choir director John Myskowski informed us we would be doing the show “Ragtime,” I would have never predicted the controversy that has occurred.

Myskowski had mentioned the content and the storyline of the show. He also discussed the characters. The story seemed to be centered around the characters Sarah, Coalhouse and Coalhouses’ fight for justice after his car is destroyed and Sarah is brutally murdered. He also mentioned the language that would be used, which included the N-word.

In September of this year we revisited “Ragtime,” the language, content and vocal limitations. We often had discussions about race and racial identity, how we see ourselves and how others racially classify us. In discussions, we included our own experiences with racial prejudice and what that feels like. That was when I truly realized the major cultural divide in my class and how we had to include immigrants and allies in racial groups.

In late December we began to fully devote ourselves to the show. As we opened the score and read the lyrics, the meaning of the show started to sink in.

In the opening number, the word “Negro” is used. Everyone around me seemed rattled. Some even stopped once we reached the word. I felt my blood pressure begin to rise as I wondered why it had to be said. Everytime the word came up in the show I wouldn’t say it. Many try to distinguish “Negro” and the other version of the N-word, and although I can politically write “Negro” because it was a category used to describe black people, it still felt wrong.

The more I sang the songs, heard the words, the more I knew how important each aspect included was crucial to the plot. The more I knew how it related to the events in Ferguson and what is happening all over the world. Those words resonated with me, and I began to believe them for what they are, the truth. I realized we aren’t as far from the prejudice of the past as we think.

The N-word in American culture is a derogatory term toward black people. It had been used to oppress for more than over 200 years. The word holds so much power even today. American culture has adopted the term to fit modern culture in song lyrics and everyday conversation as a greeting or a term of endearment. To me and others, I know the N-word is still what is was in the 20th century.

Toward the end of rehearsal on Tuesday Feb 24., stage director Lillian Zumberge pulled aside the black students of the cast and asked us our opinions of keeping or omitting the N-word from the script. As a whole we agreed we wanted to keep it in the show because we felt it was vital to the meaning of the show, and replacing the word with “boy” takes away the impact and power and the feeling you get when the N-word is said.

Later that night we were informed administration said no to the use of the word. A few students and myself met with Metz the following day to share our concerns with the removal of the word. He acknowledged our concerns and discussed them with interim principal Scott Meyers. Meyers then met with myself along with Kari Schwietering and further discussed the issues of the show. I informed him the word would only be used three times, the impact it had to the show and content we discussed in class. I told him that we would include a public service announcement before each performance, explaining the content the audience would hear. He then directed me to get the opinions of two African-American teachers. Afterward I was to report back to him; he still declined our request.

Finally, Feb 26. during second period of the school day, opening night of the show, Meyers pulled aside Myskowski and informed him they were completely taking the N-word out of the show, not including “Negro.” That would include taking it out of a song, which musically replacing it with “boy” in my opinion, doesn’t match the beat of the song. The choir students were outraged. We all expressed our opinions in the choir room.

We also brought up the use of other racial slurs in the show toward other cultures, classes and sexes. At the end of that hour choir student signed a petition to keep the derogatory language in the show and rallied more voices. Our plan was to meet sixth period in front of Meyers’ office and tell him in person how we felt, to somehow persuade him to change his mind. The bell to end of fifth hour rang and by the last warning bell more than 40 students arrived outside of the principal’s office, along with 11 pages of petitioned signatures. We then moved to C350 to carry on our meeting.

Students of all racial backgrounds and genders attended, and after intense discussion Meyers kept the decision as is. In my opinion, Meyers had already made up his mind before we met.

School administration said they talked to the “black community,” and by that meant the five black teachers in the school and administrations black friends. That to me doesn’t sound like the “black community”. There’s a fine line between today’s generation and the generation of the administration. I believe that may have gone into the reason they disagreed. They have already gone through the motions of racial prejudice and the censorship completely denies it happened. Yes, the N-word is hurtful, but it is a part of history and we need to own up to that.

The excuse that the language would offend the black community seemed irrelevant. I myself am black. I am not offended and I know my family wouldn’t be either. I am more offended that we won’t include the word in the show. There are many other black students who fought to keep the word in the show; are they not a part of the black community? According to an interview with Kare 11, administration said we came to them two days before the show which didn’t give them enough time to advertise the racial slurs that added to their decision. Administration knew about the show a year ago, the same time we did. I feel they should have asked our opinions at the beginning of this process.

I felt the administration responded on a series of what if’s, and the fear to offend, which is what we’ve fought against. I hope people feel uncomfortable by the language used, it shows how far we’ve come as a society.