Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)


May 12, 2004:

Race to the end
When it’s more than black, or white

by Kate Swearengen ’04


Playing in the Dark

Khalil Sullivan ‘04, an English concentrator with a certificate in Theater and Dance, wrote and produced a play for his senior thesis, “Playing in the Dark: A Multi-Media, Minstrel Dramedy,” which ran two weekends in April at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center. The play centered on two young men, one black and one white, who fall in love while struggling to define and come to terms with their identities.

In writing “Playing in the Dark” Sullivan drew upon the minstrel theatrical tradition, a type of entertainment popularized in the 1830s and 1840s in which white actors donned blackface to perform comedy and play music. Sullivan’s play presented a new twist: Instead of one racial group playing off another, his characters created false personas to hide their true identities, as if they were, in a sense, in whiteface.

Solomon, the black student played by Rodney Deavault ’07, alternates between being himself and playing the part of the “dandy,” the minstrel character of the “uppity” black man striving to conform to white society. Solomon’s alter ego, a circus ringleader, played by Catherine Cushenberry ’07, appeared periodically via live video feed dramatizing his internal conflict.

According to the playbill, the inspiration for “Playing in the Dark” came from Sullivan’s late-night walks with his roommates as an underclassman: “After those types of nights we never looked at Princeton the same way. My roommate, Jim Hunt, always reminded me to beware the fallacy of insufficient cynicism. In short, question everything. Why are you watching a play by an African-American male at Princeton, an institution that a few decades ago would have not have reacted kindly to his presence, an institution which to this day does not adequately address nor realize the issues he faces?”


Shades of Princeton

A campus-wide e-mail was recently sent to advertise Shades of Princeton (http://www.shadesofprinceton.org), a discussion forum in which university members can anonymously post their experiences with racism or respond to other people’s postings. The goal is of the website is to show that in spite of the lack of publicized incidents, racism is a problem at Princeton. Because racism is often intertwined with other -isms, the project has been expanded to encompass all forms of discrimination on campus — classism, racism, religious discrimination, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, sizeism, and “other.”

A March 1 post reads: “I was walking back from the Wa behind a groups of guys and heard them saying (and I paraphrase because this was two weeks ago) ‘I’m so sick of all this race sh**. I mean, class I guess I can understand. But it’s like, get over it already!’ His two friends nodded in agreement. This is not an uncommon sentiment and I’m not exactly surprised…but then again, I was. His tone was like, ‘I feel so assailed by all this race-conscious stuff…why can’t they just get over it already? Poor, poor me.’ As if programming such as Sustained Dialogue or the discussion of racial issues or race-related policies were somehow negatively affecting his comfortable, Princeton life.”

Baseball Hatted White Dudes

Elliot Ratzman, a graduate student in religion and a member of the Princeton breakdancing group Sympoh, spends more time trying to turn other peoples’ heads than spinning on his own.

An incorrigible do-gooder with a highly developed sense of social justice, Ratzman recently wrote an article for the Nassau Weekly called “Can I Read Marxist Theory in Starbucks and Not Go to Hell?” (The answer is yes). But his latest, “What Would Peter Singer Do? The Princeton of Good and Evil in Four Scenes,” straddles the line between reformist and elitist:

“Sometime last semester a whole bunch of baseball-hatted white dudes were searching through the course catalog looking for a spring class to take. They came upon one description and exclaimed in chorus, “Why, it’s a class on Erasmus, David Hume, Matthew Arnold, and Edward Said!”

The reference was to Cornel West *80’s Religion 316: Public Intellectuals and Religious Traditions, a lecture of 150 undergraduates.

Ratzman asks: “So what exactly do all these folks learn in West’s class anyway? Have they wrestled with existential questions? Has West moved them, or do they just perceive him as a Negro dancing a jig? Let’s see what they say once their grades are turned in. The gifts of academic heaven’s highest circle are endemically squandered on mental no-shows.”

Ratzman misses the point that the world’s wealth and power are endemically squandered on white, baseball-hatted (or cowboy hatted) mental no-shows, and that trying to win them over makes more sense than ignoring them. West doesn’t need to preach to the choir — he goes out and converts.

So the guy in the third row who plays solitaire on his laptop may not turn out to be the next James Baldwin. Cellphones have disrupted several lectures, and the odds are that it wasn’t Bernard Henry-Levi calling from Paris. But what good is a public intellectual if he’s just dialoging with other intellectuals?

All cynicism about Princeton students aside, I seriously doubt that anyone in the class thinks of Professor West as a “Negro dancing a jig.” Are some of West’s more subtle points lost on us? Undoubtedly. Are we getting everything we should out of the class? Probably not, and some of us may never cultivate an appreciation for Matthew Arnold. Sometimes laughter from the preceptors in the front row indicates that West has said something funny and profound that has gone over our heads. But there are jokes we get — “Check yourself. Socrates would say know thyself, but he’s not a street brother like me.” — and we love it when West abandons academic language to refer to someone as a ‘gangster.’ West is the consummate public intellectual, and connecting with his audience comes with the territory.


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu