The lights go dark in the cafeteria at Jones College Prep in the South Loop. As Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" blares over the sound system a line of black-clad students, right arms raised and fists clenched, begins marching from each corner toward the stripe of red carpet that divides the room.
Left, left, left, right, left . . . Panthers, halt!
The spotlight shifts toward an empty mike stand. A student appears and picks up the microphone. "A school administrator once admonished me for wearing a Black Panthers T-shirt," she says. "She said they were a violent gang indicted by the U.S. government under the RICO Act. Such are the ignorant gatekeepers of society that through their ignorance hinder understanding."
A murmur rises from the seats.
"That's what I love about this," says a member of the school's African American Club, the sponsor of the night's event. "People who think it's just about black people miss the point entirely. This is about challenging people's preconceptions about race."
Unlike the 16 participants standing at attention in front of the stage, the girl at the mike is white.
"Actually," continues the AAC member, "we didn't come up with the idea of honoring the Black Panthers. She did. So we thought, Who better to make the presentation than her? Plus we thought it would kind of shock people to see a Jewish girl who probably knows more about the Black Panther Party than they do. I guess we were right."
The Other Grammys, a talent show with race-themed student presentations, is the brainchild of the African American Club and their faculty adviser, literature teacher William McHenry. It started last year as a way to recognize students of distinction who, according to McHenry, were not normally recognized because "they were a part of a particular minority."
Despite the name, the Other Grammys aren't confined to music. Students are nominated in categories like excellence in science, activist of the year, and athlete of the year, with the winners to be determined by student vote. This year a rule was added to the contest: nominees could not be straight white males.
The words "This event is racist" began showing up on some of the submitted ballots. "Some of the students called me a racist," says McHenry. "I was called, by some of the teachers, an angry black man. Some asked, How can he discriminate against the straight white male? Some said they were going to create their own club, the White Male Club. And I said, Hey that's wonderful--do that. Our goal is not to exclude anybody but to include people who are not celebrated. The straight white males of this school can still come out and support their fellow students."
But the Other Grammys didn't go down easy. This year "there was just more hostility on the part of some of the students," says a senior AAC member. One student, "who's in a position of leadership here at the school, said that she was going to stab all of the members of AAC in the neck for having to deal with our crap."
The controversy persisted until September, when after a town hall meeting and a number of discussions with school officials, the Chicago Public Schools' legal department determined that the AAC could not hold an awards ceremony that was not open to every student.
"When we were told that we had to honor straight white males," says McHenry, "we changed the focus and decided to honor people and organizations from outside of the school."
According to some AAC members the change did little to alleviate the tension. "I think the teachers and the students that have problems with us and the Other Grammys don't want to understand," says one senior member, milling about before a presentation in honor of Sam Greenlee, whose 1969 cult satire The Spook Who Sat by the Door was later made into a movie. "They don't want people questioning ideas because that shakes up the status quo. But honestly, we like the controversy because it forces people into a discussion about issues of race and individuality. And regardless of whether they realize it or not, by participating in the discussion, we're all learning."
McHenry, draped in a purple dashiki, hurries about in an effort to make sure that the audio for the Asian Club's presentation doesn't fail a second time. After the club has successfully started its act, a fan dance, I pull him aside to ask whether he thinks the controversy is good. "Yes and no," he says. "I think some of the teachers here are very comfortable, and because I, along with my students, tend to challenge and/or question what I think is a very Eurocentric curriculum, it causes tension. But it's that same tension that gets reporters down here to cover this event. And that is definitely a good thing."
As the evening wraps up, Jones principal Donald Fraynd joins McHenry onstage to thank the honorees and laud the efforts of McHenry and the AAC. At 33, Fraynd is significantly younger than the teachers AAC members consider hostile toward the Grammys. Were it not for his suit and five o'clock shadow, he could almost be mistaken for a student.
As the seats empty I walk over and ask him whether he thinks the conflict is generational. "It's not related to age," he says. "It's related to exposure to these types of conversations. Though it might make some of them uncomfortable, it's necessary that we allow for a rich and diverse debate on these issues." He looks at the students now scattering around the cafeteria. "It's part of this school's mission to graduate students who are both socially just and able to reflect on how race shapes their experience not only at Jones but in greater society."
As Fraynd walks off, an AAC member who has been standing beside us taps me on the shoulder. "How many white students do you see here?" he asks. "Only a couple," I say. "Well then," he says, "obviously the school has got a lot of work to do."