In a moment when a suburban Chicago high school should be focusing the achievements of its soon-to-be graduates, its administrators did something that happens far too often: punish Black girl genius.
As JETMag.com reported exclusively last week, when senior Taiylar Ball delivered her powerful poem “Dear Black Girls” at a school talent show, she was punished for using the word “nigga” in a line addressing Black men who are sometimes fetishized by non-Black women. You can see the performance here.
But Ball should have received accolades from anyone in that building who considers themselves to be an English teacher. The device she used was brilliant and beyond her years. She shifted from the technical identity (Black man), to the familiar (brothers) to a word so many of us use with equal parts love and disappointment. Ball used a word that would be dysphemistic in the mouth of anyone else, but can be both friendly and offensive coming from another Black person, and her tone acknowledges this as a deliberate choice.
Ball was removed from the event, barred from attending her senior prom and until today, it was unclear if she would be able to attend her graduation— all unique moments in a young woman's life. This was, to be sure, cruel punishment, but I can't call it unusual, not in a world that seeks to stifle Black girl magic whenever it can.
This story has a happy-enough resolution: the school has done the right thing and Ball will be allowed to attend the ceremony, both Ball and her lawyer Rahsaan Gordon confirmed to EBONY.com on Thursday. However, as the dust settles from the controversy, this should be a teachable moment for anyone who took issue with the word she used in her poem, especially considering that this comes just weeks after the controversy that ensued when The Nightly Show's Larry Wilmore used it to refer to President Obama at the White House Correspondent's Dinner. It is worth noting that the president gave the TV host the official Black man hug and back clap in response. If the word was always bad, dirty and wrong, why wouldn’t he have recoiled in horror?
TAIYLAR BALL GRADUATES
— Queen Taiy (@TaiylarStarrxo) May 25, 2016
I wager that these recent moments have had much less to do with anyone being bothered by what the word means to Black people, but are entirely about what it means to White ones.. The worst thing you can tell a privileged person is "no," and so long as "nigga" is regarded as something that only Black people can say, the more it will infuriate the descendants of those who used “nigger” as they enslaved, abused and murdered our ancestors. I wouldn’t doubt many of those crying "if we can't say it, no one should," use it as freely as they please away from mixed company.
Understanding the many ways that African Americans use, abuse and/or reject "nigga" begs a level of emotional intelligence that White supremacy does not require it's beneficiaries to have. That is not an insult, that is a harsh truth, but when it comes to a country ordered by undue privilege across race and class lines, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. The best, brightest and most highly educated White person can achieve—can lead a diverse student body, even—without ever having to seriously consider the nuances that define the lives of Black people in the United States. We see this time and time again. Were that not the case, would we still be debating the right of African Americans to say it” Would we continue to have to suffer the absurdity of suggesting that a White person can adequately determine what is or isn’t offensive to a group of people who have largely acknowledged that while we don’t all see eye-to-eye on the word, we can accept the fact that many of our own use it in a colloquial, familial manner?
While I am grateful for the decision that Homewood Flossmoor made today, the fact that we were just days before the event and wondering if Ball would be present should encourage us to examine another issue much larger than any one defiant teen.
There hasn’t been tremendous outrage from the school community, that both local and national media (with notable exceptions being the Chicago Sun-Times’ Redeye and NewsOneNow’s Roland Martin) have been nearly silent and that silence speaks volumes.The story was even amplified on social media by none other than J.K. Rowling (yes, that J.K. Rowling), yet…it stayed relatively quiet. While revoked graduation activities certainly don’t meet the standard of tragedy of, say, police killings or missing kids, we’ve seen far sillier stories go viral. Why is it so easy to look at the mistreatment of Black girls and say, “Eh, oh well?” Imagine that she had been a White kid using a word that had been leveled against her in a poem—I believe we’d see the Midwest suburban equivalent of “Donna Martin graduates!”
My father, a retired Chicago police detective, taught me the difference between the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law. The rules that govern schools are (in theory) designed to create safe, productive learning environments; however, unless criminal activity has taken place, these laws needn’t be treated with the severity of local or federal ones. Taiylar Ball didn’t violate the spirit of Homewood Flossmor High School’s laws, unless they were actually intended to harm creative young people and to punish Black kids for being, well, Black kids. I refuse to believe that is the case and for that reason, it seems that the school’s decision to stand down should have been an easy one.
Ball is slated to attend Florida A&M University next fall. It does my heart well to know that she will be ensconced in the (relatively) protective arms of an HBCU that can, at the very least, offer the possibility for a better approach to the complicated nature of race, cultural politics and a polarizing word. However, it would be tragic for her school let this teachable moment escape, even as the lockers are emptied and the students shuttled home for the summer.
Homewood Flossmoor must now look itself in the mirror and determine what sort of message they want to send to their students and to the world at large. It should meet the confusion of White students and their parents head-on and have an open dialogue about the complicated nature of this world; create a space where Black kids and parents don’t feel that they need to be silent or complacent for fear that their own futures can be harmed.
“Nigga” isn’t going anywhere soon, but what requires our more urgent attention is the way Black children are treated when they violate rules, just or otherwise. Hopefully, this school community will continue to look inward and figure out a better way to do so in the future.
Jamilah Lemieux is senior editor of EBONY Magazine.