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Blackface at Nazareth College
Blackface has always been racist. It has always been wrong and if there has ever been confusion on the subject then the last ten years of activism against blackface and black caricatures should have finally put the subject to rest. Politicians, celebrities and regular people have been shamed for donning blackface in recent years including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. People have lost their jobs and when students have donned blackface they were expelled. Taking all these things into consideration it surprised me a great deal when I came across a social media announcement by Nazareth College President Daan Braveman announcing an investigation into a student or students in blackface. I searched social media and eventually found the videos and pictures. In a digital age these sorts of things are easy enough to find. What I found with the original pictures were the numerous outraged voices of people of color. These men and women knew that there is deep seated institutional racism at Nazareth College and finally there is unequivocal proof that it exists for all to see. They have their own voice and I ask that people really listen to their concerns. I can only speak about what I know being an alumnus of the college as well as being a teacher at other colleges in the area
I went to Nazareth College from 1998 to 2001. I graduated just before September 11th. In almost every aspect of my life at Nazareth College I could feel the pressure of elitism in everything I did and experienced. In some ways this was a good thing. We are in college to improve ourselves and go out into the world and make a difference. In many other ways it was a negative. Because in this circumstance when you fail at something It doesn’t just mean that you are unprepared. It also means that perhaps you are not the right type of person that can succeed at Nazareth. Perhaps you are not as elite as your classmates. Perhaps you are not worthy of this college experience and perhaps those that look like you are not worthy of it either.
If this was a constant for me, imagine what it would be like for a person of color, GLBTIQ or a person with a disability to be singled out and told they are not Nazareth College material or that their perspective lacked merit because it did not fit the prevailing WASPy point of view. While at Nazareth I worked in the HEOP/Excel office as a summer counselor working mostly with students from diverse backgrounds. Outside of the program many of these students would become my friends. These students were from immigrant families, poor families and families of color. In my time as their counselor and as their friend I can say with certainty they never felt 100% welcome on campus. They were either tokenized as an exotic or dismissed.
Yet when I think of Nazareth I also think of the civil rights activism of the Sisters of St. Joseph and their presence on campus. In a recent trip to Rochester, Congressman John Lewis thanked the sisters for saving his life. In 1965, he was beaten during a civil rights march and taken to the Good Samaritan, a hospital run by the Sisters of St. Joseph and the only hospital in the area that would treat people of color. By the time I went to Nazareth there were still many sisters among the faculty. I always found them to be supportive and equitable in their attentions. When my fellow students were struggling or in crisis they could often find solace and comfort in the wisdom of these women regardless of their race or class or their perceived status.
Working in the theatre department I would often come across a contingent of middle aged Cambodian men who worked maintenance in the building. They came to this country as refugees escaping the killing fields of Pol Pot. They are now citizens with families and a stable life because of Nazareth. The college took them in, provided them a livelihood and a pathway to middle class America. How can both versions of Nazareth exist? The elite and the pious? The civil and the bigoted? I do not have an answer for you, but I think we need to listen to those who have been systematically wronged, find out how we can do better and build a bigger table with a place for everyone to sit to help make things right.
About J.R. Teeter
J.R. Teeter has been the artistic director of Bread & Water Theatre since he founded the organization in 2000 while attending Nazareth College of Rochester. At BWT he has directed several plays including; DR. FAUSTUS, THE LITTLE PRINCE, and a wide variety of other productions. All of J.R’s written work incorporates first person source material in the crafting of the play with MY NAME IS MUDD being composed entirely from the letters of Dr. Samuel Mudd the physician who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth during his escape from authorities after his assassination of President Lincoln. In addition to his playwrighting he currently works at at Finger Lakes Community College
540WMain will celebrate its 4 year anniversary with a party and extravaganza on Saturday June 20, 2020. In just four years the organization has become a pillar in the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood and a convener and curator of important and vital community conversations, classes, and programs. Your financial support helps us scale up this work in 2020 and beyond with a year long fundraising goal of $40,000