Tired of being a negative trope, black males (not a crime) assembled as a support group in the midst of this “hands up/I can’t breathe” era of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and countless other African-American young men who have been unjustly assaulted by police officers and wanna-be cops simply because of the color of their skin (or their hoodies).
This support group meets every other month over food, fellowship and haircuts in a loosely-formed organization of mostly men of color called “Barbershop.” White, Asian and Middle Eastern students were also warmly welcomed in this forum where guys talked about their academic, spiritual and health needs over soda pop, chicken wings and grooming by two professional barbers. It’s an all-male affinity group that asks females not to attend.
Similarly, the females have a “Beauty Shop” affinity group in another room where males are asked not to attend. No problem. The president and vice president of the college sometimes visit. From this experience, created by Oak Park-based English adjunct professor Darryl Satcher, many of the “Barbershop” guys found a way to cope and even excel in school and life.
Emanating from this rich experience was a play, adapted and directed by Satcher, called A Fresh Cut, that premiered March 24 at OPRF’s Little Theatre before mostly high school students and parents.
The production group is called Leading Man. The music was by Greg Owens. It featured actors Maurice Byrd, Jarrod Jennings, Tre Lewis, Eddie Diaz, Alexis Willis (the only female), Satcher, and journalism professor Curtis Lawrence. Retricia Byrd-Townsell was the stage manager in this joint venture, which was introduced by the high school’s assistant principal, who is probably quite busy fielding calls from agitated whites who are apparently still upset over a Feb. 27 controversial black-student-only assembly at the high school. (School board President John Phelan called it a “dangerous precedent.”) Carson Harris, a black-Mexican, former OPRF student now a Columbia College senior and my former “Culture, Race and Media” student, agreed.
“I heard about the controversy. While I do understand why African Americans needed safe space to talk about why Black Lives Matter, I do think affinity group assemblies like this should still allow whites, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and biracial folks like me to be allowed to participate, too. We’ve come too far to go back now,” she said.
Suzanne McBride, an Oak Parker who is associate chair of the Journalism Department at Columbia College, asked the cast of A Fresh Cut how they felt about the controversy surrounding the high school’s affinity group, which was intended to give black students a safe space to speak freely about issues connected with institutional racism and white supremacy.
Folks with a high tolerance for ambiguity can certainly understand both sides of the debate, according to interviews with actors and professors connected with A Fresh Cut. I sure can. I know Superintendent Steven Isoye, an Asian American, was the only non-black in attendance at the high school affinity group session that was widely supported by black and biracial parents at a recent three-hour forum. I know some white students and parents are pissed.
In full disclosure, I teach media literacy and writing at Columbia College and have mentored students in “Barbershop” since its inception, including one of my former “Culture, Race and Media” students, Eddie Diaz, who performed a powerful stand-up routine in the play on hybridity. Also, both of my twin bilingual sons of color graduated from OPRF in 2011.
I’ve penned a not-yet-published creative nonfiction piece, “Victors Retreat,” that looks through the lens of several generations of straight and gay males in our proudly black, multicultural family, which includes one transsexual black Mexican cousin. I just hope John Phelan doesn’t expect me to get his permission to tell our own story on our own terms on our own turf about why and when Black Lives Matter.
That’s how we roll.