Racial incidents shake community
A coffeehouse celebrating Black History Month was the scene of a series of confrontations between Bowdoin students, tensions from which spilled over to the following morning and continue to concern students and faculty alike.
The event, organized by the African American Society and held in Jack Magee's Pub, brought together performers including poet Hashim Allah, comedian Hari Kondabolu '04, and Miscellania.
Eyewitnesses, nearly all of whom preferred to remain anonymous, gave widely differing accounts of what took place as the evening progressed. Nearly all agreed, however, that what transpired was symptomatic of underlying racial issues on campus.
Students reported that the confrontation centered around a dispute over the use of the Pub that night. Thursday night is traditionally "Pub Night," popular with seniors and those returning from a weekly bowling league.
"I'm sympathetic to the issue of getting people to listen to a speaker or come to an event that they may not otherwise attend," said Pat Rockefeller '04, "but a pub is generally not the right place to force that interaction."
Senior Kijan Bloomfield, one of the coffeehouse's organizers, defended the decision to hold the event in the Pub on a Thursday, noting that it has been held there in past years because the space works well for the types of performances featured. Furthermore, Bloomfield said the decision to time the coffeehouse with the traditional senior pub night was partially designed to attract a new audience to cultural events.
The coffeehouse itself began with a series of musical and poetic performances by students. Sophomore Meron Paulos, another organizer, said the initial atmosphere was "calm and enjoyable."
Kondabolu's comedy routine was the fifth performance of the night. Some of his jokes were racially-based, and coffeehouse organizer Liz Mengesha '06 admitted that Kondabolu "said some things that could have made people uncomfortable."
Kondabolu acknowledged the controversial nature of his routine. "Comedy to me is about making the audience think critically and challenge their assumptions, even if this makes them feel uncomfortable," he said. He also noted, however, "the overwhelmingly positive feedback which I have received from people of all racial and cultural backgrounds."
While some said Kondabolu's act created tension in the Pub, others reported that conflicts began as a group of mostly white students returned from the bowling league during the performance of guest poet Iyabo Mandengo.
Bloomfield said many of the students entering during Mandego's performance were loud and disrespectful. "The poet had a difficult time getting the attention of the audience," she said, causing him to try to "provoke" them into listening.
Rockefeller said the spoken-word performer "was providing what even he, no doubt, thought was a controversial message."
"He was speaking very condescendingly of 'white America.' I felt very uncomfortable," another student said.
The noise level continued to grow, and Bloomfield asked the disruptive students to be respectful of the performer.
"She wasn't friendly at all about it," said a student that heard Bloomfield's request. "I apologized to her, but she didn't acknowledge my apology."
Bloomfield said she made an "assertive request," but added that she remained polite throughout the exchange. She also said that she asked the students again to respect the performance. "I went over a second time in a much calmer manner. However, when I left, there was snickering and mockery," she said.
Paulos said it was at this point that she began to feel very disturbed. "We heard a group of white students mocking the poetry," she said. "After hearing the performer use the 'n word,' the students took the liberty to throw around the word-not once, but a few times."
Paulos said students expressed anger because the event was held on what they called "their pub night." She also overheard students saying, "I didn't come to hear these people tell me I disrespected them."
Tensions rose further when Mandingo referred to a white student in attendance as a "lumberjack." One source said that the performance was "anti-white and offensive."
Some were also bothered by one student's impromptu on-stage display. "The second visiting poet asked if anyone in the audience had a very small amount of African blood," senior Sam Terry said. "[A white male] raised his hand and said 'I've got two.' The poet then invited him on stage. When the student got on stage he walked on his hands across the stage. As he was leaving, he kept saying, 'I've got two,' that's my two [percent].'"
Terry said the student's display was inappropriate and had racial undertones. "The obvious implication was that this student's two percent African blood lent itself to a variety of racially-based stereotypes about black people including athleticism, entertainment value, and buffoonery," he said.
Mengesha said near the end of the night a white female student told organizers to "choose a different venue or a different time. This is our night." Mengesha added that the white student said, "I feel oppressed now."
The morning after the coffeehouse, two African-American students put up a series of posters in Smith Union. One poster contained an image recalling slavery, and another featured the phrase "Mad YOU missed Pub Night for 'Negro's Fest?' Admit it; We all were. YOU are a RACIST." It was not clear from the poster to whom the "you" referred.
While they admit these particular posters were "flawed as political statements," the students involved in posting them, who wish to remain anonymous, defended their decision to put them up in light of the shock value. One student involved said that the posters were intended to "start dialogue" on race issues, but another added that they were intentionally "un-PC" in an attempt to match what was overheard at the Pub the night before.
Regarding the accusation of racism on one of the posters, one of those involved said that it was directed at a specific group of students and not the majority of white students on campus.
The events of Thursday night and Friday morning provoked a swift response from the Administration. Dean of Student Affairs Craig Bradley sent an email to the entire campus Friday evening, reminding it that respect is a "core value of the Bowdoin community," and requesting additional information about the incident. The dean's office scheduled a Forum on Civil Discourse for all students to discuss the specific events of last Thursday and Friday morning at 3:00 p.m. today in Daggett Lounge.
President Mills also sent the campus an email, affirming Bowdoin's committment to building "a community that embraces difference." Mills also said that he senses "a real desire on the part of students, faculty, and staff to engage in dialogue about our differences," but maintained that such dialogue must be done "in an open, respectful, and direct way, free of political correctness and characterized by respect."
The events continued to have an impact this week. Some expressed concern that last night's "100 Days to Graduation" event at the Pub was meant to represent a "taking back the Pub" in response to last week's events. Senior class officers assured the campus community that their event had been planned for some time.
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