Exploring the History of Racism
“To know the past is to know the present. To know the present is to know yourself.” And so begins Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, a book students and faculty read together during Homecoming at the start of Cardigan’s academic year.
Last January, Cardigan identified diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as the focus for faculty professional development in 2020-21; the need for this work has only been validated by the national events of the past six months. While the start of the school year for faculty began with a multi-day DEI workshop with Melissa Crum, students began their school year with Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, a book that studies the history of racism and helps students explore their own roles in eliminating it.
“We decided to read the book at the beginning of the year because we wanted to mark our commitment to thinking about racism,” says Art Department Chair Nina Silitch P’19,’21. “This isn’t a box we can check off and be done with. Understanding racism takes continual work. If we’re not doing this work, then we’re doing everyone a disservice.” She referenced the School’s mission—preparing middle school boys for responsible and meaningful lives in a global society—when she stressed the importance of the boys reflecting on their own stories and experiences, both conscious and subconscious, and how racist ideas and policies have impacted their lives.
During Homecoming–a two-week, technology-free period this year that allowed students to have a staggered start due to COVID precautions–students were given time to play games and explore campus, but they also read Stamped. Within their dorm groups, students explored the terms racist, segregationist, assimilationist, and antiracist and learned about historical figures including Gomes Eanes de Zurara, Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and W.E.B. Du Bois. They learned about the complicated history of racism in America—entwined with economics, laws, and popular culture—and how that history impacts the country in which we live today.
“I had the opportunity to read and to facilitate conversations with the boys, and I was so impressed with their enthusiasm and courage,” says Director of Student Life Nick Nowak. “I wish all of our families could have heard the boys asking to read more of the book. We are both fortunate and privileged at CMS, and accomplishing our mission as a school is dependent on whether or not we use that privilege to prepare for responsible and meaningful lives in a global society. Listening to our students discuss Stamped, I feel encouraged.”
The community reading and discussions culminated in the creation of a reimagined book cover for Stamped. “Let’s put your visual storytelling skills to the test and see if you can capture the essence of our community read,” challenged Ms. Silitch. Students rose to the challenge, choosing powerful colors, words, and images to illustrate their ideas.
“This isn’t a box we can check off and be done with. Understanding racism takes continual work. If we’re not doing this work, then we’re doing everyone a disservice.”Nina Silitch, Art Department Chair
“The work that we started with Stamped, is only the beginning,” says Assistant Head of School Josh LeRoy P’23. “The reading and discussions we had within our dorm families opened a door for our boys and the community moving forward. Listening, being empathetic, and having the courage to speak up was evident and exciting to witness.”
Our school-wide theme this year is ‘Carry On,’ and this important work will be carrying on throughout this year. Ms. Silitch said she plans to use the theme “Other Voices” in her art classes to introduce her students to diverse artists and ideas, and the School is planning to start a faculty committee that will continue the work as well.
Students are also engaging in the conversation. Gabe Quinn ’21 has founded Cardigan Boys of Color, or CBOC, a group that meets on Thursday nights to discuss racism, unconscious bias, and ways to intentionally support inclusivity at Cardigan. Gabe is biracial and has often experienced the difference in the way people treat him when he is with his mother who is Black, compared to when he is with just his father who is white. His idea for the group came from a two-week leadership course he took at The Hotchkiss School over the summer during which he was tasked with doing something to better his community.
“I sent out an email to this community asking if anyone was interested in joining the group,” he says, “Immediately I received 10 emails of interest. I’m looking forward to our first meeting next Thursday.”
Reaghan Moore ’22 also picked up the important topic in a chapel talk this fall, sharing his own personal experiences and talking about being an ally against racism. He closed with the following thought: “We as a community have the choice to be strong advocates or allies who step in when it is needed. I cannot tell you what to choose; that choice must come from you and only you. But if there is one thing I know about this community, it is that we will all make the right choice.”