Recently, there has been a big flap at my alma mater over the casting of a Caucasian student to play the lead role in the homecoming musical, Aida. Aida is the story of a Nubian princess, and some folks–both at the university and in the community–did not appreciate the casting. Also, some in the theatre department have been personally defamed by the over-zealous media over the casting decision. (For more information see The Abilene Reporter News) The registration is free.)
I love Abilene Christian University, I loved my experience there, I was nurtured deeply by my professors in the Bible Department, the Graduate School of Theology and my connection with the good people at the Highland Church of Christ, particularly the preaching of Mike Cope–where I attended while in college. Currently, I serve on ACU’s Alumni Advisory Board and though there’s not a lot of extra money around our house, we manage to make our annual donation to the school.
It is obvious to me, though I don’t even live in Abilene, that some good people have been hurt in all this. At the same time, I must admit, that as an African-American, I have always felt a subtle sub-text of racism at ACU. Now, I don’t for a minute think the current situation is racist. There are too many people whom I respect who speak well of the parties involved for me to believe the people involved are racist. At the same time, this casting decision has stirred deep passion and anxiety in me and I’m not sure why.
Is it because I felt racism while in school and feel it in our churches? Or is it because ACU was so slow to accept blacks as students? Is it because churches of Christ essentially have two fellowship (if not three); black and white and Hispanic? Could it be that as an African American who ministers in predominately white churches that during every interview I’ve ever had some church member has asked the church leadership if I would be able to “relate” and had questions about what kind of “people” I would attract to the church? Is it because as a college student I had impeccable references, grades, and experience but could not get internships? I even had churches give me back my resume at the end interviews–a phenomenon that NEVER happened to my white friends! Could it be that as a teenager people in my youth group consistently made fun of minorities and disrespected black culture?
I’m not sure where the stir of emotion has come from. I saw “Fiddler on the Roof” at ACU and I assume the cast wasn’t all Jewish. I saw “Oliver” too, and Oliver was played by a girl. And truthfully, “Nubian”–which is the race of Aida–does not always, necessarily mean “Black”.
For some reason, this feels different though. Maybe because the nail of racism against blacks is still being hammered in contemporary culture and the church. The great sin of America has been its institutional exclusion of blacks and when occasions like this arise it feels like more of the same.
And that’s the point where me and so many of my white friends part. They always want to argue the facts–like those I mentioned about “Fiddler”. Facts are great, but they don’t always tell the whole story. Imagine “Fiddler” being staged in Germany shortly after WWII, while there were still some Nazi’s around (by “Nazi’s” I don’t mean people at ACU, but rather some people in the culture who still hold certain views). How might they respond then about casting non Jews? I can’t be certain, but they might be offended at being excluded from the telling of part of their story and culture.
Perhaps there is a difference in the way we should treat, and talk about, a wound that is still fresh (and in some places a wound that is being inflicted)? Or maybe I’m just over-sensitive? The truth is, we (churches, universities, and church leaders) need to talk about this a lot more and a lot more openly, a lot more honestly.
I wish I had an answer…