Jokes about race, HIV are no laughing matter

November 04, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Can we PUH-LEESE drop the issue of the hanging pirate?

Members of the Johns Hopkins University's Black Student Union have some legitimate gripes against the school. William Brody, the university's president, all but conceded as much in an e-mail sent Thursday to Hopkins faculty, students and staff.

Yes, black Hopkins students should be upset about the contents of two ads that promoted a Halloween party given by the Sigma Chi fraternity.

But claiming that a skeleton dressed in a pirate costume dangling from a rope outside the fraternity's house represented the lynching of a black person requires jumping to a conclusion that spans several light-years.

Some pirates were indeed hanged. That was the penalty for piracy. Not all hangings were lynchings.

Far more offensive than the hanging pirate were the comments in the ads, in which the writer "invoked derogatory racial stereotypes" and called Baltimore "a [bleeping] ghetto" and "HIV pit," according to the Nov. 2 edition of The Johns Hopkins News-Letter.

The News-Letter said the student who wrote the ads is junior Justin Park, who has since been booted from Sigma Chi. Park, according to the News-Letter, said "the advertisement was in bad taste. It was meant to be satirical and humorous, but it was offensive, and for that I apologize."

So Mr. Park comes to realize too late that he's no Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce and should leave the funny stuff to truly gifted satirists. Parts of Baltimore are indeed "HIV pits."

But there's nothing funny about that.

Ralph Moore and Erich W. March, both black graduates of Hopkins' Class of 1974, were appalled that someone would try to make light of the rate of HIV infections in Baltimore.

"That's disgusting," Moore said yesterday as he stood at the corner of 33rd and Charles streets, participating in a rally jointly sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP and the Hopkins BSU. "There's nothing funny about that. There's nothing funny about HIV."

Moore went on to describe the agony endured by one of his friends who died of HIV complications. His friend's suffering was considerable, Moore emphasized, and in the end, he wasted away. I've seen a first cousin and a nephew who died this year go the same route. I don't see the funny in Baltimore's HIV rate either.

"I don't know what particular field that person's career path is," March said of Park, "but if it's medicine, what kind of doctor are you going to be with an attitude like that?"

For Moore and March, the protest and BSU demands for more black faculty members and black studies courses are a familiar refrain. When they graduated -- with a total of 23 blacks in their class -- they had made the same demands, almost verbatim.

In his letter, Brody didn't commit to implementing more black studies courses. He did write that "I am directing the deans to work with the faculty to implement an important recommendation on curriculum I received this week from a distinguished group of African-American professors from across the university. These faculty members pointed out that, in recent years, college and university students have become increasingly unfamiliar with the history of racism in the United States and around the world. They propose we develop courses, workshops and seminars to increase our students' exposure to the history and current reality of racism."

Will those courses, workshops and seminars be mandatory? I put that question to Dennis O'Shea, a Hopkins spokesman who stood near yesterday's rally to answer questions from pesky reporters.

"In our curriculum, very little is mandatory," O'Shea answered. "There really is insufficient coverage of these issues. The point was very well taken by President Brody and the deans."

Full disclosure: I teach a writing course at Hopkins. I have, for the reasons Brody, Moore and March mentioned, assigned extra-credit reading and writing for the class. One of the books I assign is Kevin Boyle's Arc of Justice, a superb story of racism, rioting and rebellion in 1920s Detroit. Another is David Oshinsky's equally compelling Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Prison Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.

I used to assign Gregory Freeman's Lay This Body Down -- the tale of 11 "plantation slaves" killed in Georgia in 1921 -- but stopped because I thought it might be too depressing. I asked O'Shea if the Hopkins administration would support professors assigning reading about the history of racism for extra credit.

"We're going to be looking at all kinds of ways to make this happen," O'Shea said. "There's some talk of assigning reading over the summer to students. All kinds of things are on the table."

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