A Tomahawk mother is asking her daughters’ school district to take action, following a fourth grade performance of a Black folk song that featured what seemed to be a student pretending to be a slave catcher chasing another student, pretending to be an enslaved person.
“Run, chillun, run, the pattyroller will catch you,” fourth graders sang during Tomahawk elementary school’s recent spring performance, titled “Dreamers.” With drums playing in the background and the music teacher conducting, two kids ran after one another across the stage.
Brandi Berry, whose 10-year-old biracial daughter was on stage and 11-year-old biracial daughter was in the audience, said she was confused, immediately noticing that something was offensive about the performance. She said the music teacher, while smiling and laughing, goaded one student to “go on, catch her” at one point.
“Without much context of the song and just hearing the lyrics, it really did look to me as though they were putting up these fourth graders, acting out a slave owner chasing after a runaway slave with laughter and smiling in the background,” Berry said. “That’s what struck a chord with me.”
Berry, who works as a school psychologist, said she and her daughter searched the lyrics online after the performance and learned the original song was called “Run, [N-word], Run.”
“It’s the first thing that pops up if you were to Google the song lyrics,” Berry said. “And [my daughter] doesn’t understand the full dynamics of what happened that day, but she sure knows the N-word.”
According to Smithsonian Folkways, a nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, the original song “Run, [N-Word], Run”, first appeared after Nat Turner’s Rebellion, a rebellion of enslaved people that took place in Virginia in 1831 that led to an increase in slave patrols and tightening of repressive slave codes.
The song lyrics at the time were often interpreted as empowering enslaved people to escape, while spreading knowledge about the dangers that may lie ahead if they exercised that agency. During the 1800s, the song was co-opted by white people and used in minstrel performances, racist shows that featured white performers wearing blackface to depict African Americans. The song later evolved into different versions that removed the N-word from the lyrics and title.
Berry said she commends the school for incorporating Black history into its curriculum, but also wants that history to be celebrated and honored, while the performance seemed mocking. “I think that when we tackle those subjects we have to do so in a way that honors what happened in our past and doesn’t mock it or make fun of it,” she said.
Berry said she expressed her concerns to the school, which led them to take a video of the performance down from YouTube. But administrators didn’t respond to her directly for several days.
“Here I am, a week after the performance, and crickets… No memo, no calls, and no response to my request for an update this morning,” Berry wrote in a Facebook post last week.
She eventually met with the lead music teacher and later had a separate meeting with the superintendent, both of whom are white.
Wendell Quesinberry, the Tomahawk superintendent, said the teacher picked the song out of a song book and was using it to teach a lesson about how children can sometimes make up games in traumatic situations.
However, the context of the song was unknown to the teacher, who like Berry, only learned after the performance what a ‘pattyroller’ — another name for a slave patroller — was. Nor are origins of the song related to a children’s game.
“I can respect wanting to make this fun and engaging for the children,” Berry said. “It’s just the way it came across was making light of slavery, making it seem like a fun game that the slave patroller is running after his runaway slave.”
Single family complaint v. larger community impacts
Tomahawk superintendent Wendell Quesinberry said the district is “investigating” the situation.
“We’re trying to look at and learn as much as we can about this particular song and what some of the recommended learning around it would be,” Quesinberry said. “Where and how those songs are recommended for use and does that fit with the intended learning intentions around the lesson that was present here.”
Quesinberry said the school district will consider whether the song is one that it should completely avoid, or if it was misused in this situation. He said administrators are treating the situation as they would any other parent’s complaint.
Berry said the school district is handling the situation well in certain ways but not in others.
“They have been open to hearing my interpretation of the song and my complaints. The music teacher offered a very heartfelt apology,” Berry said. “Where I am right now is I would like them to back up all the wonderful things that they’ve said with action.”
Berry said she wants the school to publicly acknowledge the situation and treat it as a learning opportunity to examine how the school district could improve its handling of issues of race. She said she suggested that the school implement cultural competence training or curriculum for the staff, so they better understand how their words and actions can be perceived by people of color.
Berry, who is white, said it was hard watching her child perform the song. Her biracial daughters, who she and her husband adopted, have been in the school district for less than a year, and while she sees it as a big responsibility for her as a parent to instill confidence in her daughters, it’s also important for the school to be a place where they can belong.
“The majority of their waking hours are spent at school, so it seems to me that a big part of building a healthy cultural identity is having a school where they feel like they can belong, where they feel respected, and where teachers and other staff are trained well enough to know how to handle sensitive topics.”
Berry said she suggested providing a new curriculum for students that addresses things like microaggressions, partially because her daughters have also dealt with some racially based bullying.
“Our kids are often smarter than we give them credit for and better able to soak in some of these big topics than we think,” Berry said. “I’m all for kids having fun, but sometimes these topics need to be dealt with, with the appropriate seriousness. And slavery is one of those topics, right?”
To Berry it seems the school is treating the situation as a problem of individual perception, rather than a situation that should be addressed with the community as a whole.
“They’re treating this as a family complaint, and my perception is this doesn’t just involve my family. This was a community performance,” Berry said. “They’re addressing this as ‘Brandi has been harmed or her children have been harmed.’ I just really wish they took a bigger viewpoint and acknowledged that this reached our whole school, our whole community, even people traveling outside the community to come and support students and teachers.”
Tomahawk elementary school is majority white. According to the school’s 2021-22 Department of Public Instruction report card, 94.6% of students are white, 0.6% are Black, 1.7% are Hispanic or Latino, 0.6% are Asian and 2.4% are two or more races.
Quesinberry said he doesn’t want to speculate about how the situation could have affected other families, and the focus right now is on the Berry family, the only family who complained directly to the school, he said.
Quesinberry acknowledged that the school has also received several calls from community members, who referenced the Berry’s complaint.
Community support for the family
Between meetings with the principal and Quesinberry, Berry went to Facebook for advice.
“I’m looking for help and advice on how to encourage the district to make positive changes to their procedures and curriculum,” Berry wrote in a Tomahawk Facebook group. The two posts made by Berry about the situation had around 150 comments.
Many community members were shocked by the situation and supportive of Berry’s calls for action.
“That is SO awful Brandi, there needs to be some type of restoration by the district,” one commenter said.
“Your response is definitely warranted. I will absolutely call them as well and reiterate what you said above… You’re right, it’s 2023 we can definitely do much better,” another person said.
Cherie Krueger, a lifelong Tomahawk resident and bakery owner, said she was in disbelief when her husband told her about Berry’s Facebook post. “[My husband] was like, ‘You’re not gonna believe this sh–t’, and started reading it to me,” Krueger said.
Krueger said she decided to reach out to Berry, knowing that she would need support. She said she recently had a bad experience after posting on Facebook about someone attempting to break into her daughter’s house in Tomahawk. She said she received a lot of negative comments on the post.
“My husband is reading this post that she wrote and all I could think of was, like, they’re going to eat her alive,” Krueger said. “I had women come into my shop to tell me that if I wanted to stay in business, I needed to learn how to keep my mouth shut. I was furious. I just knew like, ‘Oh my God, this girl’s gonna need a lot of support if what she’s saying is true.”
Krueger posted to the Facebook group with a photo of a line of cookies that she had coincidentally been making to throw representation into the community.
Krueger said she was contacted at her bakery by someone who wanted to place an anonymous order for a batch of cookies depicting positive images of Black people to be delivered to the school principal with a note that read “Racism does not belong in Tomahawk”. She said the sender wanted to show support for Berry.
Cookies delivered to the Tomahawk Elementary principal by Cherie Krueger. (Photo courtesy Cherie Krueger)
Berry said she understands that the school will need some time to implement larger solutions, but she was still hoping to see a quicker response.
“I understand that these are big tasks that don’t happen overnight,” Berry said. “I was just really hoping that within a couple of weeks of the performance that we would have had a public statement and that this would have been addressed with the classes, especially the classes that performed it.”
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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F03%2F27%2Ftomahawk-mother-calls-for-action-after-racially-insensitive-performance%2F by Baylor Spears