Off the Record

We age. We learn. But, do we teach?

In 1968, at Quigley South Preparatory Seminary, the school’s athletic team name was the “Rebels,” and the Confederate flag was a notorious prop, particularly obvious during heated basketball games against key rivals such as Little Flower High School and Quigley North Preparatory Seminary.

In 1972, “Redmen” was the team name and mascot at St. Mary’s College in Winona, Minn., a town named after the daughter of Native-American Indian chief, Wapasha III.

The underpinnings of these school-spirit displays were eventually replaced, but was a teachable moment squandered? Was it made clear to students that the image of rebels accompanied by a Confederate flag honored soldiers who fought to preserve slavery?

No, it was not.

Was it made clear to the all-male student body at St. Mary’s College that “Redmen” had evolved to become a slur, even in a small college town?

No, it was not.

Quigley South replaced the image of the rebels with the image of a Spartan.

St. Mary’s turned into a co-ed university and selected Cardinals as the mascot for its new women’s teams, and it sweepingly adopted the red bird for both men and women sports. It was a prudent move for a school named for the mother of God, but little debate was provided to educate people.

In more recent years, ignorance of racial injustice and intolerance reared up out of the stands in the cheers of a young, uninformed high school student body that chanted “Buckwheat” at a player who resembled the character played by Billie Thomas in the motion picture series “Our Gang” that was produced from 1922 to 1944 and became popular again in TV reruns.

Lost on most adults was that the students failed to grasp the hurt that ran deeper than being caricaturized. Had adults given context to Eddie Murphy’s imitation of Buckwheat on “Saturday Night Live,” it would have been time well spent with those young students.

Another teachable moment was wasted when the school administration absorbed and attempted to deflect criticism from media outlets.

While there was no excuse for a rebel to represent Quigley South, a school preparing young priests, a case might be made for the attempt of St. Mary’s College to honor the daughter of a great Indian chief.

Again, a teachable moment was thrown away. Even the Confederate flag’s early meaning was diminished by those who eventually linked it to white supremacy. 

Time will tell if the Chicago Blackhawks can successfully articulate how their name honors and does not compromise the greatness of a proud people.

Recently, the former Washington Redskins mascot went the way of the caricature Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians and Chief Illiniwek, the former mascot of the University of Illinois. 

However, remember that words hurt.

By definition, a word is nothing more than a sound or utterance. When strung together, words complete a sentence, and together, those complete a thought.

Much like democracy, language can be noble, but it’s easily imploded by ignorance. Words uttered by the unenlightened and malicious can be divisive.

For example, the word “cracker” is harmless when asking a parrot if it wants a snack.

But, the effect of the word is much different if I were to say, “We have a cracker in the White House.”

The word “cracker” can also be used as a racial epithet, and although the U.S. Constitution gives me the right to use it that way, it’s still hurtful to some.

One definition of the word “cracker” in Webster’s Dictionary is a “bragging liar,” and in my mind, that begged a question.

Who else but a cracker would deem a movement like Black Lives Matter as “a symbol of hate” in today’s political climate?

Someday, when his only access to the White House will be on a guided tour, that cracker still won’t know what really mattered.

Actions matter more than words. That’s why I revere Black Lives Matter and hope the movement’s intent will change how people conduct their lives and how we treat each other. While I might not wear a BLM T-shirt, I hope my actions speak to my intent.

We are all in the midst of a reckoning; what will we do with it? Like previous examples, will a proxy be brought in and no lessons learned?

A teachable moment that still sears my memory also occurred in 1968, a year of assassinations, riots and Black Power demonstrations punctuated worldwide by two U.S. black Olympians whose lives were forever compromised after their “salute,” holding up a fist wearing a black glove on the medals-presentation platform at the Olympics.

A middle-aged African-American woman was my English teacher at Quigley South, and she had immaculate language skills and a keen eye for ignorance. At 14, I had little of the former and plenty of the latter.

After turning in an essay, I was called discreetly to her desk as class was dismissed. She pointed out my use of the word “colored” in describing a character in a novel.

She firmly conveyed a truth to me.

“I am not colored; I am black.”

She would likely be pleased that, in June, the Associated Press announced that when referring to people in a racial, ethnic or cultural context, “Black” is to be published in uppercase.

Perhaps someday, the word “Confederate” will be in lowercase.

Editor’s note: Bill Figel is a Morgan Park resident and owner of Figel Public Relations.