I moved into Austin, adjacent to Oak Park, in 1970. In 1971, Percy Julian took me aside. I was among a group of Austinites meeting with the West Suburban Rotary to urge support for Fair and Open Housing.
“I thank you for being here today,” Dr. Julian said. “Our nation’s racial problem has been with us since the inception; it will go on long after you and I are gone. Focus on the truth. Keep it as your guide.”
In 1984 Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, spoke on the West Side to urge support for those who were breaking down the barriers of Jim Crow. She warned against behaving like “crabs in a barrel.” Every time a black person gets ahead, she said, smothering hands claw them back down. Sometimes the hands are black. Sometimes they do not actively participate but sit silently by and do nothing.
When my son, Aaron, who is bi-racial, came of high-school age, I paid out-of-district tuition for him to attend OPRF. At first he had a difficult time as he was not used to being around so many white people. Soon after his enrollment, I was summoned to meet with a counselor and two of his teachers. My preconceptions could not have been more wrong. They were sincerely interested in Aaron as a person, as a young man of color. By the time he graduated, Aaron had found his bearings and went on to receive his B.A. from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.
America to Me is a distorted view of what transpires at OPRF. It cherry picks for the rotten tomato. While it may have made its producers a lot of money, it makes the rest of us poorer. Is it putting its money where its mouth is by devoting a substantial portion of the millions of dollars it has made to pro-active programs and scholarships for OPRF students? After all, OPRF is the goose that laid the golden egg. To accept its portrayal of OPRF at face value is to believe that teachers, counselors, coaches, and staff conspire to mistreat students of color. It is to believe that Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, superintendent, and Nate Rouse, principal, both African American, are at best uncaring or at worst complicit.
There is a documentary to be made about the Huskies, but America to Me, focusing on less than 2% of its students of color, is not it. To the student in America to Me who bragged about not being much interested in learning, I implore you: do your part. Tend to your own garden first. Anyone who coddles you by urging otherwise does not have your best interests at heart.
OPRF is committed to working with all parents and students, including those who demand that it must do better. Its leaders are listening with open minds and open hearts. Speak out in support of Dr. Pruitt-Adams and Dr. Rouse. Do not sit silent while those who profit from controversy tear down the record of these fine people who have, by intelligence and hard work, risen to the top of their profession. We must not behave like crabs in a barrel.
Joe English, Austin