(The Root) —
UPDATED Wednesday, April 10, 2013, at 2:45 EDT: An adviser to the students, Harriet Hollis of the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education, told Farai Chideya that the students are planning a more private celebration. The Root will bring you more soon about their plans and how they are choosing to make history. Hollis says they have been deluged with support.
If you're one of the millions of Americans who have too much on their plate, I'm going to do the writing equivalent of serving dessert first. There are some high school students who need our help. They're throwing the first integrated prom in their Georgia town. Yes, the first, and yes, it's 2013, 50 years after the March on Washington and 150 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. We need to reward their courage — and right now, the music and entertainment industries could be a huge help. Read on and find out how you can help, too.
In Wilcox County, Ga., population just shy of 10,000 people, the black homecoming queen could not go to the same dance as the white homecoming king. This is not a joke. And it gets even worse this month, with prom looming April 27. As an article in USA Today puts it, "In Georgia, proms are organized by private groups, like parents, and not by the school. But since Wilcox County is the last county in Georgia where dances are still segregated by race, WMAZ-TV reported, that has meant separate proms for black and white students."
Individuals have been donating to the prom on a Facebook page. But my question following the story thus far is, where is the music industry? A big-name entertainer, or even one with a more modest following, could change the game here.
Music and entertainment have social capital. People from Marian Anderson to Harry Belafonte played roles in surfacing the need for civil rights. What about the artists of today, when we are living in a supposedly postracial world?
How better to blow the Wilcox County white prom out of the water than by supporting an integrated prom so dynamic that anyone going to the white prom felt as if they were the ones being left out? The very existence of the white prom indicates that some people in the town — particularly the parents funding that prom — still think that segregation has social cachet. In fact, a biracial student was turned away by organizers of last year's white prom.
So what if the sons and daughters of the white prom's organizers, instead of being feted at an exclusive event, found themselves embarrassed to participate — and jealous of the amazing integrated prom? It would drive the nail into the white prom's coffin and make an important statement about how committed we are as a culture to cleaning up the ugly remnants of segregation.
Here's the business case: Music companies, and most major companies period, contribute to nonprofits and benefits as part of their work in corporate social responsibility. It's a two-way street. While the companies and musicians donate their time, they receive press and accolades in return.
This, speaking frankly, would be an amazing opportunity for an artist to get well-deserved press for putting their voice where their mouth is — that is, for singing or performing in support of the multiracial audiences the performer no doubt already has. Who could play the integrated prom? I will defer to the organizers on their taste … I've reached out to them, but so far we've been playing email tag.
In the meantime, The Root would love to hear from you about who you'd like to see play at the prom and what you'd like to see others do. Use the hashtag #PlayIntegratedProm to show off your ideas. For example, you might Tweet, "I wish @Questlove would #PlayIntegratedProm in Wilcox County" or, "We need a musician to #PlayIntegratedProm; I can donate some swag for gift bags." (Wouldn't it be great if some of the people who advertise to teens also plumped up gift bags for the attendees?)
In an era where battles over racial equality tend to focus on joblessness, education and incarceration, is it trivial to support a prom? I'd argue absolutely not. This segregated prom is a terrible hangover from a bygone era. Ending the tradition of segregated dances and homecoming courts is a piece of long-overdue housekeeping for America.
School officials didn't see fit to squash this problem by hosting an integrated prom sooner. They say they'll try to plan one for 2014. Now they're whimpering under media coverage, asking people, "Instead of attacking our school system, its employees and our community, we ask for your support and prayers." And those parents who fund the segregated prom, who are teaching their children that white privilege is not only acceptable but also fun — well, they're ill preparing their children to live in an integrated world.
I think of all the teens, people like Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who put their lives on the line during the civil rights movement. Now we have another group of teens transforming race in America — partying for their rights. Isn't it time to support them? Now, who will #PlayIntegratedProm?
Farai Chideya is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Institute for Journalism. She is the author of four books and blogs at farai.com.