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February 6, 2014
Over the Christmas holiday, I had the chance to head over to Kansas City and check out The Nutcracker at the Kauffman Center - an amazing place – I highly recommend a visit! Not being a super big fan of the arts, I was overwhelmed by the professionalism of the dance troop, the music form the orchestra, and the magnificence of the sets and stage.
I'm sharing this all not so much because I want to encourage everyone to head to Kansas City next Christmas for The Nutcracker, but because of what the ballet has to say about the state of civil rights in the year 2014. This year we commemorate 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Here at the park, we are commemorating 60 years of desegregation in public education.
But I want to share with you some of the thoughts that were passing through my mind as we sat down for the show. My son and daughter were delighted to be out on the town in one of the grandest theatres any of us had ever experienced. My daughter in particular was amazed by the ballerinas and the feats the dancers were accomplishing. Somewhere during the last half of the show she turned to me and said, "Papa – look, there she is, there she is. There's a brown dancer just like me!"
My family is a mixed family – our kids are African American and we are both white. Since the children arrived in our lives twelve years ago, we have been highly sensitive to the issues of race and ethnicity. We have embraced new cultural norms in our lives, sought out a wider range of friends in our community and church, and visited exhibits and shows all with the purpose of making sure that our children grow up in a home and with a family that celebrates who we are and what makes our diverse culture so rich. One of the great things about coming to Kansas City with my family is the opportunity to be culturally enriched with visits to the American Jazz and Negro League Baseball Museums as well as everything else KC offers. In doing this, my kids receive a constant message that they can be anything they dream of being, regardless of race.
With that in mind, as I watched the show that December night, I was sitting on the edge of my seat the whole time, just like my daughter, waiting to see when we would see a dancer that looked like my children. I'm not the kind of person that needs to check things off to make sure that every group is represented in every class, or sport, or activity that we are part of. But when I'm with my kids, I'm highly sensitive to what they are seeing. Of the twenty or so kids that were in the performance and the scores of dancers and performers, it took most of the night to find a person of color in the troupe. Like I said, I'm trying not to keep count, but I know my nine-year-old daughter is.
Before we came to Topeka, we lived in Washington, DC. When my kids went to school, my son learned French from a man from the Ivory Coast, my daughter learned karate from our neighborhood's matriarch Master Jones, and their school was led by an amazing woman with dreadlocks running down to her skirt. When the mayor came to our porch to ask for votes, he stopped by and shook hands with our kids. During our two years in the capital, my children were surrounded by positive role models of people of color.
I take my night at the ballet as a lesson that I can apply in my own life. As we as a people – and in my role as a National Park Service superintendent – work to create a more inclusive culture, we need to remember what are kids are seeing. What was the message she received at the ballet? That people of color are an anomaly in the fine arts? What is the message that some of our fellow citizens see when they enter into our parks? That these places don't necessarily belong to them? For decades, the NPS has been grappling with how to make our parks more welcoming and inclusive. As a park manager and, more importantly, as the father of two amazing children, I am always cognizant of the message that we are communicating and how our actions are being translated. When the public sees our exhibits, talks to our staff, and sees what we are doing, what do they think the park? Do they see themselves?
I'm pretty sure we will make our annual pilgrimage to see The Nutcracker this December. And, you can bet that my daughter will not only be watching for the high caliber of the dancers, but whether or not any of them looks like her.
Did You Know?
The Brown v. Board of Education NHS is the only unit of the national park system named after a U.S. Supreme Court case.--Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site