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'Song Of The South' Proposed Showing By Rutgers Student Prompts Demand For Apology

Song Of The South Rutgers

First Posted: 12/14/11 04:27 PM ET Updated: 12/16/11 05:22 PM ET

Graduate students at Rutgers University in New Jersey are asking officials to step in after a student there invited peers to a screening of a movie with racist imagery, Jezebel reports.

Members of the "Race, Ethnicity and Inequality in Education," class at Rutgers's Graduate School of Education sent a letter after students in the "Post-Bellum/Pre-Harlem" class received an email from a student hosting a viewing party of "Song of the South," the 1946 movie produced by Walt Disney that has been criticized for its portrayal of blacks during the Reconstruction Era. It was the student's message and not the movie, however, that some found offensive.

According to a student letter published in The Daily Targum, the school's newspaper, the student invited "her fellow non-racist racists" to a private, guilt-free screening of the film in her home. She characterized herself as a "ragtime/minstrel loving fool," and encouraged recipients to bring spirits, saying "if you do come, hooch is most welcome, as are strawhats and other Darkeyisms. I might even buy a watermillyum if I get enough interest." She also advised guests to be aware of bringing friends along because "[she] might yell racist things at the TV."

The letter to the newspaper expressed concern at the recipients' reaction, which included students who both remained silent and voiced enthusiasm, stating that the email and their behavior strayed from the original purpose of viewing the film.

One would hope that, for those who harbored a sentimental love of old Disney films, a critical viewing of "Song of the South" in a graduate-level classroom might prompt feelings of reflection, discomfort, re-evaluation, change; that it might engender a deeper examination of the ways ideology--and its companion, brutality--have been used to deprive blacks of power, privilege and assets throughout our history as a nation. Instead, this student chose to send an insulting, damaging and racially offensive email inviting half the class to a whites-only party celebrating "Song of the South." That some other white students in the class voiced enthusiasm about the party is disturbing, painful and indicative of the larger presence of ignorance and discrimination students of color must endure in higher education. That the other students receiving the invite remained silent must have been equally horrifying.

But students were further angered that the university and the English department has not issued an apology or publicly addressed the incident. According to the letter, thus far, there has been a student-hosted panel discussion on race and "a few professors scolded the writer." However, students want action from the university.

"Late is better than never," the letter read. "It would be heartening to see concrete actions taken by the department in order to educate and reconcile those involved in this specific incident."

UPDATE: 11:15 pm -- Carolyn Williams, chair of the Rutgers University English Department emailed a statement to The Huffington Post to clarify the details originally reported in both the Jezebel and The Daily Targum story:

Most important, it is not true that we "failed to address racism," as the title and substance of the Targum article claims. The offending email was written on September 28. On September 29, our Director of Graduate Studies was informed, and on September 30 she wrote to the author of the email. On that same day (September 30), the author of the offending email apologized to her fellow students and to the Director of Graduate Studies. The party certainly did not take place. On October 10, the author of the email apologized to the entire class.

The email added that faculty members were largely involved in planning the forum that took place on Dec. 7, although the original letter said it was exclusively organized by students. Williams also shared the department's official response to the incident:

Thus, going forward, the Department will continue in its efforts to create and sustain a safe learning environment for all. Moreover, we expect that all members of our community will help to create the most productive environment possible, an environment comfortable to everyone and free from fear, in which the pursuit of knowledge and the articulation of thought will be fostered and encouraged. To this end, hurtful language and other acts of bias or hate will not be tolerated.

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CORRECTION: A previous version of this story reported that students in the "Race, Ethnicity and Inequality in Education" class received the offending email instead of the students in the "Post Bellum/Pre-Harlem" class.
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Filed by Danielle Cadet  |