A charter school in Atlanta has apologized after second-grade students used blackface masks in a performance honoring Black History Month.
The students at the Kindezi School at Old Fourth Ward recited black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem "We Wear the Mask" while holding blackface masks in front of their faces.
“We immediately recognized the masks as blackface,” one angry mother, Ari Lima, told WSB-TV in Atlanta. “It had nothing to do with blackface; Laurence Dunbar is probably rolling over somewhere because it is not contextually accurate."
February is Black History Month, but the school schedules performances to fit its schedule, which is why they happened last week, Kindezi spokeswoman Elizabeth Sharp Broderick told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Semone Banks, a mom at the school, posted video of the performance on Facebook and it enraged many who saw it. It has been viewed nearly 3 million times.
"So this happened at my kids Black history program today. Kindezi Old Forth Ward has to do better. A lot of the moms are p****d and some are clueless," Banks wrote.
Dunbar was one the first influential black poets in American literature, paving the way for Harlem Renaissance artists of the 1920s. His "We Wear the Mask" poem speaks to the hidden pain endured by African-Americans.
It begins: “We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.”
“I saw some people laughing at it and they thought it was like a comedy,” fourth-grader Knasaiah Perry told WSB-TV.
Responding to the backlash, the school apologized and officials met with parents and staff on Friday.
"Kindezi Old Fourth Ward sincerely apologizes and accepts responsibility for the hurt, anger, frustration and disappointment caused by the poor judgment we made in having students use masks that mimic blackface," the school posted to its Facebook page on Friday.
The school wrote that it is "conducting a thorough investigation into this matter," "providing teacher education on cultural competency" and "holding conversations with students to provide the historical context of the imagery and poem used, as well as providing them with an opportunity to express their feelings and thoughts."
The teacher who organized the performance posted to social media that she understands "the pain behind the concept of black face and in no way was it my intent to be offensive, but to shed light on a part of our history that was not pretty."
"Whatever that teacher was TRYING to do for Black History Month (in March no less), they failed miserably," wrote Angela Helm for The Root. "In a Facebook screenshot from the alleged educator, the African-American woman explained that the masks were her 'idea.'
"And although the fact that the teacher was black was probably better than the teacher being white, using blackface to demonstrate 'the mask' that black folks wear every day and having her white students wear it is the epitome of a good intention going straight to hell.
“The children have been rehearsing for months, dress rehearsals, staying after school …. There’s no way in the world no one saw this. They allowed this to get on stage,” Lima told the Journal-Constitution.
“I can’t even think of how the teacher may have looked at her white students and thought this was OK to put it in front of their faces."