Fairfax investigates allegation of racially insensitive behavior by high school teacher

March 16, 2012

Fairfax County school administrators are investigating a student’s allegations of racially insensitive behavior by a veteran English teacher at George C. Marshall High School.

Ninth-grader Jordan Shumate said that during class this month, he was reading aloud a poem by acclaimed African American writer Langston Hughes when his teacher interrupted and directed him to read in a “blacker” style.

“She told me, ‘Blacker, Jordan — c’mon, blacker. I thought you were black,’ ” said Shumate, who is African American.

Shumate told his mother, Nicole Cober Page, about the incident Tuesday. She complained to school administrators.

“We take these allegations very seriously, and we’re investigating,” Principal Jay Pearson said Friday. He declined to provide further details.

Shumate, 14, and his mother identified the teacher as Marilyn Bart. Bart did not respond Thursday or Friday to e-mail and phone inquiries about the incident. Records show that Bart has worked in Fairfax schools since 1990.

Another ninth-grader, Kaila Denny, said she witnessed the incident. Shumate was “just sitting there reading normally like any person would,” Denny said, when Bart instructed him to speak “blacker.”

Shumate said that when he refused to continue reading the poem, Bart read it aloud herself, demonstrating what she meant.

“She sounded like a maid in the 1960s,” Shumate said. “She read the poem like a slave, basically.”

Shumate said he asked Bart that day whether she thinks all black people speak that way. She reprimanded him for talking out of turn, he said, and told him to take his seat.

Cober Page said she spoke with Pearson by telephone Friday about the incident but learned nothing more from him about Bart’s side of the story.

“My feeling is that he is an advocate for the kids and wants this to be taken seriously,” Cober Page said of the principal.

The poem Shumate read in class was Hughes’s “Ballad of the Landlord.” The poem, written in 1940, tells of a black tenant thrown in jail for challenging a deadbeat landlord.

“Landlord, landlord,” it begins. “My roof has sprung a leak./Don’t you ’member I told you about it/Way last week?”

If the teacher thought the poem should be delivered in a Southern dialect, she could have said so without referring to race, Cober Page said.

Shumate said it wasn’t the only time that he felt singled out in English class because of his race.

This week, in preparation for reading literature about the Holocaust, the teacher showed photographs to illustrate common stereotypes about different groups of people, Shumate said.

Shumate said Bart showed an image of grape soda — a drink of choice among African Americans, according to a racial stereotype — and asked him to explain its meaning. Denny corroborated his account.

“I do know the stereotypes,” Shumate said, “but she could change the questions so I’m not like the king of black people.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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