Was the play list at the segregated “white prom” for Wilcox County High School in Georgia scrubbed of any Beyonce or Rihanna? Was Drake dropped? And what about Justin Timberlake? The superstar credits black artists as role models for his music and moves. Since he’s white, I suppose cuts from his hit “The 20/20 Experience” could pass, as long as they didn’t feature a guest vocal by Jay Z.
Actually, if I could have scored a ticket to that private, invitation-only event, I’m sure the aural experience would differ little from that at the school’s first “integrated” prom last weekend, organized by a diverse circle of friends. The four young ladies – two black and two white — were frustrated by the color line drawn years ago and maintained for the sake of tradition, according to those who continued it year after year and defend it even now. Those defenders say separate proms for blacks and whites are not about race at all, but different tastes in music and dancing.
Wayne McGuinty, a furniture store owner and City Council member, who is white, told the New York Times he had donated to fund-raising events for separate proms in the past. He said they don’t reflect racism, just different traditions and tastes, and he used as an example his own 1970s high school years, when separate proms featured rock or country music. “This whole issue has been blown out of proportion,” he said. “Nobody had a problem with having two proms until it got all this publicity.”
But that’s not true. The reason it got publicity was that people did have a problem with the situation, young people who socialized together and didn’t see any reason to split up on this important evening in their high school lives.
If parties were based on musical tastes alone, as McGuinty’s rather shaky excuse maintains, race wouldn’t enter into it, unless he’s saying a black person is not allowed to like a little Blake Shelton now and then and a white kid must abhor Usher. Considering viewers regularly watch the two men spar on NBC’s “The Voice,” along with Shakira and Adam Levine, I’d say McGuinty and other “white prom” supporters are living in a past that never really existed – one where races and culture remain pure and separate. It’s hard to believe McGuinty never attempted his own version of the electric slide at a wedding reception or boogied down to a disco medley.
Pop culture in America has always broken rules and crossed lines authorities created to keep races apart. Jazz, a uniquely American art form, could not have been created without a fusion of cultures. There has been pushback, too, with denunciations from 1950s adults who saw racial subversion and contamination in Elvis’s hips and Little Richard’s shouts, and their grown-up children who just don’t “get” hip-hop.
It’s “those crazy kids” in Wilcox County who led the way. Though some dissenters ripped down posters advertising their all-are-welcome event, the publicity about their efforts, which included a barbecue to raise money, drew attention, financial support and volunteer disc jockeys from Atlanta and Texas. They no doubt spun a variety of tunes with a beat that was easy to dance to.
Unsaid, of course, in the convoluted reasons justifying two proms in 2013 is the notion that kept school social events separate long after Southern classrooms integrated. Some of the denunciations in the 1950s, as well as before and after, were about blacks and whites not only dancing to the music but also dancing together, and what that could lead to.
Well, with a president of the United States– with one black parent and one white parent–now in his second term in the White House, that’s an issue that’s settled, as well.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3