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AnonymousNovember 27, 2018

I was one of the only African-American students when I started attending an all-boys Jesuit high school in the mid-1970s. However, for my first few years I never doubted my place among my more well-off, mostly white peers. My teachers and classmates challenged me to reach the heights of academic excellence and to embody the Jesuit ideals of service and social justice.

But during my junior year, this feeling of academic collegiality and brotherhood came to a painful halt. One day, I found some of my classmates gathered at the front of the classroom in a fit of laughter. When I approached them, I realized that they were gazing at a piece of paper: On it was an image of a naked African pygmy woman with her breasts exposed, and there was some sort of sticky substance smeared over the picture. There were words written across the top: It was my last name followed by the word “Mom.”

The students stopped laughing when they saw my mortified face. The teacher came into the classroom and excoriated the boys. I was stunned both by the deeply personal and savage nature of the insult and by the failure of anyone other than my teacher to speak out to defend my mother and me. I had walked arm in arm with my classmates since we were 13 years old, and I thought that they considered me one of them. I thought I had proven myself by being near the top of the class. But my academic standing did not protect me from being targeted for my race.

My academic standing did not protect me from being targeted for my race.

I composed myself and carried on with the rest of the day, dreading the moment when I would have to tell my mother what happened. Fortunately, when I did, she comforted me and handled the situation with the utmost dignity. It was not the first time she had encountered racism—though never, perhaps, with the added sexual degradation of this instance. Other than being forced to call my mother to apologize, the culprits escaped without punishment. I was expected to suck it up and get along with my studies. I did not receive an apology until last spring, when I reported the incident to the school’s current administration.

I understand that the high school years are turbulent times, and that most young men and women will make their share of errors. And I believe that most students and graduates of Jesuit schools today would be horrified by how those boys treated me and my mother. I suspect, however, that some Jesuit school alumni may not fully appreciate the impact such a public humiliation can have on a victim and his or her life choices.

My late mother was a beautiful, loving soul with a wonderful smile. She was passionately devoted to the Catholic Church and her family. She loved my Jesuit high school and beamed with pride at sporting events, social gatherings and academic ceremonies. She supported the school with her volunteer hours and whatever else she could contribute based on my family’s limited financial means. Her only fault, one she readily admitted, was that she worried incessantly about her children.

I can only imagine the pain my mother felt when I explained that my classmates had depicted her as a naked and defiled pygmy woman.

I can only imagine the pain she felt when I came home and explained that my classmates had depicted her as a naked and defiled pygmy woman. I do not believe that she, as a woman of color and a leading proponent of desegregation, had in that moment the freedom to express her outrage. I remember her carefully calibrating her reaction to prevent me from experiencing any additional self-doubt or sadness. Instead, she internalized the pain, which over time takes a toll on one’s health. I cannot say this racist, sexist incident and other lesser ones caused my mother’s death at a young age, but it certainly did not add years to her life.

For my part, the loss of innocence I experienced that day had lasting consequences. While I had no illusions about the state of racial relations in my community before this incident, I did see my Jesuit school as an island of humanity. After all, my classmates were the best and brightest kids from the finest families, and I was surrounded by caring, enlightened faculty. The incident made it hard for me to form lasting friendships. I now wonder if I was a coward not to seek revenge against those who violated my mother’s honor.

 

I have enjoyed considerable professional success since graduating from high school. Nevertheless, I have found myself on many occasions to be easily triggered by racial or perceived racial slights. My sometimes unchecked anger has led to some career setbacks for which I accept responsibility—but which I know in my heart are partially traceable to the unreconciled rage from the vile prank of my classmates. Even now, I am constantly on guard against being emasculated because of my race and social class. I regret mistakes I have made in relationships and the opportunities I have missed to build cultural bridges.

I care deeply about my alma mater, and I am profoundly grateful for the life-changing education I received. I have tried my best to live up to the creed of ad majorem Dei gloriam and to follow in the footsteps of St. Ignatius Loyola. But I cannot continue to hide the enduring pain that I feel because of that vile and humiliating incident. By sharing this story, I hope to bring awareness to the cruelty and privilege in our midst and to hopefully help reduce the occurrence of racial and sexual bullying in the future by our children, grandchildren and others who join the ranks of proud Jesuit graduates.

I wish my fellow alumni, their families and friends nothing but the best. We have so much for which to be thankful, but we also have an obligation to be open about our shortcomings and work harder to be “men and women for others.”

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of racial justice and the church]

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JR Cosgrove
3 years 8 months ago

Hopefully these types of incidents are long gone or extremely rare from everywhere let alone a prestigious Catholic school.

This event took place over 40 years ago. Today, Is the USA the least racist developed country in the world? Not by the rhetorical claims but by the reality?

Judith Jordan
3 years 8 months ago

Mr. Cosgrove---In one of the articles in American Magazine you appeared to be frustrated with some readers’ claims that some of Trump’s rhetoric creates an environment for anti-Semitics. You disagreed and said you could point out the “site that discusses Obama's harangues against Jews.” At that time, I posted a comment to you stating that I am very interested in reading the site and would you please tell me what it is. You did not respond so I am asking you again to please tell me. This is my THIRD REQUEST. Thank you.

JR Cosgrove
3 years 8 months ago

And I replied to you.

rose-ellen caminer
3 years 8 months ago

'The racism you are describing is atrocious, I am sorry you and your mom ever had to endure that. I know such racism is still rampant on the internet, I have lived with bigotry all my life too.Try being half French/half Arab. in 21st century USA ; irate woman;" Barack Obama is an, he's an Arab". Me Cain;: "no mam no , he's not , he's a good man". Trump; "the caravan is made up of good people and people from the middle east". media; "no it's not.no middle easterners in the caravan. How dare Trump say there are".
My mother was French; you should have heard how people spoke about her. Yet she was ahead of her time. I don't think I ever ate canned food till I moved out. She cooked whole foods ,[ but she loved that rice a roni and uncle ben's] ,not because she was a snob trying to impress but because it came naturally to her. Though truth be told she was "snob "enough or just had her own palate and saw no reason to change it, to not eat that Arab hummus my father occasionally made or those stuffed grape leaves or Greek olives he ate, or God forbid, those canned sardines he ate over newspapers. And yes she loved, "escargot", but again not because she was a "snob trying to impress" but because that was home cooking. She had beautiful taste in design , her home looked like like out of architectural digest, uncluttered and every object beautiful, ; not because she was a snob wanting to impress, but because it came natural to her. My father too I should say. Same with how she dressed her kids. I heard her say, "Black is beautiful" before any English speakers were saying it. She chose the black doll over the white one as a child. She got to meet the great James Baldwin who took a liking to her and who she shared a comraderie with. [he wrote me a note].She was ahead of her time regarding kids and abuse of any kind by adults. Before she died she gave all her possessions away to the young Brooklyn- hipster types in her building . She was a great life long knitter and taught them her to knit[ she tried teaching me when I was a child but I found it depressing and boring and tedious whereas she and her young hipster friends found it relaxing].The young hipsters looked up to her with admiration, and with respect which should have been accorded her all along as a human being, After all that disrespect and abuse she suffered by what was an ignorant society ,the culture had changed by the time she died and caught up to her sensibilities. Still being bigoted against "the French" is just mainstream in the media and among politicians.. It's not even on the radar as being objectionable. Decency is no where to be found when talking about my ethic groups. French and Arab, in 21st century USA.The racism you are describing is atrocious. But at least it is not acceptable in public discourse. People will be shamed if engaging in such bigotry against African -Americans. People get hired and promoted when going after my ethnic/racial group!

Vincent Gaglione
3 years 8 months ago

The product of a Catholic elementary school class in which anywhere from a third to a half of the class were students of color or ethnic diversity, I landed in an elite Jesuit school where I can recall no such classmates and got booted out for failing geometry, Latin and Greek at the end of the Fall sophomore semester. I wound up in a local Catholic high school class filled with students who might affectionately be called sweathogs and whose homeroom teacher was an African-American religious brother. At semester’s end he called me up to tell me to speak to the guidance counselor about transfer to an academically more challenging class. The following semester I was in such a class with one mathematically brilliant African-American student with whom I rode the bus each day to and from school. I must have been blind and deaf to reality but as an adult 50 years later a classmate who had become a priest told me the stories of how this African-American/Italian classmate was constantly harassed by other students for his race.

I recount this to make the point that in 12 years of Catholic education no single instance comes to mind where I heard a priest, brother or nun ever spend significant time addressing to us as students the seriousness of the sin of racism. I do hope that that situation has changed in Catholic schooling but, as I have written on this site previously, I can hardly recall such a discussion from the pulpit at Mass during my adult years either.

Brian McKernan
3 years 8 months ago

I was a student at a Jesuit Prep School in the late early 60s. Lately I have been reflecting upon those years for several reasons—one of which is learning now that during my years at the high school, there was a new police officer whose assigned job was to patrol the surrounding neighborhood to make sure there were no Negroes there! During this time, I had one black classmate in our class of 79. Little did I know or acknowledge how difficult it must have been for him. I am ashamed of that lack of knowledge and, after reacting this personal reflection, of how we “privileged men” related with him. Did I/we interact with him as a dignified and respectable Child of God? I ask for forgiveness for that lack of knowledge and inability to see beyond my own self. peace and blessings

Greg Krohm
3 years 8 months ago

This story made me flash back to my own high school days in a very high quality Catholic boys school. It was an urban school with a good cross section of boys from the Chicago population. I am ashamed of how many times I used racial or ethnic slurs. Yet, while they were crude and may have hurt some of my classmates a lot, I used them in joking sort of dig-- stupid as I was-- with no malice or ill-will toward my classmates of color. Racial and ethnic slurs were the vernacular on the streets I grew up on. I hope it is different now in that same school.

Joseph Flood
3 years 8 months ago

I am embarrassed by the incident you describe and apologize on behalf of our fellow Jesuit high school alumni, though I feel that my apology is very inadequate to address your suffering.

Joseph Flood
3 years 8 months ago

I am embarrassed by the incident you describe and apologize on behalf of our fellow Jesuit high school alumni, though I feel that my apology is very inadequate to address your suffering.

Reed Smith
3 years 8 months ago

AMDG.

Okay. “Anonymous “tells quite a story. Unfortunately, most if not all of it is not true.

I was in Anonymous’ class (1980); I won’t bother to say which Jesuit High School is involved, but it is in the Deep South.

I also won’t name Anonymous; I will call him “Brendan”, as his real name is that of a more famous Irish saint. His last name is Spanish in origin.

My classmates and I first learned of Brendan’s allegations about a month ago. NONE OF US recall any such incident. What I do know is that if anybody had been caught with a photograph of a naked Pygmy woman with a semen- like substance on it, not to mention “Brendan’s Mom” written on it, such student or students would have been suspended or expelled, not just excoriated. The culprits would have been sent to the disciplinarian, parents would have been called, etc. But nobody remembers anything of the sort.

Brendan, who was the teacher involved? Who were the culprits?

Brendan, back then you claimed to be Spanish, not black. Why would anybody use a photo of a Pygmy?
That is true despite the fact that your older brother (now a disgraced sheriff) was a member —I believe a founding member— of the black student association.

In that regard, readers of America should understand that Brendan was not the only black student at our school. If I had to guess, the school was about 10% black back then (including the future mayor of the city). The valedictorian or salutatorian of our class was Cuban (whichever one was not the Cuban was a Baptist). We also had Chinese, Vietnamese, and at least one Jew.

By the way, while I have not seen him since high school, Brendan went to a famous Catholic university up North dedicated to the Blessed Mother ( who routinely provides football victories); and I understand that he married a white woman, is very successful (more so than most of us), and has lived in France.

Obviously, if the incident that Brendan describes did occur, it would have been very disturbing and painful for him. No one should be subjected to such derision, racial or otherwise. But NO ONE in our class remembers any such incident. I am sorry that Brendan felt the need to write his article. I sincerely hope that he gets to a place of peace, and I wish him only the best.

Reed Smith
3 years 8 months ago

AMDG.

Okay. “Anonymous “tells quite a story. Unfortunately, most if not all of it is not true.

I was in Anonymous’ class (1980); I won’t bother to say which Jesuit High School is involved, but it is in the Deep South.

I also won’t name Anonymous; I will call him “Brendan”, as his real name is that of a more famous Irish saint. His last name is Spanish in origin.

My classmates and I first learned of Brendan’s allegations about a month ago. NONE OF US recall any such incident. What I do know is that if anybody had been caught with a photograph of a naked Pygmy woman with a semen- like substance on it, not to mention “Brendan’s Mom” written on it, such student or students would have been suspended or expelled, not just excoriated. The culprits would have been sent to the disciplinarian, parents would have been called, etc. But nobody remembers anything of the sort.

Brendan, who was the teacher involved? Who were the culprits?

Brendan, back then you claimed to be Spanish, not black. Why would anybody use a photo of a Pygmy?
That is true despite the fact that your older brother (now a disgraced sheriff) was a member —I believe a founding member— of the black student association.

In that regard, readers of America should understand that Brendan was not the only black student at our school. If I had to guess, the school was about 10% black back then (including the future mayor of the city). The valedictorian or salutatorian of our class was Cuban (whichever one was not the Cuban was a Baptist). We also had Chinese, Vietnamese, and at least one Jew.

By the way, while I have not seen him since high school, Brendan went to a famous Catholic university up North dedicated to the Blessed Mother ( who routinely provides football victories); and I understand that he married a white woman, is very successful (more so than most of us), and has lived in France.

Obviously, if the incident that Brendan describes did occur, it would have been very disturbing and painful for him. No one should be subjected to such derision, racial or otherwise. But NO ONE in our class remembers any such incident. I am sorry that Brendan felt the need to write his article. I sincerely hope that he gets to a place of peace, and I wish him only the best.

Robert Shill
3 years 8 months ago

Dude, really? Most normal people would have empathy for what Brendan went through but instead you prove him credible with your hate-filled rant. Clearly a good Jesuit education taught you NOTHING about compassion or humanity. If "Brendan" did succeed in life despite his experiences then good for him. I don't know you but you my good sir would do well to look inward and examine your own motives. Your comments prove the atmosphere of hate that permeated that school.

Peter Schwimer
3 years 8 months ago

Some interesting comments from your readers, most of whom are presumably Catholic. Truth be told until white folks are willing to accept responsibility for slavery (I know, you weren't alive then, it had nothing to do with you or me, that was a long time ago, etc.etc) racism will continue to be rampant in these United States. And it is rampant, and it is as much my fault as anyone's. Everytime, a white person fails to call out and confront racism in its many forms, it is our collective fault. I have a friend who is a priest from Ghanna. He told me that the one thing that he was told by his bishop that he should never preach about in the United States is racism. Imagine that? When was the last time your pastor preached on racism?

Judith Jordan
3 years 8 months ago

I am so sad and appalled over Anonymous’ story. I spent 12 years in Catholic schools and never heard a discussion of racism as a serious sin. I lucked out and learned from my mother racism is wrong and this was in the 1950s.

Now when I read or hear people who consider themselves to be good Christians and make racists comments or are indifferent to them, I wonder what their reasoning skills are. How do they know anything about Christ and not understand that racism is a vile evil?

JR Cosgrove
3 years 8 months ago

when I read or hear people who consider themselves to be good Christians and make racists comments or are indifferent to them, I wonder what their reasoning skills are.

Maybe they are ill-informed or mis-guided. Or maybe they know something you do not. So ask questions and not question their Christianity.

JR Cosgrove
3 years 8 months ago

You should read "Death of a Nation" by Dinesh D'Souza. The rhetoric is sometimes over the top but the facts and analysis are correct.

John Mack
3 years 8 months ago

"Men for others who are not other than me."

Mike Macrie
3 years 8 months ago

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird. J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1960.
I highly recommend to all to watch the movie “ Wonder “ . The movie centers around a boy who was born with Treachers Collins Syndrome disease. The boy was Home schooled until his Parents decided to enter him into Middle School. If you want to dig down deep into your soul for Empathy watch this Movie.

Roland Greystoke
3 years 8 months ago

I got to get rid of two racists when I was in the military. The first one was a white man from the midwest who thought that, just because I was white, he could say whatever he wanted to about people who weren't white. I made sure he did not get to re-enlist. The next case was when a drunk told me to go to the orderly room and get all the other white people to come on down so he could kill them all. He was black. And he was allowed to begin the exit paperwork as soon as he sobered up. More recently, I was on a metro car at night. There was a black woman on board when I entered. I sat down and a black man got on just as the doors closed. He told the lady that he was gonna "knife me some white boy". He was persuaded to leave the car at the next stop. Racists are disgusting people and I have done things like leave a band try-out when a white drummer said "we don't play no ni**er music". Racists should move somewhere that would be good for them. A one-way trip to the sun might do the trick.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
3 years 8 months ago

Racists are human, fragile, and mortal. One needs to pray for the conversion and well-being of all.

Ingrid Wisniewski
3 years 8 months ago

"I was one of the only African-American students when I started attending an all-boys Jesuit high school in the mid-1970s"... sad story with appalling content but does it ring true? Were you the only African-American student, or one of a few? And how does a Jesuit education result in a person musing whether they were a coward not to seek revenge??? Praying for all racists' conversion...

Jim MacGregor
3 years 8 months ago

So, what did the Order do about that school besides publishing blah blah blah?

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