In the US, Black History Month is meant to be a time of appreciation for the African American heritage. In February, the contributions of blacks to history, culture, and everything in between becomes a source of pride and celebration. Local high schools get join in as well – but sadly, sometimes, a well-meaning gesture can come off as very wrong.
That’s what happened in a New Jersey high school that just tried serving a Black History Month-themed lunch menu.
What’s On The Menu?
Hopewell Valley Central High School is a public high school in Hopewell Township, just outside Pennington Borough. Of the 1,200 students studying there, an 82% majority are white. The remaining 18% is cocmposed of Asian, Hispanic, and black students.
In their celebration for Black History Month, the school’s cafeteria served a “special menu” topped by fried chicken. The menu also included sweet potato casserole, sautéed spinach, mac and cheese, cornbread, and peach and apple crisps.
— NJ.com (@njdotcom) February 20, 2017
The choices were stereotypical black choices – and soon attracted complaints. According to NJ.com, it’s unclear where the complaints were coming from, but they were strong enough to draw a comment from Superintendent Thomas A. Smith.
“The decision to include these items without any context or explanation, reinforces racial stereotypes, and is not consistent with out district mission and efforts to improve cultural competency among our students and staff,” he wrote.
Pomptonian, the school’s food vendor, had reportedly worked closely with the school in determining a menu for Black History Month. VP Cathy Penna offered an explanation: “The suggestion was to do something to celebrate soul food. The company tries to offer a divers menu respecting different cultures.”
Where’s The Offense
Penna also included an apology with her statement: “The director at this location never intended to do anything that would offend anyone and deeply regrets the decision and understands that it could have been taken out of context.”
According to CBS New York, however, not everyone took offense to the supposedly stereotypical menu. One student considered the outrage an overreaction. “What I thought of is, if it was Italian-American Month and you wanted to celebrate with food, you’d have sausage and nobody would have a problem with that,” he said.
Historian Neil Brunson expressed that it was at least a missed opportunity to teach the high schoolers the meaning behind soul food. “Listen, kids and food gets their attention immediately,” he says, “and then once you have their attention for the next five minutes, at least you can do something with it.”