Saturday, February 28, 2015


Our students put on a Black History Month multi-media presentation at a school assembly this morning. It was initiated, written and performed completely by the kids themselves. I was both proud of their work and deeply touched by the various messages they sent.

On the street where you live.
There were sad poems about police brutality and being afraid of getting shot on your own street. The names of Trevon Martin and others evoke strong emotions in urban Black teenage boys.

There were passages from speeches by Dr. King and Malcolm X, and slides and newsreels of Dr. King and the crowd listening to his “I have a dream” speech in Washington.

But my favorite was the rap contest. Two students faced off in a battle of brief rap poems,
Paul Laurence Dunbar
each trying to outdo the other with clever raps. What was unusual about the contest was that the raps were about famous figures in African American history. Each short poem offered some of the main accomplishments of an African American in that staccato, relentless rhyme that rappers do, and ended by revealing the person’s name. I think the cleverest one was the rap about
Langston Hughes, but there were others telling about such people as Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X and Paul Laurence Dunbar (an African-American poet, novelist, and playwright of a hundred years ago). It was a joy to hear hip hop shouted through the microphones to celebrate the stories of these great role models.


When our Assistant Headmaster, a history major in college, took the mic at the end of the program to thank the students, his remarks caught me short. I figured that he would mention something that I think about a lot during Black History Month, namely that our young people consider Dr. King a part of ancient history along with Alexander the Great, and that they have almost no appreciation of the sacrifices that their grandparents made during the Civil Rights movement to make this country a better place for all of us to live.

But his message was very different. He did indeed begin by talking about history, but instead of looking back at history, he told them, they need to realize that each one of us is right now a part history, and that it’s our business to be consciously fashioning our history - the history of our school, of ur city, of our country and - why not? - the world. He mentioned that as we speak some of our our alumni of a few years ago are respected surgeons, civic leaders, attorneys and so on.

“So don’t sit around waiting for history to happen to you” he said to the 540 young men. “You need to be making history right now and preparing yourself to play your part in history, in making this world a better place.”

His idea about looking at history as present and not just past really appealed to me personally,and maybe especially during Black History Month.

After school I took a walk downtown. I was thinking about how I might write a blog post about that idea that history is not confined to the past but is part of who we are. I was still sketching out some ideas in my head when I began walking through the university neighborhood along King Boulevard. Within two minutes I bumped into an alumnus who had to introduce himself (he’s now in his early 40’s); he explained with some pride that he was on his way to class at Rutgers - he’d decided to finally finish his college degree. He and his three brothers are certainly part of our school’s history, of my history. I mentioned that one of his nephews will be starting his freshman year with us next year. After a brief conversation and a word of encouragement from me he went on his way. We’re certainly, I concluded, part of his family’s history.

A block or so farther along I ran into a young man whom I recognized easily. He had not made it through the four years with us; but told me that he had finished high school is now doing well at Essex County College. With real enthusiasm he told me how he is planning to transfer to Montclair University next year and major in graphic design.  He chatted easily, even eloquently about how much he liked school(!), and then about his career plans. After a brief conversation and a word of encouragement from me he, too, went on his way, and I continued my walk. I was so happy to see him looking healthy and focussed and enthused, and was sure that his years at St. Benedict’s had something to do with that.

My blog post about history was writing itself as I walked back to the monastery.  It was a
Monks writing history
mixture of my individual story and the history of the community of monks at Newark abbey and the community we’ve been creating at St. Benedict’s Prep since 1868. For me history would have to be mostly about community, about people living and working together.

Together we’re all writing the current pages of Salvation History, of God’s mysterious plan for our salvation. I hope we’re getting the story right!

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