A School Leadership (staff & students) Teachable Moment: The Dave Chappelle theater renaming ceremony debacle –There’s a strong possibility that many things went wrong on multiple levels.

As a superintendent, I’ve told principals in an after-crisis review session: “Well, we might as well put this painful situation to some good use by turning it into a reflective leadership learnable moment!”

“Comedian Dave Chappelle unexpectedly announced Monday that a student theater at his alma mater, Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington, will not bear his name… in a surprise move, Chappelle, who attended the dedication ceremony, declined the honor amid controversy over his Netflix special last year that many blasted as transphobic. Ellington students had also raised concerns…”—Washington Post

It is that rare (as in a live woolly mammoth sighting rare) decision that a principal will make where all the internal and external school family stakeholders are happy. This is why a principal should probably avoid making a decision that will result in everybody (for some reason or another) being unhappy.

So now, on this Dave Chappelle issue, I can wear multiple perspective hats (1) Principal, (2) Superintendent, and (3) A recipient of being honored by having a library (now state-of-the-art media center) in the school where I was a principal named after me.

Most public school districts I am aware of have a standard prohibition against naming a school or any part of a school after a living person for many good reasons, all predating and having nothing to do with Mr. Chappelle. One good reason is that the person is still alive! This means that by being a living person, there is always the possibility that they could say or do something that would bring shame or dishonor to the institution, a lesson you don’t want children to learn and endure. This is why I was so honored (noticing that I was still alive) to have a section of my former NYC school named after me; which meant the present principal, superintendent, the school district’s legal department, and the Chancellor all felt confident that I would not “lose it” (and do something crazy like storm the US capital to overturn a presidential election…) before I finally bow out of this world, thus forcing them to go through the ugly process of rescinding the honor bestowed upon me, and the even uglier painful process of having to explain their actions to my family, the public, press, staff, and students. And we could double down on their trust-in-me factor since the primary funding ($1-million) source for the new Media Center was the then Brooklyn borough president, who had just won the primary, and soon-to-be mayor Eric Adams.

But with all that, my “renaming ceremony” took more than two years before it was publicly mentioned. This amount of time was needed even with me being a person who is well-known in the NYC/NYS public education community. I joked with a friend that at this pace (I was 70 at the time), I could be dead soon, thus making the investigation phase move much faster!

Although I was the subject of the process, as a former NYC principal and superintendent, I know how much preempting “Due Diligence” investigative work is performed when a prohibition-waving decision of this magnitude is made; any mistakes and political “heads could roll”! This “intense vetting” process is especially important in a hyper news media place like NYC (I’m not kidding––when the NYC Mayor eats at a restaurant, reporters actually report on his menu choices!) or in the case of a celebrity like a Mr. Chappelle, in a “hot” news media place like Washington DC.

After the rigorous research and internal discussions period have concluded, the next step is to ask the honoree privately and informally if they would be opposed to this honor being bestowed upon them and to answer any questions they might have. This is also when the potential honoree is politely invited to voluntarily offer any possible problematic information for discussion. You then wait (still no public announcement) for a while to allow both the honoree and the school system to think through and about this decision. During or at the end of this period (months), either party can back out without any public embarrassment or negative conflictual situation.

I don’t know the precise details of the Dave Chappelle –Duke Ellington H.S. (DEHS) situation, so I am not blaming any one person, but several issues/questions come to my mind (now wearing my superintendent’s hat) when I think about the possible contributing causes of the crisis. I also think back as a superintendent to those many situations when I had to prevent (fortunately, without any news coverage) a principal from entering into or had to pull a principal’s behind out of the fiery pit of serious self-destructive trouble!

Facing this particular Chappelle renaming issue, my first question to the principal would be the “still alive” question and our having a conversation (before Mr. Chappelle is contacted) about why (or why not) in this case, we should wave the prohibited naming regulation for a living person; and specifically, the why should we wave it for this living person. And further, honestly exploring one of my favorite leadership questions: “What could possibly go wrong?”

So many people think of Chancellors and Superintendents primarily as ‘pedagogical agents.’ And yet, their educational work efforts can be highly affected by and highly susceptible to the results of ‘political problems or issues.’ So a principal must always be alert and prepared to protect their supervisor from unnecessary, politically harmful situations.

But back to my superintendent’s hat discussion with the principal. We would need to have a focused conversation on Mr. Chappelle’s particular art form –comedy. The comedic arts and tradition specialize (and for good enlightenment and entertainment reasons) in pushing audiences to what could be “uncomfortable places.” What I would see as simply an insightful and thought-provoking joke by a comedian (or an actor in a comedic role or scene), another person could take as a serious offense. Further, in our present era of ultra-political-correctness, it is challenging, even outside of stand-up-comedy, to get through an ordinary non-controversial public speech and not “offend” somebody in some way (“oh wait, she said mankind instead of humankind!”).

But professional comedians, not necessarily seeking to offend, will purposely use controversial language to push the audience members ‘intellectual buttons’ to get them to think about something they would rather not or are afraid to think about or speak out loud. In many ways, comedians speak for (and often take the heat for) our unexpressed inner questions, ideas, thoughts, and, to be honest, our unvoiced and silenced sense of humor.

Let’s face it, as tragically harmful a Donald Trump or Herschel Walker storyline, there is a comical aspect to their behaviors! And perhaps, it is that funny buffoonery exhibition of their lives that keeps many of us from becoming totally cynical and/or depressed–but clearly, many others in our nation love and adore these two individuals! When Dave Chappelle said in one of his shows that “Black people supported Jussie Smollett with our silence,” many Black folks, I’m sure, got the joke’s cultural, historical, and inside political brilliance–but others (including, I suspect, some Black folks) may have been offended by it. My point is that one person’s acceptable joke could be another person’s unacceptable offense, so where does that leave us? (hopefully not in no jokes about the ‘great leader’ North Korea land!)

And so my superintendent’s question to the principal: “After you have reviewed hours of Mr. Chappelle’s work, do you believe your staff, parents, external supporters, and students will be overwhelmingly able to endorse and support this effort?” And, (a front-end process) “Have you discussed this with your school leadership team and key parents, faculty and staff members?” (And principals, I do hope you know who those key ‘sounding-board’ parents, faculty and staff members are in your school building! In high schools this can include feed-back from some mature and thoughtful, or highly/directly affected, and ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ student leaders.)

I have (full disclosure) visited this great school (DEHS) in question on several occasions and knew a little bit about its culture. Even from my outsider’s view, I could imagine some members of that extended school stakeholding family would have serious problems with some of Mr. Chappelle’s jokes.
And because the physical and emotional safety of children must be a priority in public education, we should always error on the side compassionate protection. Perhaps, a better route would have been to honor Mr. Chappelle with a prestigious alumni scholarship named after him, as opposed to a space students would have to enter, study and perform in. College scholarships are consistently named after not-so-perfect and sometimes controversial people (e.g., people), and students can choose to apply for them or not.

Finally, I think that the entire school, particularly a performing arts high school, should turn this unfortunate event into a teachable, learnable, critical analysis (there, you see, some people will be offended by my use of a “critical analytical approach” to study) moment. The students are going to engage in many (on and off campus) discussions about the incident; and so, why not have those discussions be staff-led, positive and productive? Some topics for discussion (consistent with the school’s mission) could be:

“When does speech become violence?”

“What does it mean to feel safe and humanized in a space?”

“What is the comedic art form and tradition?”

“What is artistic freedom?”

“What is acting or performing? Can we separate a ‘performance personality’ and dramatically professed beliefs from the performer’s real (life) personality and beliefs?” –Is Denzel Washington a heroic (Malcolm X) Black leader or a (Training Day) brutal and corrupt cop? Or, maybe he’s just Denzel Washington playing a role!

“What people, and how many of them must be offended by an art presentation for it to be banned or canceled?”

“Who has the political power (in any society) to determine acceptable/appropriate or unacceptable/inappropriate art expressions?” –or in this case, what’s funny and not funny?

And finally:

“Why and would the students want to attend a post-high school performing arts training institution with a complicatedly ‘bad’ historical connection (e.g., as in Yale and its benefiting connection to American slavery), accept a fellowship or scholarship program named after a horrible person (e.g., a Rhodes Scholarship named for a racist mass-murdering imperialist), or perform at a venue (The Jefferson Performing Arts Center; named after a rapist and unrepentant enslaver of human beings!)…
(Among the ethical and credibility problems with the entire “cancellation” movement/process are the numerous unspoken and hypocritical economic-financial, opportunistic, racial, gender, and power-differential factors involved.)

These are difficult but necessary questions that must be addressed by all young people, but especially by the Duke Ellington High School students, many of whom could be entering the world of further art study and/or professional performance after graduation. Therefore, we high school educators must help students to think strategically (helping guide them to avoid as much societal and self-harm as possible) about successfully navigating through a world full of complicated contradictions and imperfect options; a place where things will rarely (if ever) be an ideal choice between a perfect good and a perfect evil.

And suppose “offensive” in the eyes of anyone who feels offended becomes the standard evaluative rule in comedy. In that case, we should just be honest as a society and ban all comedy. For why should one person’s self-interpreted offense be less pertinent and uncomfortable than another person’s self-interpreted offense?

Are we as a nation taking ourselves too seriously? I have of late discovered and enjoy immensely with my other senior citizen friends the joy of laughing at our present and younger (so solemn and serious) selves!

But seriously, as an African-American man, I would very much like to ban what I consider to be some of the most degrading and insulting modern-minstrel-shows on television (I’ll admit, they are often enjoyed by many Black Americans). Then there are those newspaper, TV news, and magazine articles that daily assault and seek to ignore and diminish my humanity and personhood. Still, I’m not going down that canceling-censoring path because there are probably many people in this nation who are offended by many of the artistic, creative and informational sources and performance things I cherish and enjoy, so where would that lead us?
If everyone decides to slay everyone else’s sacred beliefs and then impose their own sacred beliefs on everybody else, we will then be left to live in a world where the belief system that ultimately triumphs will do so through the cynically cruel mechanisms of either political (SCOTUS) and/or physical (Taliban) violence.