Thursday, October 2, 2008

OH NO HE DIDN'T - The Mayor of Ark City performs in Blackface

Mel Kuhn, the Mayor of Arkansas City Kansas, won a beauty pageant fundraiser last weekend. Kuhn participated in the Men in Tights, drag queen contest that has become an annual fund raiser for CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates. The agency supports foster children in the court system.

Kuhn named his character "Smellishis Poon," and the name appeared on programs and was announced during the event. He also had back up dancers for the talent portion, and called them his "Red Hot Puntangs."

Arkansas City (or Ark City as it is more commonly known) is a small town approximately an hour or so south of Wichita. The relationship between the Wichita Branch and Ark City is relatively new, but substantial...

A year ago, Ark City was served by a small NAACP Branch known as the Cowley-Sumner Branch. The branch fell below their required membership numbers and was in danger of losing it's charter. Rather than see the branch lose it's charter, we applied to the National Office that we'd be able to temporarily annex the Cowley-Sumner Branch, its membership and its territory; at least until such time as they were able to rebuild their infrastructure. So perhaps unbeknownest to many within Ark City, they now fall within our jurisdiction.

Yesterday morning, when I learned about the Mayor's weekend performance I placed a call to City Hall in Ark City and requested a meeting with Mayor Kuhn. Mayor Kuhn returned my call a little after noon and offered to come to Wichita to meet that evening.

I was joined in the meeting by branch members Dr. Maaskela Thomas and Paulette Goines who added some clear and critical perspective.

Now to be clear, our intent was not to offer absolution; we would not be "Al Sharpton" to his "Don Imus". Rather, I requested the meeting with the modest goals of making accessible to the Mayor the level of offense and outrage his performance had engendered, and to impress upon the Mayor our perspective that this performance, when viewed with other key indicators, appears to be emblematic of a larger problem and perspective gap.

These issues were highlighted by an interview that appeared in the online version of the Ark City Traveler newspaper in which the Mayor reportedly said, "I don't give a damn what people think. It's a bunch of bullshit" and later remarked, "All this PC is bullshit".

We met for about an hour and discussed the performance, his rationale, the context, the history, and the outrage, in some detail. And while I don't believe that his antics were born of racial hatred or animus (Think "Family Guy") It became increasingly clear that there certainly are larger and more pertinent issues that need to be addressed.

*We discussed the fact that the town of Ark City has never had an African American department head in its 130 year history. *We also discussed the fact that the town's Human Relations Committee was recently downsized from a 20 member board to 5 members, shifted from monthly meetings to quarterly meetings, and was completely de-funded. *And yes, we discussed the fact that he could appear in blackface at a banquet before a cheering crowd, and actually win a trophy for his performance...

As we made our way through the discussion, we described to the Mayor the degree to which people were hurt and offended by his actions. And while he had previously told a reporter from the Ark City Traveler that he wouldn't apologize, I think we were able to convey the fact that this was not merely a harmless act to which some overly sensitive people took offense. We directly challenged the notions and arguments of equivalency, and Mayor Kuhn seemed to understand and accept the fact that he had done something that truly warranted a public apology. In response, Mayor Kuhn offered this statement:

"It has been brought to my attention how offensive this was and I absolutely agree that it was shortsighted of me not to see that in the first place. I am sincerely sorry and I sincerely apologize for the offensive nature of my actions. This was not CASA, this was of my own volition, and I take full responsibility for my actions. The buck absolutely stops here". - Mayor Mell H. Kuhn

We then asked Mayor Kuhn if he would commit to an ongoing conversation/relationship with the Center for Community Support and Research (formerly known as the Self Help Center of WSU), and he agreed. Through this effort, we will work to identify and address the systemic and structural issues of race and perspective in Ark City.

This will be a "Work-in-Progress" for quite some time... but we'll keep you posted as developments arise.

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