Erased From the Classroom

A Black rapper and Pulitzer Prize winner is taken out of 4J curriculum, leading to questions on how the Black experience is taught in schools

Kendrick Lamar. Photo courtesy Fuzheado/WikiMedia Commons

When Ashley Carr, a Black woman and local mental health therapist, found out songwriter and musician Kendrick Lamar had been removed from some Eugene School District 4J classes, she knew she had to speak up.

February is the one month out of the year where classrooms are dedicated to teaching about Black history, Carr says. And what is taught about the modern Black experience matters.

“Education received by students these days is antiquated. There is a real problem with the videos and texts. They tokenize Black people to portray them in a certain way,” Carr says. “It doesn’t do them justice.”

Carr says that North Eugene High School intended to have students study Lamar’s lyrics to learn about Black culture, but because of the strong language and suggestive themes in his music, an administrator removed it from the curriculum. Emails from North Eugene High School teachers confirm her allegations.

The school district denies the allegations and says Lamar is still being considered for future curriculum. But Carr, who wrote a Viewpoint column for this issue in response, says she is concerned about how the Black experience is portrayed in schools overall.

According to an email exchange with 4J teachers in February, the plan was to include lyrics to Lamar’s songs during winter term, providing language-censored copies for students to examine, also giving them a chance to opt out and instead look at an alternative artist. It was not specified which of Lamar’s songs or which alternative artists were being considered for the curriculum.

Lamar is an acclaimed Black hip-hop musician and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music as well as 13 Grammy Awards and an Academy Award nomination. Many of his lyrics reference racism, Black empowerment and other social justice issues.

The teachers said an administrator removed Lamar from the 2021 winter term, citing Lamar’s music as “too explicit for examination within the classroom.” The emails also said that teachers were still looking to clarify what that means. 

When asked about the curriculum, 4J spokesperson Kerry Delf denies that Lamar was removed, saying he had never been part of it. “The school administration has not told any student it’s been removed from the curriculum,” Delf writes in an email.

Delf later followed up and said that the International Baccalaureate Organization (IB) has for some years included Lamar as a potential author to study in English classes.

Conversations about including Lamar in future curricula are ongoing, Delf writes, if approved through a “supplemental curriculum review and approval process.” Studying Lamar’s lyrics in classes was proposed too late in this year to reach a consensus, the email from Delf says, “but is under consideration from school next year.” 

After learning of the situation, Carr says she is concerned about how the Black experience is taught and represented in schools. Although it’s important to learn about figures like Harriet Tubman, she says, it’s equally important to learn about other Black stories.

“I don’t want to replace Harriet Tubman with Kendrick Lamar,” Carr explains, “But at the same time, that’s just one story.”

Carr says that although she does not have children who attend North Eugene High school, as a Black woman she wants to advocate for Black students to be seen and heard. If this situation took place in another town, like Creswell, she says, she would still speak up about it. 

“And even though this is small potatoes, in the 4J district in Oregon, it is still really important because we have extremely racist roots here,” she says. Carr adds that she grew up in Oregon, and has experienced what it is like to live somewhere with no representation. She says representation is needed to foster the identity of Black students.

Most of the teaching materials, Carr says, rely on outdated stories written decades ago that may not accurately represent the Black experience today, or may even gloss over some of it. 

“If we really want to be anti racist, if we really want our next generation to be successful and to be this idea of unity and truly loving everyone with every skin color, it starts with this.”

Carr says by not including diverse stories in Black centered curriculum, the school district is letting the community down. She adds that she thinks these issues come from the “higher ups” who make decisions, but cannot accurately represent what is needed in order to have diversity.

“My guess is they didn’t sit down and listen to his music or research him. They just know he says the ‘n’ word and sings about alcoholism and violence,” Carr says. 

She says that it is important to expose students, especially juniors in high school, to this type of music. To think students might listen to this music and go around using the “n” word is not giving students enough credit and ultimately doing them a disservice. 

“This is not fostering critical thinking. We want them all to think for themselves,” Carr says. ν