When I was in Tennessee two weeks ago, one of the fun things my daughter and I did was wade among some cotton plants, which we had not seen since we'd moved to the Pacific Northwest three years ago. You see them all the time in the Volunteer State this time of year. They’re kind of pretty, actually, if you don’t cut yourself on the sharp bracts that result when the boll has burst open and dried.
Even so, they can serve as an inexpensive table centerpiece were you trying to entertain a crowd, which is what drew me to the news about the president of a Christian college in Nashville who did just that.
But the black students who were his guests one night felt the cotton arrangements were a racist statement, according to the New York Daily News.
But note: If you look for any hints of the religious background of this Nashville college in this story, you will find none:
A dinner intended to give African-American students at a Tennessee university the opportunity to discuss their experience at the private liberal arts school left attendees shocked after tables were decorated with cotton stalk centerpieces.
Lipscomb University president Randy Lowry invited black students to his Nashville home Friday night for a dinner, but many of the students deemed the tableware and menu offensive.
According to several students, vases with stalks of cotton were placed on the tables. One student named Nakayla said in a post on Instagram that the centerpieces were added for the dinner with African-American students and were not present for a dinner held for Latino students the day before.
It didn’t help that the menu was loaded with symbols of slavery era culture: barbecued meats, turnip greens (a close cousin to collard greens), cornbread, macaroni and cheese. You can get a glimpse of this meal with the offending centerpiece from the above Instagram photo snapped by Nakayla.
The Latino students had received Spanish rice, chips and queso plus the makings for tacos –- along with two meat items -- the night before. Whoever dreamed up those stereotypical menus sure chose cheap eats -– termed “comfort food” by the president -- that don’t belong on the dining table of a college official trying to impress students.
The only logic I could see is that cotton is harvested this time of year. The article concluded with an apology from the president.
The Tennessean did a much longer piece, emphasizing that minority enrollment had skyrocketed in the past 12 years and how those students were nearly a quarter of the total student population. It also polled more students on what they thought, such as this quote:
Sara Andrew, a junior who is black, said she thought Lowry had "good intentions" for the dinner, which she did not attend. Lowry said he regularly hosts dinners for different student groups.
But Andrew said the cotton stalks were "distasteful."
"We live in the South and we all know the history," she said.
I can echo that. But it wasn’t until I read the Inside Higher Ed piece that I saw the complete menus for both meals those two nights plus the fact that the institution is affiliated with the Churches of Christ.
This is a fellowship that grew out of the Stone-Campbell Movement (also known as the Restoration Movement) and is heavily concentrated in the South and Southwest. I attended my first CoC service ever while living in Tennessee, which is where I experienced their exquisite harmonies, as congregations generally don’t use instrumental music in their services.
Like other Southern denominations, it has thought over the race question quite a bit. Here’s one statement that shows the denomination’s history on race relations, plus a Wikipedia entry that explains some of the repentance for racism expressed by CoC leaders in recent decades. Along with the school’s obvious determination to improve its minority enrollment, these factoids would have been a nice thing to add to the above articles.
It's amazing what historical and religious tidbits you can find about an institution if you only take the time to look for them.
Do take a look at the Facebook entries some students wrote about the dinner that described how the president's speech (at the original dinner) to black students was self-centered and did not leave time for their comments and questions. That offended them more than the cotton centerpieces did. The president's apology, which runs atop the Facebook post, misses the point that students not only felt racially profiled, they felt lectured to and ignored.
Definitely Lipscomb University will try to put this behind them -- as Christian colleges are wont to do -- so I'm hoping some in the media will keep a watch on whether these dinner choices were an accident or symptomatic of something deeper.