Omari is a typical high school student. He is smart and he is ambitious. He likes spending time with his girlfriend and his friends, and he has awkward moments with his parents, typical of being an awkward teenager.
But Omari is also a black student, and for that, he often becomes the resounding expert on black culture at his private school filled with mostly white teachers and students.
When reading the seminal work of Richard Wright, “Native Son,” Omari is angrily harassed by his white teacher to provide an explanation for the protagonist’s violent outbursts which killed a white woman. Omari is confused and embarrassed. He cannot fully articulate what is happening and wants to go through the class without being bothered.
In response, Omari assaults his teacher. Omari’s parents, who are divorced following his mother’s extramarital affairs, try to console him. His father, who is a successful businessman, demands that Omari live with him, but Omari’s public-school-teacher mother laments, believing that Omari would be better with her at her public school. While they squabble, Omari’s fate remains unclear as the school suspends him and deliberates on full expulsion, with possible criminal charges, due to Omari’s past offenses and the severe nature of his current incident.
Omari is a fictional character in Dominique Morisseau’s play, “Pipeline.” Morisseau was recently named a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellow for her work and world contributions. The play was directed by Reginald L. Douglas, and starred Carter Redwood as Omari. The play ran last month at Pittsburgh’s City Theatre. Other cast members included Khalil Kain, Nambi E. Kelley, Gabriel Lawrence, Sheila McKenna, and Krystal Rivera. The play expertly explores themes of love, race, academia, fatherhood, family, marriage, racism, and class.
The victimization of black youth, even in educational environments, is not new. According to data from 2015-16 released by the United States Department of Education, black male students like Omari are disproportionately punished with out-of-school suspensions — making up 25 percent of all reported suspensions. Black male students comprise 8 percent of the male student body. Black female students also comprise 8 percent of all female students, and account for 14 percent of suspensions.
A central theme the play explores is the School-to-Prison pipeline, a term used to indicate how law enforcement encounter students with recommendations from schools. Black students account for 31 percent of students who were arrested or referred to law enforcement.
At the end of the play, audience members participated in a talk-back session. The talk-back session allowed them to challenge themselves honestly and ask questions in an open forum. Each talk-back session was moderated by a different host. One audience member, a white professor, at a talk-back session I sat on, talked at length of her support of black students, but commented that sometimes she struggles, because her daughter was murdered by a black associate.
Being brutally honest with each other will ensure that adults, especially educators, are creating learning environments where students are able to achieve and flourish academically. If these environments do not exist for all students, well, let’s talk about it.
Jamar Thrasher, a Pennsylvania-based writer who often writes about youth issues, is the owner of Kennedy Blue Communications, a PR firm which focuses on youth organizations and youth initiatives. His work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, PennLive and the New Pittsburgh Courier. He lives with his young daughter, Kennedy.