A graduating senior who exposes racism at her New Jersey high school in her online magazine has been suspended for submitting a yearbook photo with artwork in the background that contained the n-word and images of lynchings.
With just nine days to go until Princeton High School’s graduation, Jamaica Ponder found herself at home Monday, serving a suspension that school administrators ordered after objecting to artwork in the background of a photo of her with 16 friends. Yearbooks were distributed to students last week, and Ponder was called to Principal Gary Snyder’s office on Friday, where he told her she would be suspended.
In a blog post called “A Suspenseful Intermission” on her online Multi Magazine, Ponder wrote that the slur and lynching images were on two her father’s paintings that had hung on her home’s wall for so long that she barely noticed them anymore. On one painting, the slur isn’t fully legible, with the ‘n’ and ‘e’ obscured, and on the other painting — of celebrities like Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson hanging from trees — appears so small in the upper left of Ponder’s photo that it’s tough to tell what’s going on. The two paintings were part of her father Rhinold Lamar Ponder’s provocative exhibition “The Rise and Fall of the N-Word.”
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Of submitting a photo with racial slurs in the background, Ponder said it was an “oversight.”
“Art is trouble, if you’re doing it right,” she wrote on Friday. “And Ponder art has a tendency to incite and provoke; to make people think. Right now, it serves its purpose from all the way in my basement, from behind the heads of my scooter-and balloon-wielding friends, from the purposefully innocent and apolitical photo that is my senior collage. My father’s art served its purpose without me even noticing and that’s how I ended up in the principal’s office this morning when I should’ve been doing my math homework.”
She feels like her suspension was administrators’ retaliatory way of silencing a student who has been outspoken about racism at her school.
“I wondered where they explicitly saw the word “nigger,” when I understood that they didn’t; that there is no nigger in the yearbook; that the only nigger in that photo is me; that she had said too much, disrupted the show and that she had to be silenced,” Ponder wrote in a post on Sunday.
Reached today, Ponder explained further: “It’s frustrating to me to watch the school deliberately refuse to be more transparent and address its multitude of issues. The problem isn’t that they aren’t perfect; the problem is that they aren’t doing anything to make themselves better. Rather, they quite literally hide behind me and litter the airways with irrelevant and frequently flawed accusations and reasonings for why things happen.”
Snyder declined to comment. But in a letter he sent home to parents, Snyder said several students were disciplined for sneaking imagery offensive because of “racial bias, bigotry and anti-Semitism” into the yearbook.
“Both faculty and students on the yearbook staff have acknowledged shortcomings in their editorial review process that enabled the inappropriate content to slip through and have apologized for unknowingly publishing such content,” Snyder wrote.
He added: “While we encourage our students to have thoughtful dialogues and challenging academic discussions within safe spaces and with established ground rules, the use of historically offensive words and symbols in a yearbook crosses the boundaries of productive dialogue and into the realm of offensive speech that is not permissible within the domains of our school community.”
About 15 students protested Ponder’s suspension Monday afternoon, walking to Snyder’s office with signs saying: “Suspend me!” and a petition. The petition demanded Snyder remove the suspension from Ponder’s permanent record, require all administrators and faculty to read about the differences in profanity used by different racial and ethnic groups, and asked administrators “to contextualize incidents and carefully consider the racial context of their actions in the broader scheme of things,” said senior Anna Hill, 17, who participated in the protest and petition.
“This is not a girl who used a profane word,” Hill added.
Ponder’s parents – her mother Michele Tuck-Ponder is a former Princeton mayor – also have asked for the suspension to be rescinded and plan to appeal to the borough’s civil rights commission to investigate the high school for its disciplinary practices, which the Ponders feel disproportionately impact students of color.
“This is a young black lady who is bringing up issues that many people in Princeton don’t want to discuss. There are frictions in this town that people don’t want revealed. They figure the best move is to shut her down and send a message to the other kids to shut up, or you will be suspended,” said her father Rhinold Ponder, a retired attorney. “The irony is that [the point of] my artwork is to facilitate discussions on race and to help reconstruct the language for more productive dialogue.”
Ponder, for her part, was pretty chill about returning to school Tuesday.
“I know that everyone knows that I’ve been suspended,” said Ponder, who spent her suspension Monday swimming at a pool with her godmother. “Some people agree with it, and some people don’t. And that’s pretty much what I’m used to.”