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Saturday, December 16

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Airbags

"You're never gonna believe this, man. But they're talking about having separate proms this year."

"Separate proms? What do you mean? One for juniors and one for seniors? That's how they always do it, dude."

"No, man, no. Separate senior proms: one for white kids and one for blacks."
--Hairstyles of the Damned

In the novel Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno, the protagonist, Brian Oswald, is a student at Brother Rice High School on Chicago's Southwest Side. One day at school, Brian finds out some of the African American seniors are planning to hold their own prom, separate from the school-sponsored dance. Although fictionalized in Hairstyles, the events of the story are based on the real incidents that occurred at Brother Rice in the spring of 1991.

Brother Rice High School is located at 10001 S. Pulaski Rd. on Chicago's Southwest Side. The school is named for the founder of the Christian Brothers, Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice, who started the religious institute in Ireland in 1802. Brother Rice High School opened in 1956 and is considered by many to be one of the top Catholic high schools in the country.

Author Joe Meno, who attended Brother Rice when the incidents took place, makes no secret of the fact that Hairstyles is semi-autobiographical. In an interview for NPR's "Weekend Edition" in January 2005, Meno described the simple issue that led to the separate proms by saying, "the students couldn't agree on the music to be played at prom. And so the black kids kind of took it upon themselves to say, 'We're going to have our own prom.'"

In 1991, black students made up only 12 percent of the enrollment at Brother Rice, and there were no black faculty members. When they began planning for prom, the nearly all-white student council devised a system for choosing songs for the dance: every senior would list three songs, and the songs receiving the most nominations would be played.

This was a time when hair bands like Guns N' Roses topped the charts and rap hadn't quite yet hit the mainstream. As a result, although unintentional, the system practically guaranteed the songs chosen by the black students were automatically out-voted. So, instead of putting up with a night of hard rock (and who could blame them?), black seniors decided to hold their own prom.

Brother Rice administrators disavowed the so-called "black prom" after attempts to reconcile students failed, but plans for the alternate event went forward without the school's support. On May 3, 1991, about 200 mostly white couples attended the official school prom at the Marriott Hotel. That same night, close to 30 black couples danced at the McCormick Center Hotel on the other side of Chicago's downtown.

But the students at Brother Rice were not alone. At Evanston Township High School that same year, there was also a dispute over the music to be played at prom that also fell across racial lines. But in Evanston, the students were able to agree to disagree by voting to let the disc jockey determine the playlist. Meanwhile, at Northern Illinois University, black students held their own separate graduation exercises, which caused tensions amongst the other students.

These three incidents, occurring within weeks of each other, briefly renewed a national debate about integration, racial tensions and the need to preserve cultural identity. But in Hairstyles of the Damned, Brian sums it up in his own way when he observes, "It still seemed really fucking wrong and sad to me, though, like, well, like all those preppy student council kids had, well, just given up on something."

Sources

Jouzaitis, Carol and Karen M. Thomas. "Integration often tests minority students' identities." Chicago Tribune, 12 May 1991, 1.

Kirby, Joseph and Sue Ellen Christian. "Brother Rice split into 2 prom nights." Chicago Tribune, 1 May 1991, 4.

Meno, Joe. Hairstyles of the Damned. Chicago: Punk Planet Books, 2004.

Meno, Joe. Interview by Scott Simon, 22 January 2005. Transcript. National Public Radio, "Weekend Edition."

Wilkerson, Isabel. "A tale of two proms: one black, one white." San Francisco Chronicle, 19 May 1991, 2.

~*~

Join the Gapers Block Book Club! Just sign up for the email list for news, announcements and more. This month we are reading Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno. We will be meeting to discuss the book on Monday, April 11, at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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