For schools that hold bonfire “traditions”, here’s a quick tip: don’t add an effigy with a dark skin tone in an opposing jersey to the proceedings. It’s not going to go over well. In fact, maybe avoid the whole effigy of an opponent thing altogether? That has tended to backfire since the Trojan War.
Case in point: The apparent tradition of Van High School in East Texas to affix an effigy of their opponent’s best player to the top of their homecoming bonfire. This year Van faces off against Brownsboro, which is led by junior running back Keith Johnson, and sure enough, the 2018 Van homecoming bonfire had an effigy of a black player wearing number 8 right up top.
You can see the fire in question in the video above. After Van posted a video of the fire on its Facebook page, angry comments noted that the effigy was made of an African American player. Van quickly deleted the video, but a similar version was maintained online by KEEL news radio (which is the imprint you see above).
In the aftermath of the controversy, Van Independent School District Superintendent Don Dunn released the following statement attempting to explain away any racist implications connected to the apparent effigy of Johnson:
The Vandal Bonfire is a long-standing tradition in Van ISD that dates back to the 1940s. When this tradition began, our bonfire was constructed by senior students; however, after an incident in the mid-2000s when a student broke his wrist during construction, the district decided to halt the tradition. In 2017, the bonfire tradition was reinstated with the construction process handled by Van ISD staff rather than students for safety reasons. Our community and alumni have been very excited to see this beloved tradition return. After videos of the bonfire posted by the district on social media following the bonfire last night, comments arose in the thread accusing the district of racism. Historically, the number on the player’s jersey at the top of the bonfire has always been the same number as the opposing team’s best player. This is by no means a racial issue and never has been. Van ISD would never promote, condone, or allow this long-standing tradition to target an opposing team or player because of their race. We understand that some people who are not familiar with our bonfire tradition could misinterpret photos or videos they may have seen on social media due to the current charged social and political climate. For this reason, future bonfires will not include a mock football player of the opposing team. We sincerely regret if anyone was offended by this tradition that has always centered around good-natured school spirit between rival teams and are saddened that that the character of our upstanding school community has been called in to question.
Look, we can all argue over the reasonableness of having a bonfire to celebrate a high school football game, though it’s always seemed a stretch at the collegiate level (Texas A&M, anyone?), let alone for high schoolers. The very idea of having an effigy of a teenager put atop it can’t possibly be a good idea. It’s not possible.
So, at least some good has come from this debacle. A bonfire without an effigy is better than one with an effigy. With this progress, maybe they’ll even eventually get rid of the bonfire altogether, which would further minimize risk of accident, injury and unnecessary public outrage.