BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- An Indiana school district that told a black teenager to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" in a "traditional way" after receiving complaints about her performance is drawing questions now about whether the complaints and directive were racially motivated.
Shai Warfield-Cross, 16, has performed the national anthem at sports events at Bloomington High School North over the last year without incident. But school officials said they received complaints about her performance during a game in Martinsville.
Principal Jeff Henderson told The Herald-Times in a statement that people had complained that while the words to the anthem were the same, the tune was unrecognizable. He declined to comment to The Associated Press.
Some who complained after the game in Martinsville -- a predominantly white community about 30 miles southwest of Indianapolis -- also said they felt the rendition was disrespectful to current and former members of the military, Henderson said.
Warfield-Cross' family says athletics director Jen Hollars told the teen last Friday that she would not be allowed to sing the anthem unless she modified her version and sang in a more traditional way. Hollars declined to comment and referred questions to Henderson, who said school officials told Warfield-Cross the performances should be more "traditional" to ensure the song's tune is recognizable.
"She was not told that she would no longer be allowed to perform," he said. "She was given guidelines that we hoped she would follow. She performed the next night using those guidelines and she sang beautifully."
Aurora Marin, the teen's stepmother, told The Herald-Times that the directive denies Warfield-Cross her "rights of expression and individuality." The family has written a letter to school officials seeking an apology.
"The national anthem is a historical symbol for our country for independence. The irony is that Shai is being denied her right of artistic expression as a result of her natural voice and cultural heritage," they wrote.
"The situation really makes us question the staff and leadership there, and what their representation of diversity is," Marin said.
Khalil Muhammad, an Indiana University history professor, said he listened to a version of the anthem sung by Warfield-Cross on YouTube and concluded it was "a fairly traditional rendition." He noted that many artists, including Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye and Jose Feliciano, have put their own stamp on the song without significant controversy. Musicians have also performed the song using traditional Jewish musical styles, he added.
Muhammad also questioned the complaint that Warfield-Cross' version was disrespectful to military members.
"African-Americans die in our wars like white Americans," Muhammad said. "Since Vietnam, African-Americans have served disproportionately in our armed services."
Warfield-Cross, who is a member of the high school's choir and has performed with the Bloomington Playwrights Project, said she felt "really confused" after the discussion.
"I felt bad, like I was doing something wrong," she said.
Information from: The Herald Times