In recent interviews with both People and the New York Times, talk-show hostess Wendy Williams speaks openly about her unlikely upbringing in the leafy environs of suburban New Jersey. Indeed, rather than being the "girl from the 'hood" her potty-mouthed persona might suggest, Williams actually summered on Martha's Vineyard, went to charm school and attended private university in Boston. Big-boned and big-mouthed, Williams was a perpetual "only-one" -- that rare Black girl in mostly-White environments.
And Williams was not alone.
From Damon Dash to Denzel Washington, Sean "P-Diddy" Combs to President Barack Obama, many of popular-culture's most prominent African-Americans are not just Negroes -- they're Prep-School Negroes (PSN).
As graduates of elite "prep" (or "independent") school systems, this minority-within-a-minority is bucking the myth of Black kids as over-urban and under-educated. Along the way, PSNs have become a dominant force in business, media and -- with one in the White House -- increasingly politics. And now they've even got their own film -- the aptly-named Prep School Negro, recently-completed by young New York City director Andre Robert Lee.
Lee's film -- which I caught this week at a Studio Museum in Harlem screening -- is an autobiographical exploration of race, class, privilege and possibilities. The setting is late '80s Philadelphia -- where Lee was both raised in its working-class, mostly-Black South and attended the ultra-elite Germantown Friends School on a full academic scholarship. Over the course of 52 minutes, Lee personally, poignantly -- and often painfully -- details both the invaluable benefits and lesser-known burdens experienced by Prep School Negroes such as himself.
Those benefits are clear. Unlike at the mostly-Black public school his sister attended, virtually every Germantown Friends student continues on to higher education -- including Lee, who ultimately graduated from Connecticut College. He then moved on to a Masters degree at Tufts University, stints teaching public school in New York City and working at the Ford Foundation. Ultimately, Lee entered a successful career producing, marketing and now directing films. Clearly Lee is one Negro where a Prep School education worked.
Yet at what cost? For Lee also speaks about the price he has paid for this upward-mobility: Alienation from his South Philadelphia family and community, isolation within Germantown Friend's mostly-white campus and the constant wondering if he was really "supposed to be there". This gnawing sense of conflict sets the tone for Lee's entire film, voiced by the numerous current and former students who charmingly inhabit this fine documentary debut.
As the Obama presidency and economic downturn confirm, we're living in a period of both unprecedented possibility and vast economic inequality for African Americans. Which is why The Prep School Negro could not feel more timely. Or thought provoking.
Clearly the opportunities afforded by private education cannot be ignored. According to data from the National Association of Independent School (NAIS), 99 per cent of Black kids in California prep schools complete high school, with 95 per cent continuing on to college. As for the state's Black and Latino public school students, some 40 percent never graduate -- the same drop-out rate as Lee's district school back in Philadelphia.
Yet as Lee's film conveys, African-American students don't just show up at private schools and start studying. Indeed, some 80 percent of PSNs reported difficulty fitting in with fellow peers, while 40 percent say they have felt unfairly treated compared to White students, according to additional NAIS data. Throw in accusations of "talking White", choosing between "Black" and "White" cafeteria tables, the racial subtexts of teen-age fashion and -- YIKES! -- dating, and it becomes clear that as much has changed as has stayed the same since Lee's own prep school days.
During the Q-and-A session following Lee's Harlem screening, a young Black woman asked whether sending poorer minority kids to mostly white private schools was the right way to uplift communities of color. Why not, she asked, find the funds to properly educate Black students at home -- say in Harlem, San Francisco's Hunter's Point, the South Side of Chicago or even South Philly.
Lee affirmed her observation and spoke of a school just like that -- the all-Black Cardinal Ritter College Prep School in St. Louis. Though nominally Catholic, the ecumenical student body follows a curriculum aimed at preparing Black "students for leadership roles in a multi-ethnic society". Good work, for sure. Yet in the same breath Lee also spoke of a Black-Canadian friend who's vocally wondered why the need for prep schools at all; why can't every American kid of every race receive an adequate education?
Why can't they, indeed!
Personally, I'm a bit of a reverse PSN, having attended fancy private schools for the first half of my life until my mother (a single parent to twins) finally conceded economic defeat. Ultimately, like Wendy Williams back in Jersey, my sister and I graduated from public high school. But I still think we turned out OK. I ended up with the type of over-priced private university education prep school promised, while today my sister actually runs an independent school near our home-town in Northern California.
As for Lee -- whose film lovingly portrays the death of his mother -- he hopes The Prep School Negro helps today's generation of PSNs find confidence in themselves, their homes and in their classrooms. For the rest of us -- much like Precious by director Lee Daniels, The Prep School Negro is a testament to the kind of resilience and optimism universal to every child of every race.
As the students interviewed in Lee's film relate, "only-one"-status certainly has its challenges. But as Lee compassionately conveys -- and Wendy Williams hilariously confirms -- being yourself is ultimately the best revenge.