I think this tweet much sums up last night:
I saw a documentary last night and while it was a very provocative film, the discussion afterwards is what truly made the evening worthwhile.
The Prep School Negro is a documentary by filmmaker Andre Robert Lee, which discusses his journey from growing up in a poor part of Philadelphia to getting a “golden ticket” to go to the elite Germantown Friends School. The documentary focuses on the positives and negatives associated with this life transformation, including family, friendship, and overall identity struggles.
The documentary also looks at current Black students at these elite private schools, focusing on the ones that struggle to be accepted by Blacks and the ones that struggle to be accepted by Whites.
I’m sure some people left the film feeling like their mind had been blown and their perspective on race and class was forever changed. For the group of people I rolled up to this film with, however, this was nothing new. Certain parts of the film were our lives in a nutshell and other parts (for better or for worse) reminded us of people we grew up with, are good friends with, and in some cases, people we absolutely loathe.
Just for perspective’s sake, these are some of the schools that those in my group attended:
The Dalton School, Brown University, Dwight-Englewood School, Wesleyan University, The Paideia School, St. Paul’s Academy, Dartmouth College, Columbia University, College of the Holy Cross, Cornell University, The Pembroke Hill School.
Excuse me, while I wipe the street cred off my computer screen…
From that list and these pictures, you could make a lot of judgements about what kind of kids we are. Many of them could be negative, easily laced with elitist connotations, with the probable assumption that we’re wildly disconnected with the “Black Community”. You’d be wrong, but I can’t say I’d initially blame you.
You might not expect the extreme variation with regards to class, race/ethnicity, parental educational attainment, and geography that exists between those of us that went to these schools.
And what I bet you really wouldn’t guess is that after the film, 8 of us walked out and went to Burger King.
We sat down, had dinner, and talked about the film, our various backgrounds, and our experiences and opinions on the life of a Black student in a predominantly White environment for more than 2 hours. The only reason we stopped talking at 11:15 was because
The Burger King the janitor rudely kicked us out.
We talked at length about how many of the Black people we know from these institutions fell into one of two categories… you know, the “insular Black community, White people might be the Devil” category or the “fully assimilated, not comfortable around most Blacks, don’t you dare sit at the Black Table, ever” category. This was a point made in the movie and something that, in my opinion, plagues prep schools and elite institutions across the country and tears apart already small Black populations.
We talked about how each of us got to that middle ground, and then what we subsequently did once we were comfortably there. For some, it was figured out before high school, some during, and some not until a year or two into college. For each of us, there was a different hurdle to get over to fully feel comfortable in both worlds. For some, it was figuring out how to balance the activities seen as “Black” and the activities commonly referred to as “campus-wide” (also quite problematic). For others, it was simply accepting the fact not all Whites were, you know, the devil and all…
We talked about how seemingly harmless events like Black Orientation programs that happen for incoming Freshman can, depending on the school and the tone of the leadership, do great things for Black students, or really make life hard for Black students who failed to attend for any number of reasons.
When talks like this aren’t forced, but happen very organically, really beautiful conversations can arise. When they don’t spring up in response to something highly emotional, people can talk very calmly and have a very easy-going, comically anecdotal, sometimes ignorant and sometimes extremely serious conversation about issues that a great deal of our population has never had.
One of the things that the protagonist of the movie struggled with was the fact that once he started going to Germantown Friends, he became more and more distant from his family and his former community, something only in making this movie has he begun to try to fix.
For me, had my mom not made a few crucial decisions about my life, Andre Robert Lee’s life could have, painstakingly, been mine. Had I gone to my private school earlier than 5th grade, had I not played all of my sports in the 2000%-Black Southwest Atlanta, and had my after-school homework spot not been Morris Brown College and Clark-Atlanta University, that easily could have been me. I spent the majority of the movie feeling like a dodged a very large bullet. I think the rest of my Burger King cohort could tell similar stories about seemingly simple parental decisions that forever dictated the course of our lives and our ability to feel comfortable in most settings.
Hands down, the best decision we all made that night was not staying for the Q&A with the director. Just being completely honest, he probably should have wrapped up his Q&A early, walked over to Burger King, got himself a Double Whopper and an Icee, and sat down. He would have been very interested in what we were talking about and probably would have learned a thing or two about himself.
Many thanks to Mr. Browne, Mr. Douglas, Mr. Nwachukwu, Mr. Taveras, Mr. Mars, Mr. Echebiri, and Ms. Holder for the sharing of good conversations over a highly diabetic foods.