What if you got a golden ticket to climb out of poverty — only to discover more daunting problems as you climbed? This is the question posed by director André Lee in his riveting documentary, “The Prep School Negro,” which he recently shared with parents at the Gesu School in North Philadelphia
What if you got a golden ticket to climb out of poverty — only to discover more daunting problems as you climbed?
This is the question posed by director André Lee in his riveting documentary, “The Prep School Negro.” Lee grew up in a working-poor, single-parent family in Philadelphia’s West Oak Lane. At 14, he received a full scholarship to the prestigious Germantown Friends School. He — and his teachers — thought he had it made. But had he?
In a film that reveals both his unflinching honesty and his gentle heart, Lee chronicles the culture shock that he experienced at Germantown Friends, and the trade-offs he made to succeed there while remaining true to his roots.
He recently shared his film with parents at the Gesu School. Located at 17th and Thompson, in one of North Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, Gesu is a private, Catholic, Jesuit school serving 450 mostly African-American children from Pre-K to eighth grade. While a third of Philadelphia’s public school students drop out, 90 percent of Gesu students graduate from high school in four years, many from competitive schools such as Haverford, St. Joseph’s Prep and Shipley. Eighty-five percent of these students go on to higher education.
Gesu’s high expectations for its students, plus its dedicated faculty, staff and volunteers, make this urban school special. Over 70 parents turned out on a rainy night this fall to listen attentively to Lee’s story. With high hopes for their children, Gesu parents welcomed the chance to acquire tools to help their students succeed.
“The Prep School Negro” is a deliberately provocative title. Who uses the word “negro” today? It sounds awkward and embarrassing, a throwback to a past that some might wish to forget. Yet Lee wants to make us squirm a bit, wants to help us find a space where we are comfortable enough to discuss the uncomfortable. He and his camera do not blink.
Lee weaves in the experiences of current students at Germantown Friends with memories of his own days there. He finds that things haven’t changed much in 25 years. There are still daily indignities, large and small, from the white girl eager to touch a black girl’s hair, to the wealthy boy who declares that there would be less crime if more African-American babies were aborted. As in Lee’s time, inner city kids still change out of their school uniforms on the bus ride home, so their friends don’t accuse them of “acting white.” They are careful not to “talk white” at home.
One current student describes going to school with the children of doctors and lawyers, while his own dad works three jobs. Lee then recalls the day he realized that the father of one of his classmates owned the factory where Lee’s mother worked. That classmate’s father paid Lee’s mother less than the school’s tuition.
Lee found occasional humor in his journey toward assimilation. He recalls wondering why school was closed on one September weekday. “It’s for Rosh Hashana,” his friend explained.
“Rosh Hashana?” he asked. “Which grade is she in?”
“The Prep School Negro” also gave Gesu parents a chance to reflect on how their own lives might change as their children move up. Lee described how hard it was to study in a noisy rowhouse, how awkward his mother’s visits to campus could be, how disconnected he felt from his family’s mundane problems. His sister accused his school of stealing her brother away. Not “black enough” at home, and not “white enough” at school, Lee chronicled his sense of “psychological homelessness.”
André Lee’s “The Prep School Negro” opened a window for Gesu School parents who want a better life for their children. But it also has a highly universal appeal.
Lee asked his viewers, as they watched the film, to look for the intersection between head and heart. My intersection was this: The film examines the role of race in assimilation — and race in America, with its terrible legacy of slavery, is an issue like no other. Yet the film’s message resonates even further. Whether you are, like Lee, the son of a single African-American factory worker, or the son of a white widowed blue-collar worker, or the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, the nagging question is the same.
That question: When I decide to climb the ladder to success in America, and I see that certain aspects of my culture (race, ethnicity, language, social mores, religion) will hold me back from advancement on that ladder, which parts of myself do I carry up with me? Which parts do I leave behind? And how do those decisions (for there are many decisions, made at many times,) alter how I am perceived — by the people I wish to emulate, by the people I came from, and ultimately, by me?
At the heart of “The Prep School Negro” is the story of American social mobility. This story is as old as our country, and as new as the Gesu School’s eighth graders. André Lee has sent a vital message to inner city students: The trade-offs to success are complicated — but they are also worth it.