'Prep School Negro' Shows Struggle Between Poverty And Plenty

When Andre Robert Lee was 14, he got a scholarship to an elite school in Philadelphia. He tells Renee Montagne his documentary chronicles the challenges he faced as a poor kid thrust into privilege.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Andre Robert Lee has his own story of feeling like an outsider as a young, black man. Lee wasn't part of that voucher study but in 1985, when he was 14 and living in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia, Lee got a scholarship to an elite, private prep school. It was the beginning of a dual life.

ANDRE ROBERT LEE: In my class, our people had the names of major department stores, major construction companies, you know, and I barely had bus fare to get to school.

MONTAGNE: Lee tells his story in a new documentary, "The Prep School Negro." In the film, we hear from him and also other young, black students - like Kelvin Johnson- navigating opportunities that come with some big obstacles.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE PREP SCHOOL NEGRO")

KELVIN JOHNSON: I kind of feel like when you're black, sometimes you have to be twice as good. I was kind of, you know, sad by it, you know. I'm a people person and to go to a school where you can't be yourself - I was being myself, but people not to embrace you is just - it kind of sucked.

MONTAGNE: Andre Robert Lee says making the documentary helped him understand painful issues of race and class.

LEE: My mother was a factory worker, and the family who owned the factory, their children - the son was in my class, and the daughter was a class or two below me. And I had moments of looking at them and thinking, like, our tuition is more than your father pays my mother a year. And then what I took home was a high level of shame because I walked in, and I saw these people - and say, you know what? Wait. Their families are successful. Mine isn't. Does that mean that I am less than they are?

MONTAGNE: Were there other emotions besides shame?

LEE: Yeah. It's interesting because I, you know, it was intense and heavy and scary, but it was also the most exciting and wonderful time of my life. Like, I have to stress that. But I felt, in ninth grade, that I had a moment where I was like, I understand what racism is and what it means, and what divides me in our country - because I felt that these people had access to a world that I did not have access to.

And I began to instantly fear that I would never truly have access. I masked it with being overly involved in the community, and I had to be the president of every organization I was in, and really just going over the top to fit in and prove that I was a part of that society.

MONTAGNE: It sounds like your way of dealing with feeling as if you didn't belong was to super-belong - I mean, do your best to belong.

LEE: Yeah, it's hard. And when a kid walks in and they're immediately seen as a delinquent, that perception and notion is thrust upon a person immediately. Despite the fact that I'm quote-unquote "successful" and have a career and have a graduate degree, you know, I still have a darn hard time getting a cab, and this is even - if I'm in a suit, or not.

If you're not a really strong person, it can destroy you 'cause it's constant chipping away at your psyche, you know. And I realized this in ninth grade. I thought, there's inequity in the world and it's not going to change. What am I going to do?

MONTAGNE: That was filmmaker Andre Robert Lee. His documentary is "The Prep School Negro."

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