'Prep School Negro' Shows Struggle Between Poverty And Plenty
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."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.