StoryCorps Griot: New School, New Life

This week's installment comes from Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. Wiley was a teenager in 1968 when he started a new school in Michigan. He told his son how this seemingly small shift changed his entire life.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Time now for StoryCorps Griot, the project that's recording black Americans across the country.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley was a teenager in Michigan when he started attending a new school in 1968. Ricardo recently told his son how that experience shaped the rest of his life.

Mr. RICARDO PITTS-WILEY (Resident, Michigan): I got bussed to a high school in my sophomore year from a school that there was a large African-American black population to a school that we were 2 percent of the population. And it was awful - just awful getting bussed. Even though I always thought I had intelligence, I never felt like I wanted to even try to use it there. So I did just enough to get by.

In my junior year, our teacher there, Bob Price(ph), put me in the play, "Romeo and Juliet." And I was the only black kid in the play and I caught hell -I caught hell from the white kids at the school and I caught hell from the black kids. And in some ways, it forced me - caused me to distance myself from both of them.

Neither one of them were willing to support what I wanted. So I became, kind of, single-minded in that respect. In opening night, I came on the stage with this kind of fake beard and this big, floppy mushroom hat made out of upholstery fabric that the director's wife had made and everybody burst in laughter.

And what could have been a crushing moment in my life, really, was just something different. I - you know, I said, no, I'm not going to give in. And I did this little squeaky voice and I just kind of dug in and I just begged for this voice, the spirit of Brock Peters who was, you know, who was very much alive at that time, but I've always his voice - Brock Peters. All those muscles and everything, you know. He's like a black man with big voice and muscles and bad, you know, "Porgy and Bess," all that stuff.

And I said, I need that voice, Brock, and he sent it to me, and a voice came out. And I was the prince, not a big part, but I was the prince. And that's the opening scene when I walked off the stage and I said that's it. This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.

CHIDEYA: Ricardo Pitts-Willey who's worked on and around the stage for more than three decades. He came with his son Jonathan to StoryCorps in Providence, Rhode Island.

StoryCorps Griot was currently in Holly Springs, Mississippi. All the Griot-initiative recordings are archived at the Library of Congress. A copy of each interview will also go to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

To find out how to record your interview and to hear more from StoryCorps Griot, go to nprnewsandnotes.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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