“Prep School Negro” highlight shows difficult path for students of color at Philadelphia prep school

Jonathan Baer

Frankly, at first, it’s hard to know what to think about the film “The Prep School Negro,” especially when hearing the title.  After all, the film, which was screened as part of Urban’s Multicultural Week from Oct. 15 to Oct. 23, introduces itself by using a word that most would consider a slur. After years of discrimination and segregation, the word “Negro” is now practically obsolete, and many Americans, white and black, consider it offensive. Nonetheless, here it is, front and center in the title.

“When I first started doing research around the topic, looking through the paperwork, they were talking about ‘placing the Negroes into these schools’ and I was like, ‘they called us that?’” said the director, André Robert Lee.  For Lee, echoing “Negro” is intentional:  The word is provocative.  It sparks shock, which Lee hopes will lead to dialogue and discussion.

“This documentary will tell my story and the story of other prep school Negroes like me,” writes Lee, in his director’s statement.

Students, parents, and teachers filed into the auditorium at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco on Oct. 23 to view “Prep School Negro.” While containing an in-depth examination of Lee’s own experiences as a minority student, the film explores the difficulties minority students face when they’re emotionally imprisoned in the isolation and pressures of schools where most of the students are white and economically privileged.

When he was 14, Lee received a full scholarship to Germantown Friends School, a $20,000-a-year independent prep school in Philadelphia.  Lee centers his film on his own experience as a lower-income African-American student, yet also incorporates interviews and footage of modern day students dealing with similar issues.

Throughout the film, Lee made it clear that this is a story he had wanted to tell since his first day at the Friends School.  Calling the film a “cathartic experience,” the film offers his personal account of a student who felt racially ostracized both at school and at home.

“In this [school] community, I’m considered real black,” says an interracial student in the film, whose experience today parallels Lee’s experience 27 years ago. “In another community, my neighborhood, I’m considered a white boy because I go to private school.”

Lee’s film shows many kids working through the conflict between lower-income family life and their days at an elite prep school.  Lee films his old prep school and talks with family members and former teachers.  Ultimately, he describes his experience as being “in between two worlds … two warring worlds.”

Sadly, Lee becomes a stranger to both home and school, experiencing what he calls “psychological homelessness.”

“That’s not my brother, that’s somebody else,” says Lee’s sister while reflecting on her thoughts about André’s four years at Germantown Friends School.  “He’s talking different, his walk is different.”

Urban, which charges a tuition of $32,800 per year, has a student body that is 32 percent students of color and 27 percent students receive tuition assistance, according to the Urban website.

“I think any student can get a lot out of this film,” says Ken Garcia-Gonzales, Urban’s multicultural dean. “I believe that students negotiate, navigate, sacrifice, and hide on a lot of different levels.  It may not necessarily be on the level of transitioning culturally, or transitioning to a place where you are a minority or a person of color in a predominantly white school.  But I think there are some universal themes.”

Despite its obvious focus on race, “Prep School Negro” is more than just a story about being part of a racial minority.  Especially to high school students, the theme of “psychological homelessness” is meaningful to anyone who has ever felt difficulty fitting in.  That may just be most of us, which means that “Prep School Negro” is relevant, no matter what color you are.