Event: The Prep School Negro: a film by André Robert Lee
Date: February 11th 2013
Location: Gund Gallery
Correspondent: Andrew Firestone
In September of 1952, Bill Lowry left Chicago and headed east to Gambier, Ohio to begin his first year at Kenyon College. By the end of his first week, he had walked onto the football team, and by the end of his four years, Lowry would go on to letter in football, baseball and basketball. Throughout his time at Kenyon while excelling academically, athletically and socially, one aspect of Bill Lowry’s identity outwardly defined him: he was one of eight African-American students that graduated in the 1950s.
One weekend in late April of last year, Lowry returned to Kenyon for one of his last visits to the hill as a member of the Board of Trustees. I was lucky enough to meet him at a Diversity Advisory Council meeting. As a group, we read through a number of anonymous student narratives and discussed their unfiltered experiences.
One narrative recreated a scene in which two white students entered Peirce when one of them blurted out, “why do all of the black kids sit together, that shit really pisses me off…” After we all finished reading the narrative Bill Lowry started chuckling, his lips curling into a smile, “back when I was a student nobody talked about a black table – there were only three of us!”
Monday evening filmmaker and producer Andre Robert Lee visited Kenyon for a screening and discussion of his documentary, provocatively titled, The Prep School Negro. In the film, Lee addresses the experience of entering a private high school as a student of color, and related themes of the intersections of race, class and private education. In the discussion following the screening, Lee admitted that remembering his journey through Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia allowed him to deeply reflect on the multiple layers of his identity.
As a white student at Kenyon I cannot personally speak to the experience of being a student of color. Rather, I spoke with some students who attended the screening of The Prep School Negro and asked them if the subject of the film applied to their experiences at Kenyon. One student explained that, “as a student of color I find myself often having to answer questions about my identity. Much like my time at prep school, my experience at Kenyon has made me the other. Although I love the people here and appreciate my time here, the reality of my otherness, my identity as one of a few female students of color on campus, follows me everywhere I go.”
I will never know what that feels like. I can read The Souls of Black Folk an infinite number of times but I will never be able to fully appreciate W.E.B. Du Bois’s reflection on the reality of the double-consciousness projected onto people of color. But that does not mean that the subject of The Prep School Negro and the legacy of Bill Lowry’s Kenyon career are irrelevant to me or to other white students.
Andre Robert Lee’s film suggests that one definition of agency is the ability to name one’s self. As long as some students do not feel that they are seen as individuals, it is our responsibility to continue to reflect on the nuanced layers of all of our identities. It has been almost sixty years since Bill Lowry graduated from Kenyon. Since then, the first class of women matriculated in 1969, and the student body has continued to evolve. It has been these additions to the Kenyon community that have strengthened its bonds and revised its mission. Therefore, as we move forward, it is our obligation to carry on this legacy.