Imani Perry, author of Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Duke University Press, 2004) and the forthcoming More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States (New York University Press, 2011), takes us back to her first day of kindergarten and some of her defining moments in high school.
On the first day of kindergarten I wore a green outfit. The skirt ended right above my knees, which were shiny with a coat of Vaseline. My socks were edged in lace, feet shod in black patent leather because white patent leather was vulgar. There is a picture from that morning. I am tiny, 5 but smaller than a 5 year old should be. My skin is brown, but still has a certain pale quality of the sort that is there before many years of sun deepen you. My smile shows no teeth, but I can see in my own face how proud I am of my outfit. After all, I was dressed the way you are supposed to dress on the first day of school when you are from Alabama.
But I wasn’t in Alabama anymore. I began kindergarten in Cambridge, MA. We had moved there a few days before the school year began so that my mother could earn a doctorate from Harvard University. After my mother chose her graduate school, she carefully selected a progressive small elementary school run by the Friends Meeting for me. She was preparing me for a life of meaning, but also for an integrated life, one that from early on would be a realization of the beloved community she and others had fought so hard for in the Movement.
On my first day of school, in 1977, we 5 and 6-year-olds began the day by sitting in a circle. I know it was a circle but in truth the other children appeared to me like they created a straight line, a row of faces, some with nearly transparent eyes, eyes that looked like unusual marbles, others with two tones: chocolate around a black pupil. There were freckles on many peach faces, ruddy or rosy cheeks and straight hair that scattered across foreheads, down backs, over the shoulders of shirts in olive and brown and dark blue. I faced that line, and felt the gulf between us. None of their limbs were shiny. None of them wore barrettes that looked like bluebirds singing. None of them had walked into school looking down at their beautiful patent leather shoes and wishing they weren’t just for the first day. None had eyes like me, so dark they looked like glossy pitch, or skin so brown.
Something happened and everyone stood up, I scrambled to my feet a few seconds late. Then the other children began to move about, choosing activities. In retrospect, I think the teacher must have given some instructions but I hadn’t heard them. I stood paralyzed. A slim faced boy named Johnny came up to me and asked, “What is your name again?” and I was grateful to him for the next 7 years I would know him. He recognized me as real in that space so unfamiliar that I hadn’t been sure I existed.
I was in the second generation of Black children in elite white schools. But knowledge of how to navigate such places wasn’t passed along to us. So it was like we were beginning again. I have a trinitarian tradition, just as I lived in three regions by age five, I went to three different high schools, and later earned three graduate degrees trying to find a place where I didn’t feel like a square peg. I eventually realized that was an impossibility: the juxtaposition of my body, my family, my communities, my history was too much. I was not “just like” any of my peers. There were none who could fully understand my story of interracial parentage yet salt of the earth Blackness, of multi-class identity, of Boursin cheese and watermelon, of starched Sunday dresses and holey jeans. Yet I settled at a very special place, Concord Academy. Special because individuality was valued, and so even though I was not comfortable in my own skin, I was not a problem because of my strangeness.
My junior year we passed a demo tape around school that was produced by the sister of our theater teacher, Derrick. The duo were called Jonatha and Jennifer. They harmonized beautiful neo-folk original songs. My favorite was Grace in Gravity, a plaintive account of a Black South African ballet dancer who was paralyzed after paramedics failed to treat her. It was a repetition of the kind of stories I was raised on, of cruel inequality. Concord Academy students against apartheid waged its own small divestment campaign- our class rings came from Jostens that guaranteed they did no business in South Africa. Thandi, a South African woman who made her way to CA via the Bronx ensured that the values weren’t abstractions but based in sincere political engagement. Maybe not the beloved community (I did have a classmate who tried to convince me his ancestors had been good slavemasters) but it was a place where work towards it was being done. And yet I remained in some profound way unsettled.
One afternoon Mrs. Eisendrath, the Art History teacher ran to me from across the open green that sits in the middle of CA’s campus, with tears streaming down her face. “You are the only one who understands” she said, “What it means to be homesick wherever you go.” Yes, that was a big part of it.
At Concord Academy, students were required to participate in a sport each season. Team sports were not my thing. They required too complex a negotiation of time and space for someone who already had an exhausting commute to the suburbs five days a week. And so most of the time I fulfilled the sports requirement with dance, but sometimes I did aerobics. In the aerobics class black girls were overrepresented. I’m not quite sure why, except perhaps because the WASP ideal of the scholar-athlete wasn’t matched in the African American community, at least not for very smart girls. We were supposed to be scholars, period, and most of our families weren’t very invested in us being particularly good at sports or focusing on athletic achievement. In the repetition of exercise I could simply blend into the blackness around me and I liked that.
Our aerobics instructor was named Wendy. She was small, sinewy, and racially ambiguous. Her hair was a blond afro with chestnut roots, her skin swarthy, and she had a roman nose. Wendy was fond of ’80s style aerobics gear: layers of tight fitting matchy matchy purples and pinks, down to the socks and wrist bands, her feet shod in Reeboks. Wendy always held back her Afro on one side with a decorative accessory. And Wendy was serious. She expected aerobic excellence and I am afraid none of us met her high expectations. There was no goal in aerobics. We were all young and therefore youthfully beautiful. Weight loss and toning were not of enough concern to feel the burn or eat less pizza or fries.
Concord Academy was a zone of female empowerment as well as a celebration of sensual beauty, so the weight obsession thing was less overwhelming there than in most places. Girls were remarkably embodied and emboldened at CA. There were no cookie cutters. Beautiful girls were everywhere. And not in that clichéd sense of carbon copy popular girls in a uniform, but this was beauty of the sort you saw in fashion magazines. Quirky, distinctive, unconventional, unapologetic. We were smart girls, talented girls, angst-ridden special girls. These were girls who did things like walk to Walden pond in cowboy boots and mini skirts, who smoked cigarettes beneath a gazebo wearing their bulky forest green letterman jackets, who had sex in the music rooms in the middle of the night while house parents slept. Okay, I never did any of those things. I was the straight and narrow for the most part, my adolescent desires short-circuited by a still nagging civil rights sensibility that my place there had some greater meaning to “the people.” I tentatively waded in membership over gossip with the girls who were tough and brilliant, and my role as senior class president. I made sure I belonged but couldn’t give myself over fully to the kind of intimacy I wanted to share with my peers.
In aerobics class, with slight smiles of amusement, we Black girls mimicked Wendy’s moves, afternoon after afternoon. I was frequently distracted from the choreography or “routine” by the soundtrack. One song in particular she played again and again: “You Make Me Feel, Mighty Real.” The voice was a strained falsetto, piercing and jubilant yet also slightly wounded. It was Sylvester.
The repetitive beats and the vocal reaching made Sylvester’s voice fit perfectly in the aerobics craze of the 1980s. The aerobics craze was an industry, whose commodities were VHS tapes and ridiculous attire. It was a hit, however, not just because there were so many things to buy, but because human beings like to feel their bodies working joyfully. We like the intersection of pleasure and pain. Sylvester’s voice possessed that. We moved, on beat, to the sound of that intersection.
At Concord Academy I was both in time and out of time. I was aware of my difference less from a sense of not belonging and more from a knowledge that there was a there out there which I only barely kept time to. I sought the rhythm of that other place I didn’t live or see every day in hip hop. I had a box, with headphones that could just barely be tuned to the late night hip hop shows at Emerson, Northeastern and Harvard. Night after night I stayed up late and listened in on the generation to which I belonged.
And thankfully, my local teenage socialite friend Judy Beth ushered me into the social world of prep school Black kids in Boston and the surrounding areas. We waited in breathless anticipation for NEALSA parties, New England Afro-Latino Student Association, an umbrella group for students of color at independent schools. It was a thrill. There would be dozens of boys, from gold to mahogany, smart boys who wore rugby shirts and whose voices didn’t crack when asking me out or if they did it was because they were nervous and not because I was black. The kids who lived in Roxbury and Dorchester, or boarding school students from the Bronx and Southeast DC taught the rest of us, by example, how to do the snake, the kick step, the running man, and generally how to maintain cultural relevance. A community of folks betwixt and between, in many different ways: that is who we were on those special evenings. We clung to each other and made a world within a world. We danced away feeling like outsiders, we slipped into the vernaculars we policed during the school day on our missions of uplift and aspiration, we laughed loud and hard.
Years later I would deliver a lecture to a conference of students of color at independent schools, and I called it finding the sweet in the bitter. We cannot detach the discomforting parts from the extraordinary gift of attending schools where the life of the mind was nurtured and opportunity shared. Bitter and sweet, pleasure and pain, eyes both transparent and glossy pitch, together.
- Imani Perry
Imani Perry is a Professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. She is a graduate of Cambridge Friends School in Cambridge, MA, and Concord Academy in Concord, MA. She received her BA from Yale College and her Ph.D. and J.D. from Harvard University. Many of her scholarly articles can be found on her website: www.imaniperry.com, and she is a Huffington Post blogger. You can follow Imani on twitter @imaniperry