Author opens race discussion

08/28/13

Regarding race: author tells her story

Lorene Cary’s 1972 introduction to a prestigious New England prep school was similar in some ways to the Aug. 27 welcome afforded first-year Bluffton University students, the author told the students at Bluffton’s opening convocation that morning.  

At the same time, though, it was very different.

When she entered St. Paul’s School, a Concord, N.H., boarding school, as a scholarship student, “I was looked at as someone with extraordinary potential,” Cary said. Unlike the treatment she and her classmates had received in public school in her native Philadelphia—where a common refrain from teachers was “What is wrong with you?”—St. Paul’s students heard that they were special and that teachers would “lavish” their interest and curiosity on them, she recalled.

“That’s a wonderful way to be welcomed to adulthood,” added Cary, drawing the comparison to the Bluffton convocation, where more than 280 new first-year and transfer students were introduced and similarly received by administrators and faculty in academic caps and gowns.

But while St. Paul’s was “the nicest place I’d ever been,” the teenage Cary was also regarded by teachers with “nervous attention,” she said. She relates her experience as one of the first African-American female students at St. Paul’s in her 1991 memoir, “Black Ice,” which was this year’s summer reading for first-year Bluffton students.

That reading and Cary’s convocation presentation kicked off campus consideration of the university’s 2013-14 civic engagement theme, “Race and Ethnicity in America: Celebration, Struggle, Opportunity.”

New St. Paul’s students learned about traditions at the formerly all-white male school on the first day of each term, said the author, reading from “Black Ice.” But she knew she was there as the result of “a sort of liberal experiment,” because of sit-ins, marches and riots, and “I didn’t intend to fail,” she said, also remembering “oppressive” pressure to assimilate.

She felt, however, that the teachers, while hopeful of minority students’ success, were also “a little scared,” Cary said. When the 1974 alumna returned to St. Paul’s as a teacher in the 1980s, she asked a colleague who had been there in the early ‘70s if teachers didn’t expect the same excellence from minority students that they did from white students. “It seems crazy now,” the man replied, “but the fact is, we didn’t quite know what to expect.”

His answer, she said, confirmed her feeling when she had been insulted as a student by an English teacher holding up her essay to the class and saying, “Guess who got highest honors?”

And with that confirmation, Cary added, she wanted to take her younger self “by the hand and say, ‘You weren’t crazy to feel what you felt.’” Part of her purpose at St. Paul’s was to change the lower expectations, she said.

Noting that she has been “overwhelmed by the flood of letters” from “Black Ice” readers who had been in the minority in their schools as well, Cary urged the Bluffton students to be curious about race and do some soul searching.

“That curiosity will make you smarter,” she said.

Cary is also the author of four other books, an essayist and a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1998, she founded Art Sanctuary, which offers programs of African-American arts and letters in inner-city Philadelphia, and in 2003, she earned the city’s highest civic honor, the Philadelphia Award, for her writing, teaching and arts activism.

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