ACTOR: Dear black girl, you’ll come to this private institution with stars in your eyes. You’ll be fooled, used, and abused so long as you can stand it. And when you finally speak out, you’ll be disappointed.
YVONNE: This is Mouthful and I’m Yvonne Latty. Every week I will be having a complicated conversation with a young person about the things that matter to them, things they have written about and shared on stages across the city. And then we will go out into the community and talk to teens, adults, experts anyone who can broaden the conversation.
Today’s episode is about double standards.
Specifically, it’s about the expectations for students of color in private schools . Be high achieving, be bright, be cheerful. Be ready at a moment’s notice to represent Diversity. But don’t misbehave. Don’t make any waves. And don’t call anyone out.
As a woman of color, it’s something I’ve dealt with my entire life. As a mother of two daughters, it’s something I see my kids going through today.
In some ways, it’s a nice spot to be in. You’re given fantastic opportunities to succeed and to advance your life and your career. On the other hand, sometimes you sort of feel like a prop.
When Angela Bey was a student at a private high school, she wrote a monologue that was produced by Philly Young Playwrights about this very thing: the experience of being held up on a pedestal.
Today, we’re digging into that monologue, and why it continues to resonate with older folks, like me, and younger people alike. Here’s Pedestals, by Angela Bey.
ACTOR: Good afternoon, Principal Miller… long time no see. This isn’t about grades. I promise. You don’t have to worry about the scholarship. I don’t want to worry anyone, but I have to say something about the horrible treatment that I’ve received as of late. Not from you. From the kids, Mrs. Miller. Not you at all.
They turned out really well-the pamphlets! I’m flattered that I’m on the cover, but geez, you weren’t kidding when you said HD.
Yes, I know why I’m here. I just don’t understand why John isn’t.
With all due respect, I don’t know why I’m here. I didn’t do anything wrong. Soooo I punched him in the face. That wasn’t “wrong” per-say. The ends justified the means. He- !
Big trouble? I’m in big trouble? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I know that you weren’t there, but it can’t be hard for you to imagine the severity of what he said and how it affected me. How it would affect you too! Surely you’ve been in a similar situation.
I’m not suggesting that you’re a violent person- I- I just mean the emotional. I mean-! Nevermind…
I understand that I have to be punished. I’m a good student My face on the cover of that pamphlet proves it. It’s my first offense, while, John, on the other hand-
I know that you’re upset with me. I’m sorry. It’s not like me.
I’m just angry...not at you, it’s just.
Maybe it’s best that’s he’s not here right now. I can speak plainly, and once this is settled everyone will be better off.
You’re the only person in the faculty that I can talk to about this. I know how you don’t like to be sentimental, and I understand that it’s way unprofessional to say this, but I have to. It’s nice seeing someone that looks like me walking around here.
It makes this place feel a little less like a different planet, in a different galaxy, in a different dimension. I’m a girl of two different worlds, but I’m an alien to both- who am I kidding?
No!! I’m not trying to distract you. It’s the truth…
I’m sorry... You want the truth? It was last period English and we had gotten back our last exam for the quarter. I wasn’t worried; English is my best subject, but the day we took the test, I was having some trouble at home and I work, and the show at school!… I blanked… I failed…
You know what John Blowski said? He looked over my shoulder as everyone was leaving the classroom and said: “We all expected that.” So I said, “What do you mean?”. And he said “Well everyone knows that you people can’t read or write.”...
What do you think he meant by “you people”? It wasn’t a partner assignment! Everyone laughed! He was “joking”! Yeah! “Joking” and found it funny that I was the only one in the room that didn’t find it funny. So, I punched him square in his funny-looking face.
This wasn’t the first time. He’s been doing things like that since freshman year. Even the way that he speaks to me is different; he has to leave out a couple of commas and verb-endings out of his sentences for me to have a conversation with him. “You go’in chill wit us o what? You cool?” NO. I am NOT cool. And the teachers say that I’m overreacting.
Is my skin so dark that they can’t see past the stereotypes?
I let it go on for so long. They mocked me. I laughed with them- even started believing it. Only took a punch in the face to that no matter the amount of chemicals in my hair I couldn’t straighten the kinks in my personality or bleach the richness of my heritage.
Sorry to vent like this, Mrs. Miller. It’s just I don’t have anyone- But! I- I’m out of line?! I thought that you’d at least here my side of the story! I wouldn’t lie to you!
You don’t put liars on the cover! Is that what you think- ?
I am listening!
Why do you keep making excuses for a racist?..Yes, a racist!
He goes against everything that brochure stands for. “Diversity. Equality for all. Respect”. He doesn’t respect me, Mrs. Miller! Why is he allowed to stay when all he’s been doing is terrorizing the student body?
Who cares if his dad is president of the school board! He’s a racist!
I’m expelled… ? Why? What- ? You can’t expel me! Why would you expel the girl who’s done nothing but good for you and the school? The girl that’s on the cover of- What will my parent’s-?But, Mrs. Miller! Mrs. Miller, I looked up to you!You don’t- I can’t-
Just listen- !
SHUT UP! No! Fine! You’re not my principal anymore! You decided that!
Where are you going?! You’re just going to leave me here- to THINK? Think about what? No you can’t- !
Look at that stupid smile. Look at that stupid, ignorant girl...
You’re not who I thought you were. You’re not who I am. You’ve been lied to, colored with hopes and dreams, and printed out for prospective students to see. Who cares if any of that’s the truth?
You are the token black girl who everyone will call the angry black girl, even if all you were trying to be is a human being.
You’ve detached yourself from me- put yourself on the some black pedestal. They took your commended and cheered with you so long as you looked pretty for the camera. They asked you to straighten you hair, they expected you to work twice as hard to measure up to the other kids, they slammed the door in your face when you didn’t.
Dear black girl, you’ll come to this private institution with stars in your eyes. You’ll be fooled, used, and abused so long as you can stand it. And when you finally speak out, you’ll be disappointed.
Angela: Yeah, the ending is dark. But what I think adds insult to injury to her in the piece is that she is a black woman and the principal is also a black woman and she is explaining why she punched this kid John in the face and its because John called her the N word and John has been racist to her since elementary school and it just so happens John has not been reprimanded because his dad is president of the school board and is probably very important. But yeah the ending is dark And she gets expelled. And Principal Miller leaves the room. And she uses the brochure throughout the piece, like, “Look at me!” I did a photo shoot for several hours. So at the end of the monologue she’s left with this picture of this girl that she doesn’t even recognize anymore. She’s realizing, she makes a connection that you know, the girl on the cover of that pamphlet yes, looks like her, has a smile, is a star student. But you don’t get anything else. You only get her face. You get her brown face on the cover of that diversity pamphlet. And she's expelled now she isn’t even a student at that school anymore. But they are still going to hand them out to students.
YVONNE: Even though Angela is at Ursinus College now, the experiences that inspired the monologue—appearing in so many brochures—continue to be a constant in her life.
Angela: I just finished a photo shoot for Ursinus, for the same sort of thing.
YVONNE: As for hitting someone, Angela never did that.
Angela: I’ve had the impulse. I’ve gotten angry. And it’s okay to be angry.
YVONNE: As is this case with so many kids in this position, Angela began to feel her identity was splintered. Caught between her struggling neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia and her private school.
Angela: I think for me, what I am coming to terms with is you can’t choose either or. It’s all me and as hard as it is for me to reconcile it is what it is. I have my diploma from Friends’ Select, and I have my area code from Southwest Philadelphia. That's not gonna change. And I have photos to prove both those things. So when you look at yourself side by side in a picture album, this is like "Pedestals" when you don’t recognize either of the people. And I look at pictures of myself today and I go, “that’s a complicated, messy person.” And like what I was saying before people are going to look that picture of me smiling with my afro—because I have an afro, I don’t straighten my hair anymore—and they’ll go, “Wow, that’s a really empowered black woman.” And I am. But I’m working through a lot. And they don’t see my area code and they don’t see my diploma. They just see that.
YVONNE: I couldn’t let go of Angela’s monologue, or our conversation. My own daughter, Nola, who, like any good teenager, normally could not care less about what I’m doing, actually perked up when I told her about this monologue. She had heard it before, and it made her think about her own experiences growing up. We had never talked about this before.
I decided to take her to Philly Young Playwrights office to meet up with Lisa Nelson Haynes, the executive director, and her daughter Olivia, who is the same age as Nola. All of us share the experience of having felt like we were on display at majority white schools. Angela’s monologue started a conversation about our own experiences.
Olivia said she wasn't surprised to find out that Angela went to private school, like she does.
Olivia: I wasn’t surprised by it being a black girl at an independent school. I could totally imagine that happening, and one of us or a black girl or black boy getting in trouble for it. And I think in primarily white prep schools, my mom has said this and I noticed this, when I am looking at pictures of me and my white friends, and my pictures of our grade that we automatically stick out to people. If we do something wrong, you know it's us 100 percent, there is no “there was this girl and she had brown hair” it’s like no "this black girl did it, she has locks," you are easily recognizable for anyone. The minute you do something they know it’s you.
Yvonne: Do you guys feel like you are put on pedestals?
Nola: There is this idea that like if you are person of color you always have to be in the front and be the representation to try and make the school look more diverse than it really is. But the second you step out of line, there is immediately like less patience for you. I like, have seen that as a problem.
YVONNE: That’s my daughter, Nola. Coincidentally, she goes to the same school Angela went to. Not only has she felt the same pressure to be on the pamphlets...she also related a common experience—getting mixed up with another girl who has the same skin tone that she does.
Nola: There are a lot of microaggressions that come with that. Like I have gotten mixed up with people that look nothing like me, except for the fact that we are both light skinned black girls. And people from different grades and people that I have not even talked to, it has happened to me multiple times and I am always like 'ok…like where did that come from?'
YVONNE: But Both Nola and Olivia agree that there is no way to become a diverse school unless you show diversity.
Nola: It is almost, not like a necessary evil ,but I can’t think of another way for schools to try and recruit more diversity so I am not really sure how it can be fixed.
Olivia: People like to show their people of their POC students off. I know that, I’m a senior, looking at colleges, I am looking constantly for other people of color, and I’m looking like are they together, are they talking to each other are they interacting with each other.
YVONNE: I wanted to find out if the girls ever felt that temptation that Angela felt, to hit someone for saying something racist and ultimately, deeply painful.
Yvonne: So in Angela’s piece, she actually hits a kid at a prep school is that something you could ever see happening with your friends or have you ever felt so frustrated that you would want to...
Olivia: I have never punched a kid, but I remember in sophomore year...
YVONNE: Olivia came close.
Olivia: He said something ignorant, I think it was about Mike Brown, he said “that kid he should have been shot he deserved to be shot’. I heard this, and I ran in front of him in the middle of the cafeteria ‘what did you say.” And I was going off on him. And yelling at him in the middle of the cafeteria, and he was stunned and didn’t say much.
YVONNE: Over the past year, I’ve thought about how hard things have been for my kids, and other black children. Since the murder of Trayvon Martin, four years ago, it seems like non stop cases of black people being murdered for ridiculous reasons. And then you, the black parent, find yourself having to explain something you don’t understand to your kids, over and over again, and warn them: Be safe, don’t talk back, look straight ahead, don’t engage, and you see that look in their eyes change over the years from “what?’ to fear, to resignation that this is their new normal...and it breaks your heart. It's hard for them to talk about it. It stresses them out. It hurts them. It angers them. It’s too much pressure with everything else a teen has to deal with. Expectations are high all the time, in school, at home and even with friends.
Olivia: I went home and was like “what did I do.” I didn’t get the response that I wanted, I didn’t get a reason, and after thinking about it, I sat down and it was right before winter break and I sent him a long email about what I was going through said, “Sorry I confronted you. I am sorry I came at you too strong. But I really wanted to know why you are thinking this way and breaking it down that way. And he responded and he was totally respectful. He gave me his opinion and it was just as long as my email. And from that experience I realized, he didn’t have to do that, and he chose to do that and I really appreciate him for making that choice, taking the time to talk to me about that because I didn’t handle it right the first way. Just having that opportunity to simmer down and think about it and talk to my mom and my friends about what happened really helped me kind of find my zen.
YVONNE: Nola said that black kids a universal anger and sadness.
Nola: The second I am able to, not just let go, but done being mad about it, then something else happens and I am mad again. It is kind of like this nonstop little emotional roller coaster that’s like the past 4 years, but also forever. But yeah, I am mad too and my friends are all mad too. It is universal black anger right now.
YVONNE: As we were about to leave the room, Lisa shared that she did hit a classmate. Once.
Lisa: I would ride on the school bus with the same kids every day. And there was a boy on the bus one day and he referred to me as the N word. And I was shocked I was shocked because …I knew some of these kids thought like this or what have you, but to actually say it to my face. It was actual the brother of a girl I was very good friends with. So that was also really hurtful because I thought this was a family that had been accepting of me so for him to say it made it even that much worse. And looking back on it I knew he said it to gain points with his friends and had very little to do with me but I didn’t care at the time so I um.. Was embarrassed angry and it was just smoldering all the way to school and by the time we got to school everyone hot off the school bus and he went over to the tree that he and his boys hung at everyday before we had to go into school and something just came over me you know I’m not tall now and I was not tall then, in fact I’ve shrunk but I just went and grabbed him by the neck and punched him dead in his face. And was like ‘whose your MM now.’
YVONNE: Just like in Angela’s story, no one at Lisa’s school disciplined the boy. But they did call her in.
Lisa: I was the one hauled off to the principal’s office, and they called my parents and of course they came in. And my parents said what happened. No one else had asked me why did you do this. No one identified that this was so out of character for me. And when I told them why I did it my parents were like, what were you expecting for her to do?
Yes, she was angry and this is what she did. She was embarrassed on the bus she was called an ugly name this that and the other. I don’t think the boy had a nice quiet talking to. I don't think he was ever addressed.
YVONNE: I guess the lesson here is that the more things change the more they stay the same. Lisa and I are were put on pedestals and gave birth to children who are put on pedestals and could become grandmothers of children who are put on pedestals.
Ultimately the experience is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you become the de facto representative for an entire race of people and are held up to impossibly high standards. On the other hand, though, you are given a platform that can be used to advocate for others like you. For Angela, that has meant using her voice, her art, her pedestal to tell stories that matter to her.
Angela: I want to be a theater artist for social change. In whatever capacity. I love performing I love creating work I love producing work. I think it’s so important right now at least for me as an African American queer person to have the voice needed to talk about these issues, especially in this social climate we have right now in America. I think it’s a part of my job as an artist as a young artist to express myself in any way possible.
YVONNE: And that's our show
Thanks to Philly Young Playwrights Executive Director Lisa Nelson Haynes, Nola Latty, and Olivia Haynes for a great conversation.
"Pedestals" was performed by Nia Benjamin under the direction of Steve Gravelle.
And big thanks Southwest Philly’s own Angela Bey for creating this powerful monologue. Great work Angela.
See you next time.