Transplanted from a low-income neighborhood in West Philadelphia, PA., to St. Paul’s School in Concord, NH., Lorene Cary struggled to overcome the prejudice that she encountered as a female, African-American student during the second year of coeducation at St. Paul’s.
“Once, my English teacher exclaimed, ‘Class! Guess who wrote a high honors [essay]!’ You don’t say that unless you expect it to be a surprise, and the surprise was that the person who had come from public school had written a better paper than those who had been prepared by private school,” said Cary, a social activist and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, during her presentation in Kemper Auditorium last Friday.
In her presentation, she shared her experience of race, class and gender first growing up in Philadelphia, then attending St. Paul’s. She also spoke about “Black Ice,” a memoir and reflection on her own time at St. Paul’s.
“Coming to St. Paul’s gave me an extraordinary luxury. It was a glorious look at what fabulous education could look like. It was an American secret. I didn’t know it was possible. Writing this memoir gave me a chance that I needed to talk about that,” said Cary in her presentation.
Cary, however, said that prejudices exist everywhere, including institutions like St. Paul’s, and her experience at the St. Paul’s was affected by her race, class and gender.
“Coming to St. Paul’s, for example, meant I began to think about what my relationship to wealth was, and made me realize that I don’t want things, so much as I want the freedom,” said Cary in an interview with The Phillipian.
Cary also emphasized in her presentation how the lessons can be ingrained not only into the minds of the students but also in their bodies.
“When two teachers [in my public school] made boys stand in the back of the room and hold their arms out until their muscles failed, and then shamed them for it, all of us understood that we were being told we were not worthy of a full education,” said Cary.
From these physically painful or uncomfortable experiences, Cary said that her body learned lessons about what she called the criteria for success for black people in America and strategies on how to counter negative expectations of her.
“One of the criteria is that you have to make the ‘mainstream’ feel less nervous around you. You have to notice — and I noticed — when people thought that I was likely to be inferior… I had to figure out strategies. First, I would bury my own rage about the trivial expectations of me, then [I had] to become what was necessary to counter the impression,” said Cary.
The challenges that Cary faced due to her race and class at St. Paul’s as well as within the Philadelphia public school system influenced her writing of “Black Ice” and inspired her to start participating in social activism.
Cary said that the assassinations of prominent figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and John F. Kennedy also influenced her to become a social activist in order to better a world riddled with injustice.
“These were people I looked up to, and particularly Martin [Luther] King, [Jr.], who was coming up with ways to move us forward past social constructs that were once thought impenetrable. He was finding ways to do it and [it was crazy how] he could just be shot and done,” said Cary in an interview with The Phillipian.
Cary is currently working on writing future books and launching a website which will publish weekly posts about what keeps kids safe, starting with urban kids in Philadelphia. The website is set to launch in September 2015.
Cary’s visit was sponsored by the Community and Multicultural Development Office and funded by the Elizabeth Rogers Fund and the John H. Hosch Memorial Fund.