Almost a month ago, Jill and I talked about doing a series of posts on our experiences as black students at Sidwell Friends School, the institution soon to be attended by Malia and Sasha Obama. Since then, Jill has posted Part I and Part II of the series, and I think I’ve been as fascinated to read her accounts as many of you have, despite the fact that I went there.

For example, I didn’t know that the middle school’s “Team” system had been ranked by academic strength. Finding out that Jill was in the most rigorous Team 4 is no surprise. I was in Team 3 :)

(Update: a former Sidwell teacher who taught at the Middle School during my and Jill’s time has assured me that the Teams were not structured by academic strength though many students thought that. Phew!)

I also didn’t know about the South African protests that a black Sidwell teacher helped set off, although I’m not surprised. My crew had our own Rodney King protests outside the Justice Department on school time.

As Jill mentioned, we both attended the school although our paths didn’t cross. She was ahead of me and in many ways, I think I have her and her fellow black classmates to thank for my own experience at the school.

And now, to that experience.

It is difficult to overstate the impact my six years at Sidwell had on me (and on the creation of this blog). It was my time at Sidwell that gave me my love of writing, that solidified my demand for justice, that inspired my need to use art as an agent of social change. When I’m trying to quickly summarize my background to new people in my life, it goes as follows:

I was raised by a pro-black, activist, organic food loving single woman in Washington, D.C. I survived the crack wars that decimated my city and took so many people who looked just like me. I was grounded in a Pan Afrikan rites of passage program for young black kids. And I was educated at Sidwell Friends alongside the sons and daughters of the media elite, senators and presidents. Urban America + Afrocentrism + Elite Education = my foundation.

Here’s a photo my mother took of drug deals going down in our neighborhood circa 1991, to give you a flavor of home at the time.

hustle & flow

My mother was the rock behind it all. She insisted that my older sister and I would get similar, quality education, and since my sister had experience in Catholic and magnet schools, after I completed the sixth grade in public school, it was time for me to make a transition. It didn’t hurt that the public junior high school I was zoned to attend — Lincoln Jr High — was where kids went to get stabbed and catch various forms of beatdown. That school was torn down years ago and has recently been replaced with with the shiny new Bell Multicultural High School.

The private school selection process was the strangest shopping trip of my life to that point. I remember visiting Georgetown Day School (meh), Green Acres (on the day I visited, their basketball team lost 50-2) and Sidwell. By far, Sidwell was where I felt most comfortable. It helped me feel better that I knew one of the students from my time in the DC Youth Orchestra Program. It helped my mother feel better that the middle school principal at the time, Bob Johnson Williams, was a mentor in the rites of passage program. The presence of a strong, conscious black man gave my mother confidence that her own budding little man would be in good hands.

I’m not sure I could have survived the cultural shock of Sidwell without the balancing shock of early Saturday morning exercise, self defense training and mental drills on black literature that the rites of passage program provided.

Like Jill, I was not accustomed to socializing with people who had money. I wasn’t accustomed to socializing with white people or Jews either. The first time I was invited to a Bat Mitzvah, I thought it was some sort of Batman-themed party. Thankfully, my new friends schooled me on the tradition, and I didn’t embarrass myself by showing up to the temple dressed like The Joker.

About two years ago, after I’d begun to really process the passing of my mother, I started talking about the role she, D.C. and Sidwell played in my life into my standup comedy. I’ve had a chance to return to Sidwell several times to perform, visit classes and engage in questions with students.

Back in 2006, I ran an assembly for the Upper School students. To give you a flavor for the school’s alumni, check out the hallway board they used to promote my appearance. If you click through this photo and look closely, you’ll see that I’m sharing the board with the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award, John Deutch `56. Yes, former CIA director John Deutch went to Sidwell Friends. The idea that I would be trapped behind glass with the former CIA director — even if it’s just my our images — creeps me out!

Baratunde And John Deutsch, Both Sidwell Friends Alumni

I can’t find the 2006 video, but the following is a video from my performance at the January 26, 2008 alumni variety show. This is a fundraiser for financial aid, and this upcoming January 2009 will be my third year performing in a row. Moments before I hit the stage, I found out Obama won South Carolina.

I hope the words, images and video help give a flavor of my early Sidwell experiences. In my future posts, I plan to write about

  • Dealing with racism at Sidwell and why I’m so grateful to the school for what I learned and how it reacted to various incidents
  • The academic rigor and how Sidwell absolutely prepared me to excel at Harvard
  • A very dangerous encounter with Hillary Clinton. For real.

Stay tuned.

BTW, I’ll be on vacation for the next several weeks and won’t be responding to much, if any, correspondence. I may not be able to resist the occasional blog post, but I’m going to try.

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