My Harlem Prep Memoirs’
By Eric K. Williams
The good, the bad, and the ugly. Or should I write the ugly, the bad and the good? Ha! I have made several attempts to write this bit of memory when talking about my days at Harlem Prep. I didn’t do the two year stint, as was required of every student who took the exam, and passed the interview for entry. No, I entered in September of 1970, and graduated, more or less, in June of 1971.
Everyone will have a different explanation as to how they got to become students at the Harlem Preparatory School. On that one, I would have to agree on several fronts. Most of all, Harlem Prep was a school that re-enforced many of the values I had already held prior to attending. Yet, it also helped me in ways in how to think on my feet, and out of the box, and it made me want to look at the longer range picture of where I wanted to be, academically, in life, and in a career.
My classmates were among the most interesting and diverse grouping of students I had ever encountered up to that point. Yet I consider myself to be, after more than 40 years, still a work in progress.
In looking back over these past four decades, one would have to put into context the times, the era, the political and social mood of the nation at that time, and where one stood in the evolution of their life. We’re talking about the late 1960’s, and the early 1970’s in America. Most of all, in looking back at what continues to fascinate me in this overall discussion is the central question, as to how each and every one of us ended up at this experimental High School.
For me it would have to start at Haaren High School , the original De Witt Clinton High School, on the corner of 59th Street, and 10th Avenue in Manhattan, three years before.
I had entered Haaren High in the Fall of 1967, believing that I would pursue a career as an electronic engineer. Like so many young people I was not certain what I would end up doing in my life after school. Yet I knew that it would land somewhere between either fiddling around with electronic gadgets, or end up writing.
Now, I must insert here some personal notes because, well, in the earlier part of my life I had some turmoil. I am originally from the Bronx, and part of a large extended, and dysfunctional family, that has called New York City home since the early 19th century. My immediate family had disintegrated when my mother took ill, in 1963, following years of abuse from my step father. From 1963 until 1967, I was bounced around different parts of my large and extended family, aunts and uncles, or, actually, my mother’s sisters, while my younger siblings, a sister and a brother, respectively, lived relatively stable lives.
In 1964 I moved from the Morrisania district, and lived with an aunt and uncle in the northern Bronx, and attended JHS 45, the old Paul Hoffman school on Fordham Road. It had a diverse student body but the dominant white, and ethnic group among the student body there was Italian-Americans. But in 1965, and for the next two years, I lived with another aunt and uncle, Martin and Isabelle Brown, and their children, my cousins, on Avenue ‘D’ on the Lower East Side.
Manhattan was a place that had always fascinated me and the sights and sounds of the city had resonated with me, too, being a kid from The Bronx. In those years I had attended JHS 22, a school that was even more diverse in its student body than JHS 45, and contained nearly every ethnic and racial group in New York.
While there, I had selected Harren High School as the place I would attend. I had thought it would be the place where I would finish schooling. A cousin of mine, Martin Brown, had graduated from Haaren, in 1966, with a High School degree in mechanics. Like many of the older Baby Boomers, my cousin Martin ended-up getting drafted into the army, and later serving in Vietnam.
In 1967, I returned to The Bronx and Morrisania, and lived with my mother’s parents, The Wallace’s, in their house on Tinton Avenue. It was in early August and also, the noted summer of 1967. Some would call it the ‘Summer of Love,’ with the emergence of the Hippie generation. I had seen some of this while living downtown, and hanging out in front of the Electric Circus dance club on Saint Marks Place, and the then new, Fillmore East concert hall.
As the summer season wound down, I had a talk with my grandparents, who had wanted me to attend nearby Morris High School. The very thought of going there horrified me. I had said that I had already been accepted to Haaren, and that that school had the vocational courses Morris lacked. They accepted my preference of schools, and that meant this Bronx kid would be riding the subway to school each and every day to Manhattan, for the next three years. Looking back, that was one of the biggest decisions of my life.
At Haaren there were four notable educators who would play a role in my life at that time, and later, two of them would very much be a part of the Harlem Prep scene. One was Gary Hilton, who was a Science teacher specializing in chemistry, whose class I had attended. While the other key player there was the director of Haaren’s English Department, Ms. Anne Carpenter.
Haaren was an all-boys school, with no female classmates. At first, that didn’t matter to me as I was not interested in girls. Well, I was, but it was not the primary focus of my attention at the time. Much to my amazement, much of what was offered in Haaren’s vocational curriculum was stuff I had already learned at junior high school 22. I was astonished to see that much of the equipment was antiquated, and out-of-date. Many of the teachers there were also detached, un-interested, or aloof. Yet, I continued to attend classes, anyway, believing that there would be some light at the end of the tunnel.
The teachers who did care were those in the so-called elective classes of English, French, Math, Physical Education, and Science. It was there in those classes that I excelled, as those classes were interesting, with the teachers being enthusiastic, energetic and interesting. But, even with that I was restless and needed an outlet to further grow. That meant getting involved with the school newspaper at Haaren, The Broadcast. I began once again writing, for the school newspaper and writing short stories, even poetry on the side. But all around me, socially and politically among some of my classmates, there were undercurrents a-brewing.
The next two years from, say, November of 1967, going well into the Fall of 1969 was a whirl wind of a time, historically in America. Major social events both in and outside of the USA, had a profound impact on my classmates and myself. One must remember that we’re talking about The Tet Offensive, growing opposition to the Vietnam War, the French and German student uprisings, especially ‘the Paris Spring,’ the assassinations of Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, the U.S. presidential elections, The Yippies, The Black Panthers, emerging Black and student movements, Student rebellions at Columbia, NYU, CUNY, and rebellions at my own High School, and neighbouring schools. All of which in New York city anyway, I took part in, not to mention being sympathetic to the Black Power, Gay Liberation, and the women’s movement. The New York teacher’s strike of 1968 made me look at my own education in a different way, and while the Oceanhill-Brownsville events seemed distant, the issue of community control of schools, and having a more relevant education to the Black and Brown coloured students inside of the vast New York educational system, didn’t seem that far off, at all. All of these events when looking back had a significant impact on me, and helped to shape my world view then, and now.
Yet, being in Manhattan and attending Haaren High school also led me to take advantage of what was immediately near that school. The Lincoln Centre Library, Central Park, the great museums that offered free programs during the week, and especially, the television studios of two out of the three major American networks, were part of this curious tour for this Bronx boy. This was especially true for me where I would sit in among the audience to watch such programs as the old Dick Cavette show, on ABC-TV, at the old Colonial theatre where it was recorded. I would often attend those tapings after school.
I continued writing for my high school newspaper, and even began writing for the city wide so-called ‘underground’ high school papers, too. Among them, the High School Free Press, and the satirical, but political, New York Herald Tribune. It was also during this time that I began to hang out with the radical college kids at Columbia University. In the Fall of 1969, much to the dismay of my grandparents who I had become estranged, I had dropped out of school altogether. So, from October 1969, to the end of the academic year of June 1970, (the year I was supposed to have graduated ) I was a High School dropout.
I had hitched-hiked up and down the East coast of the USA, taking part in anti-war demonstrations, Hippie communes, Black intellectual circles in Washington, Rock and Roll hang outs, various college campuses where there was always something interesting to do. You name it, I did it.
In the summer of 1970, I had re-connected with two Haaren High School educators who were also friends with Ann Carpenter, I later found out. They were Ms. Barbara James, an English teacher who doubled as guidance counsellor, and Ms. Bluma Gilman, my French language teacher, respectively. Together they were instrumental in getting me to consider, and to attend the Harlem Preparatory School. In August of that year I began the process of applying, taking the exam and going through the interview process, and I was formally accepted in September of 1970.
While I understood that attending and finishing high school was very necessary if I wanted to advance and move on to college, for me, it was also a bit of ‘come down.’ A necessary evil, was those way I looked at it. But, it was good advice from all of the people in my life who touched me in different ways.
And so, September of 1970 it began. Ann Carpenter remembered me from the Haaren days, and much to my surprise, Gary Hilton was there, too. This time he was teaching filmmaking, his chief passion.
But to a certain extent I felt a bit displaced. I carried my guitar, along with my books to school. It was through playing, fiddling was more like it, that I met Joe Morris, who also played. WE became fast friends. And it turned out that Joe’s uncle was none other than Sammy Davis Junior, the noted entertainer.
The class sizes (small,) and open air structure of the school, held in a converted A & P supermarket, made it quite different from other experimental schools I had seen firsthand. One could roam from class-to-class, sit in and participate. It was revolutionary! There were some electives I needed to take, but the more off-beat classes were the ones that interested me, such as, philosophy, current affairs, and such, with discussion, were the ones I was drawn to.
English courses led by one Barrie Haskins were the ones I found interesting, and I found Barrie Haskins a warm, and open hearted teacher. She was pretty and sexy, too. She would give me the needed foot-in-the-ass treatment, as well, when it came to assignments, and she stressed discipline, and attention to detail.
I also took part in Gary Hilton’s Filmmaking and video classes. This was important to me because while at Haaren High school, Mr. Hilton was contacted by a field producer at nearby CBS-TV. (The Columbia Broadcasting System was literally located around the corner from the school, on 57th Street, at CBS Broadcast Centre.) The deal was that he would select ten above average students to be trained, and who would be handed Super 8 film cameras, with unlimited colour film, with the idea that they would shoot short movies for the Captain Kangaroo Show. Yours truly was among the lucky ten! We were taken on the ten cent tour around CBS studios, and even met Bob Keeshan, himself. Cannot tell you how that tour, and that film program got to ruin me for life. Ha!
But, to tell you the truth, dear reader, I just could not see myself spending the next two years at High School. Like another one of my fellow student classmates from Harlem Prep, who contributed to this series of essays here, I continued my activism outside of school. That did lead to some consternation on the part of Ms. Carpenter and I.
But, of course, being in Harlem, and attending a predominantly Black school within it, led to the confrontation of many issues among my classmates as to how we looked at the world. Like what did it actually mean to be a Black person in America these years? Then there was this undefined rule of just what it meant to be a Black person in America at that time, among many of my classmates. The Harlem Prep experience was an education both in and outside of the classroom.
We had classmates who were members of the Black Panthers, or the Nation of Islam off-shoot called the Fiver Per Centers, ex-gang members, and others close to the Young Lords, or those who sympathized with Black Nationalism. But what it meant to be Black? Well, it was interpreted and expressed in different ways that for me became a confusing mix.
For example, two days after Jimi Hendrix had died (now, years later, it appears he was murdered,) I remember talking to some of my classmates milling around outside of the school this one afternoon, and asking them what they had thought about Jimi’s passing.
The over-whelming reaction was either, “Jimi who?” or “He was a big time drug addict, right?” and, more to the point… “Jimi Hendrix???!!! That crazy nigger! Playing that white boy music. C’mon!”
The one guy who did know anything about Jimi Hendrix, and had at least attended some of his concerts, was this tall, strikingly handsome, witty and outrageously funny classmate of mine, named ‘Bingy.’ (We became friends during that academic year, and remain close friends today.)
Then, during the spring of 1971 there was the rough, even unfair treatment of the author, Julius Lester. He was invited to the school by Gary Hilton to talk about ‘Blacks in the Media,’ a subject that certainly interested me. It was supposed to be held in a small and informal setting. Then, someone had the idea of opening it up to include all of the students in a larger forum. It turned, instead, into a feeding frenzy of people attacking him for his life choices. Lester had married a white woman, and fathered two children with this lady.
Now, let’s step back for a moment, Lester had been the Field Secretary of the old Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, during the Civil Rights era. He was a host of two music programs on WNET-TV, Channel 13, and had a program on WBAI-FM in the city, where he had read a poem a year earlier, that brought attacks of anti-Semitism his way by some in the New York Jewish community. More like people on the far right. Plus, he had then been the author of at least four books about Black Americans, and the Black experience.
Controversial? Yes, but he was no Uncle Tom, as those in the audience accused him of. But there he was, under attack by students at a predominantly Black learning institution where we were all taught to be open minded about people with divergent views. Personally? I felt bad for him, and ashamed of us for the way nearly everyone behaved that day. IT WAS UGLY.
Say or think what you will about Julius Lester but this is a fact: He has NEVER advanced policies, or legal manoeuvres that have hurt Black Americans in very real ways, unlike, say, the Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, who does that every day.
Contrast that with the standing ovation given to the controversial Nation of Islam Leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan, less than two months later in 1971. Farrakhan delivered the keynote address at Harlem Prep’s graduation ceremonies that same year. Here was a man who then (and now,) calls for Sharia law where the church is the state, who six years earlier had chanted for the death of Malcolm X in 1965, and who proudly has no tolerance for Gay, or Bi-sexual people among Blacks. Farrakhan, given a standing ovation.
Could someone please explain that one to me again? I’m all ears.
Speaking of sex, sexuality and Black people in those years…. I remember having a rather heated discussion with one classmate, Jerry Wholly. This was the tall, dark and handsome ‘Brother’ who would engage in drumming jams on the conga drums, when not in class. He was the consummate ladies man, tough as nails, a ‘take no prisoner’ kind of guy, and one who you would not want to engage in a fight with, verbal or otherwise. But there I was talking about the rights of Gays, and even supporting same-sex marriage with him back in those days. Brother Jerry treated me with distain, and looked at me as if I had landed from Mars.
He had advanced the idea that Black men needed to be tough, or strong, and that such men as the civil rights leader, Bayard Rustin, or the writers, James Baldwin, or even Langston Hughes, were not serious men, or role models in the Black community. I disagreed and said that the Black community was big enough to accept all types of people, who had something to bring to the table. Our discussion ended in a stalemate.
Now some forty years later, I hear that Jerry is not only an openly Gay man, but that he is the successful owner of several hair salons scattered around in the city. I would be very interested in hearing his view today, regarding the landmark decision of the New York State lawmakers legalizing same sex marriage in 2011.
Yet, my experience at Harlem Prep was overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, it was!
The teachers at Harlem Prep were engaging. The students were great, although diverse, and of diverse opinions to boot. What struck me was the age range of some of my classmates, some of whom were in their early thirties. But the older students added calm to the overall atmosphere, and offered their own life experiences as part of the overall learning experience. But, the classroom experience was outstanding, and the system allowed great freedom to shape one’s own curriculum.
I do miss those sunny afternoons back in the Spring of 1971, sitting on the grassy hills of Saint Nicholas Park after class, smoking contra band, and fiddling around with my guitar, along with Joe Morris, Bingy, and other classmates. Those were some of the most fun times there. We shared war stories both in and outside of school, and just laughed and laughed.
In April of 1971, I was accepted into another experimental school…. the University of the New World at Valais, Switzerland. I saw this school advertised from a sticker on a subway train ride home one night. I did visit their offices, and met with the admission staff downtown at a Greenwich Village loft. I viewed it as my ticket out of High School, and out of Harlem Prep. It was time to move on, and I did.
I made few close friends at Harlem Prep, but they were the right ones. Out of all of them was Bingy, also known as, Eugene Anthony Alexander Argent the Third. Hands down he remains one of the most intelligent people I know, he makes you think, use the dictionary, and his wicked and outrageous sense of humour remains intact.
Looking back I have to thank people such as Barrie Haskins, Gary Hilton and Ann Carpenter, herself, for personally ‘going to bat’ for me when it came time to graduate. I did not have the best of grades, I must confess, and my attendance was spotty towards the end of the academic year. Yet, graduate I did.
While I did not attend the college in Switzerland, it would be another year before I did attend college formally. It was another experimental school, this time Franconia College of Franconia, New Hampshire in the Fall of 1972. The rest, as they say, is history.
Looking back forty years after the fact, the Harlem Prep school, in spite of some of its shortcomings, was an important bridge not only between high school and college, but also a bridge to a different life. It was also a needed slap in the face that Black people in America, anyway, are not a monolith, that all of us are different and that all of us have something to bring to the proverbial table.
Again, those years the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s, were the best of times and the worst of times. But Harlem Prep was there to make it the kind of learning experience that makes a difference for any young man or woman of that era. A school like that is needed now, in this era more than ever.
There are a lot of things I could have said, or will want to say, and there are other questions I could have raised. Yet, I thought it best to leave this right here. For now anyway…..
Eric K. Williams Class of 1971 Melbourne, Australia
There are going to be some among my classmates, and educators from Harlem Prep, who will strongly disagree to what I have written here. Some will say that I am an egotist, A black Hippie, an international adventurist, a crazy writer, that I spent too much time among academic types, smoked too much contra-band, that I am confused, and, yes, that I am NOT Black enough. While I would not agree with the last selection, we could talk about the other choices listed above. Ha! Yet, I have to pose a series of questions to all who have read this, and this could be a perfect forum to get such a dialogue going.. Among my questions:
Why are we Black Baby Boomer types so afraid of technology? Most of us are from New York, and most of us as young people did attend the World’s Fair of 1964 – 1965, and thought that the future technology offered, Video telephone calls, colour televisions in every home, fax machines, portable phones, and the wide world of computers, was pretty neat stuff back then. Why are most of us so squeamish about the new technology now on offer?
And finally, this: Nearly all Black leaders from years past STRESSED education. Malcolm X spoke French, and said that Black Americans should be international in world outlook and sharp as a tack when it comes to professional skills. This view goes all the way back to Frederick Douglas, himself, in the 19th Century. Then, why, do we passively sit by and allow the Bullies in the Black community to oppress our own young people from excelling, and reaching higher, only to be told that to do so is to speak and behave “white?” What’s up with this? I don’t get it.
From: http://harlemprepalumni.blogspot.com.au/ Oct 24 2011