- Chrishaunda Lee Perez
SEE Her Name: A First for a First
Updated: Oct 4, 2021
Despite my intentions for a Saturday morning sleep in, I awoke at 7am today eager to do two things: Read and write. Life can be so busy during the week, that the learner in me has to sometimes absorb information through audio articles, or by listening to podcasts, which, might I add, have added somewhat a nerdy balance to my sometimes too quiet, or too loud with blaring hard hip-hop backdrop while driving. Though some days I lack sufficient time to turn a page, I do make it my business to use my pen daily- be it a quote written down in my date book, or outline notes for my next book. But if I have not had my proper fill of the fundamentals of good old reading and writing during the week, my Friday night’s sleep can be dominated by so much anticipation to do so as soon as I awake on Saturday. On Friday nights like that, I wake up hardly remembering what I’d even dreamt.
Amongst my choices from which to begin reading, I decided to read through emails, then articles, then to take a break and walk my dogs, then to return for a quick breakfast, and to continue on with the crown jewel book of the moment: David Sedaris’ “The Best of Me”. I have read many of his books, and he remains one of my proven inspirations that more life lived can enhance the creativity of a writer if they let it.
Scrolling down my emails, a “Message from Miss Porter’s School” was the one I chose to read first. It was sent to the public by 8aEST, and had I opened my emails to read when I went to the bathroom at the per usual around 5am hour, I would have been on time with the rest of the world. What I read sat me up straight in my bed. I knew, while reading slowly, that the remaining emails would now have to wait, any article I might have anticipated to read became low priority, and “The Best of Me” might not be reopened until bedtime. The only to do on my previous list that would survive this amazing interruption was walking my dogs. I took them on their routine, lengthy route, but I made a bee line right back to my front door. I had to exalt this most excellent news.
A first for a first.
Glenda Newell-Harris, the first Black student to be admitted to Miss Porter’s School for girls in 1968 (class of '71) was having a building renamed for her, the first building to be named for a Black alumna, or any person of color. The press release stated, “Miss Porter’s School will name its new student center in honor of Glenda Newell-Harris, M.D., a distinguished alumna who was the first Black student to attend the school…” I gasped. The release goes on to list her impressive accomplishments, and what she has contributed to the school, but for me, simply being the “first” was a great feat. What it took for her to be educated for however many years until the second Black student was admitted, not seeing a single mirroring image every day at school is not lost on me. There are those who talk about how “happy Black people should be” when included in predominantly white spaces, but I know, from being the “only one” in other areas, even if you are getting a better standard of experience that will help you in the real world, being accepted is commonly exactly that single transaction: You may physically come in. And that’s it. There are no culture adjustments made around you to make you feel more included, rather, you must, if you want that “better experience”, fully acclimate to the environment that you are in. Sometimes, to the degree of being invisible all around until you are back home with your own family and in your own neighborhood. Being an “only one” for the sake of a more “privileged education” can be extremely isolating. This, even if people are not threatening to poison you, or are not holding up a Black baby doll in a coffin as a six year-old Ruby Bridges had to endure when she alone desegregated an elementary school in Louisiana a little less than a decade before Dr. Newell-Harris enrolled at Miss Porter’s School. This, even if those who do not look like you are doing their best to be nice. There are fundamental aspects about you that you have to put on hold to get by from day to day. There are things you have to accept not receiving to spiritually fill your cup while there. Certain affirmations of your beingness just won’t happen, because no one fully understands you. And sometimes, with the best intentions (or not) interactions can feel like the opposite of affirming. Ultimately, you are there for the education, so you do your best to hold your breath when needed until you can fall into the arms of your village. For that hurdle that Dr. Glenda Newell-Harris has climbed for all of us, I give a most humbled “Thank you”. I am number who knows hundredth Black student admitted to that incredible educational institution for girls that was founded in 1843, and she cleared the path 125 years later. She triumphed for herself, and every single Black girl who came after got to benefit from her making aware that we, too were worthy by being there. Thank you.
What this news will mean for every Black girl who currently attends the school to see this name on a building located on the campus where they roam every day. This doing will ignite them inside, even if they don’t realize it now. For me, to see a name of a fellow Black Ancient, etched on a building in a way that exemplifies excellence gives me pause. For all of us Black girls, and all girls of color from Miss Porter’s School, we might as well see our own name there. What this represents is possibility.
“But what possibility?” You might ask, “Why does it matter so deeply?” Some might question. I don’t have the science to back this up, but I do have the spirit element to provide, which most certainly speaks to overall well-being. Reading the news made me sit up straight in my bed, for the honor of reading the words about the unveiling in the letter sent by now Head of School, Kate Windsor, I felt deserved better posture. I can only imagine what actually standing in front of the building, as a near 30-year Miss Porter’s School alumna will do for me... I might pull down my mask, cup my mouth, and cry.
When I entered, what I affectionately call our nation’s “Brown Crown”, the National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opened in 2016, I almost went into shock. Wall-to-wall Blackness. Our story, from a tortuous journey to this country, to a very complicated and uneven present day finally encapsulated and acknowledged in one powerful brick and mortar. It was stunning to me. For all of the Black children in particular, who had only been taught a little more than about Civil Rights icons like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks- maybe Emmitt Till, gets MORE. For those who know very few facts about the enslavement of their own people, and Nothing about anything else very significant in between: Never about the inventions of people like Lewis Latimer, the genius of those like Benjamin Bannekar, the eloquence of artists like Phyllis Wheatley, gets MORE. Maybe a read of a Maya Angelou of Toni Morrison book in high school. Maybe Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”. Never James Baldwin. Never bell hooks. NEVER Octavia Butler… In this magnificent building, they could bring a notepad and write down QUESTIONS they would have never thought to ask, with the treasure trove of ANSWERS all at arm’s reach through the click of button on a smart phone. Previously, there were not many formal introductions to spark their brains. Walking through The Brown Crown more than three times, I know there are furthered stories to tell, yet, seeing the existence of the NMAAHC was a great beginning. Less I felt to complain about how long it took, and more I felt overjoyed about it happening at all. Seeing the faces on museum walls, stories written on plaques that were not part of a specific show, but would always remain, gave me a heightened sense of something. Possibility, yes. Yet, something else. It is in the family of “confidence”, but it is even deeper than that because it has taken so long. I was able to witness my people, remembered in this way, finally. I nearly fell to my knees upon seeing my own family’s name framing the entrance of the theatre. While we do share the same genetics, I know I am not alone with my feelings of pride for it. Even as I write this, I rev up with emotion.
Why does this matter? This matters because for a very long time, Black people bared witness to few, if any, multi-dimensions of American Blackness on the very white National Mall until the National Museum of African American History and Culture was built.
I attended Miss Porter’s School beginning in the fall of 1990, and of course I could not forecast what I would feel back then upon learning the news about Dr. Newell-Harris today, because like most Black people, we are accustomed to, and for many years did not question not seeing our names acknowledged in this way in mostly white spaces. We become members and patrons of country clubs where there is no representation of us on the walls, but maybe upon being welcomed into the club, we are greeted by someone who looks like us asking for our keys to park our car or take our coat. We attend schools where every single building that has an endowed name is named for someone who does not look like us, and we make it ok. We have learned well to live and excel in a world that does not fully celebrate us. But this inkling that I have inside right at this moment makes me feel nothing but joy. Not because I am “So Happy” to be included. Because I know we deserve to be included, and the inclusion granted is for reciprocity, and nothing more.
If we Black women who no longer attend Miss Porter’s School could graduate and go on with our lives with esteem and perseverance without seeing a building with a Black woman’s name on it on campus, if Dr. Glenda Newell-Harris could go on to excel in life, though being the “only one”, the first ever Black student on campus, imagine what those young Black women-to-be at Miss Porter’s School will feel having that newly renamed building become their norm. It will make a difference. Just as it makes a difference for white people to see themselves and their names being celebrated in stone everywhere around them. As I wrote in my novel, “We Come as Girls, We Leave as Women” about the power of belief as it pertains to life trajectory, it fuels them to believe and achieve. Dr. Newell-Harris’ moniker on a central building at Miss Porter’s School will do the same for Black girls and other girls of color. It will never be just a name on a building.
The renowned playwright and poet Pearl Cleage wrote a poem called “We Speak Your Names” in honor of the Legendary Legends Ball given by my aunt, Oprah Winfrey in 2005. Now, at Miss Porter’s School, we also get to “See her name”.
The power of “Seeing a same race or culture NAME, seeing a ‘like’ FACE in an uplifting way”, I can only guess scientifically what that does for a person’s whole health. Though I motivate in spirit, I did search for any information that would back up my soul-driven claims with numbers, but alas, I have found no information or studies that speak to this in a broad way. What I have as proof is how much I was moved inside upon reading the news. For the young’uns who might not fully understand how they are being affected, just know that you are. Even those people who are not Black will be affected positively. The more it becomes normalized that Black people are in fact beautiful in every way, it will no longer be ok to default to trite stereotypes about us in the negative.
An article I did read while doing a bit of research for this essay on www.PBS.org written in 2019 shed additional light. As this idea relates to film, in 2017, still only 19.9% lead actors were people of color, according to the UCLA Diversity Report, even though a different UCLA report conducted that same year stated that the median global box office has been the highest for films featuring casts that were more than 20% minority. The film industry does have numbers to back up the case for more inclusivity, yet there is pushback. The PBS article goes on to say that some students admitted that not seeing representations of themselves affected their mental health.
I believe the leadership at Miss Porter’s School understands the spirit piece in all of this, too, and despite not having scientific data, they still made the move. What a step in the right direction. And for a school so deeply rooted in tradition, they broke with our nation’s “tradition” of typically honoring Black people in this way until decades or centuries after they have died. Dr. Newell-Harris is alive and very well, and her family will be able to take in this joy and accomplishment ongoing. Her newest family addition, a granddaughter, might even attend Miss Porter’s School in her future, and get to see her grandmother’s name emblazoned on a building every day. Picture that: A Black girl attending a predominantly white school where her GRANDMOTHER'S NAME IS ON A BUILDING!!! Brava.
And let there be more to come.