In Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School, author and journalist Kendra James reflects on her three-year sojourn into a private boarding school where Black students are all but socially accepted. Attending The Taft School, a 130-year-old elite coeducational institution that boasted integration and inclusion, James was subject to racial microaggressions from students and faculty alike. Early in the book, she even witnesses an evident gesture of disregard: Her father, a first-generation Taft graduate, encounters one of his former white classmates who neglects to call him “sir.”
Admissions chronicles James’ experience of isolation, but it also captures a glimpse into her close-knit Black and Latinx crew, with white allies she dubbed “misfits.” There’s her best friend, Yara, a queer athlete who shares in James’ fascination with DC Comics and Star Trek, and Callister, who forgoes high-school recklessness because of her religious upbringing.
Peppered with unflinching humor and candor, Admissions dares readers to confront their involvement in academia, especially those who overlook America’s inequitable education system. James says her book isn’t the voice for every Black student who’s attended an elite boarding school, but it opens a dialogue. Bitch spoke with James about the pressures of being a legacy student and the responsibility of preparing Black children for in-school discrimination.
Admissions comes more than 15 years after you graduated from The Taft School. When did you know that it was time to start writing the book?
I had been writing pieces about my experience at Taft for a website called The Toast. Prior to that, I had actually been writing at Racialiscious, [a site for] reporting on the intersection between race and pop culture. I was really new to the cultural criticism space, especially coming at it from a very specific Black woman’s perspective. [It] may be silly in retrospect, but at the time I felt like talking about [attending] a New England boarding school took away from my cred in that regard, especially when it came to talking about race and privilege.
What really broke the dam was when this girl wrote an article—and I think it was The Wall Street Journal—about not getting into the college of her choice and blamed it on affirmative action. [She] really focused a lot of her anger on indigenous people. That was the first time that I really opened up about [going] to a boarding school. I talked about the ways in which the college process really does instill a feeling of entitlement in you—that you deserve to go to an Ivy League school or a Little Ivy or one of the Seven Sisters.
That was around 2011 or 2012. I wrote a response to her piece. But the actual [moment] when I knew [I] needed to [write] a book was when I went to my 10-year reunion. I was talking to a few classmates who I didn’t really know, because I didn’t know a lot of my non-Black and Latinx classmates all that well. I realized that [this alum] didn’t know that someone who had been my good friend at Taft had passed away. He had passed away in this really bad way, like he had pulled a gun on someone else and he turned it on himself and the police were called. Just the fact that a lot of people didn’t even know he had passed away—that was when I knew I wanted to expand the story to talk about the legacy and the memory that Black students have and continue to create on campuses where we are often not seen, and forgotten.
Why write Admissions as a YA novel? Do you feel like it was the book that you needed as a teenager?
Yeah, I never got to read a book like Admissions when I was at Taft. The closest that we [had] was this wonderful memoir called Black Ice by Lorene Cary, but that was about a Black woman who went to the St. Paul’s school, sort of a [Taft] equivalent in New England. Her story took place in the ‘70s, and she wrote it. She was from Philadelphia and I believe she [had] an academic scholarship. While I really appreciated reading it, and it was the closest [book] that really identified with me, it still wasn’t necessarily my story.
I wanted to tell a story that was different [from] the narrative that you might be used to hearing about Black and Latinx kids [at] these schools. Not that there’s anything wrong with coming from an academic program and getting a place at a boarding school—that’s a perfectly valid way of getting there—but it’s not the only way that Black and Latinx kids end up there.
You were also very open about your disdain about how Black students were mistreated by Black peers and even overlooked by educators. When writing the book, did you have a fear of retribution from Taft?
Not so much from Taft, but I did really spend a lot of time thinking about how any student who had gone to the school would see the book. I tried to make it really clear that this is not a universal Black girl story; This is my story. This book cannot be used to graft onto everyone’s experience. I did try to [take] into account that everyone—Black, white, Asian, Latinx, whatever—was between the ages of 13 and 18. I’m sure if I [mentioned] some of the things that I describe in the book to [my peers at Taft], they might be horrified to know that these things happened. They might not even remember that these things happened.
Say, the article in the school paper [that I wrote about in the book], or smaller things, like the random conversation that I had about adoption [when a student insinuated that Black children could only be adopted from Africa]. Those are so innocuous, like things that happen and then you forget about them. I’m sure they had forgotten about that conversation 15 minutes later, whereas for me, I’m still thinking about it 20 years later. While writing, I really tried to hold close that those [moments] probably did not stay with those students. I didn’t want [my writing] to come from a place of rage or anger. It was just writing down everything that had happened from my perspective. It is what it is. I want to hold grace, and hold the assumption that, like, everyone has matured, everyone is better.
I hope that bringing these things up—especially since I’ve gone through some pretty stringent lengths to disguise everyone’s identity—won’t be taken as like, looking for revenge [or] retribution. You can see that that’s what’s happening at these schools still, if you go to the Black at Taft account on Instagram. You can see that these are really cyclical [conversations]. I hope this really serves as a wake up call.
There was a very shocking moment where someone accused Black and Latinx students of being “segregationists.” Why is there an expectation for Black people to integrate themselves into white social groups before we’re acknowledged by them?
Oh, because that makes it easier for them. At least in my specific Taft experience, that’s what it was. If we acclimate to being able to talk about hockey; if we acclimate to being able to have conversations about whatever they want; if we enter their spaces looking familiar; feeling familiar; that just makes it easy for them to welcome us and not have to put any effort [into] learning anything different from [their own] perspective. I really think that’s what it was, especially when you’re in a community as [small as] Taft, there was never really the encouragement or the pressure for them to have to change [or] look for other perspectives.
You gave Taft fair criticism, but you did speak fondly about your close-knit friend group of people of color, and even educators who were like mentors for you all. Did you feel embraced as a student or did you feel like just enough to fulfill their diversity quota?
I felt definitely embraced by my friend group, even though, it’s interesting because I remember when I went to Oberlin, my first day in our freshman dorms, we had our first meeting with our RA, and I was sitting with two people in that room who are still my closest, dearest friends [today]. I remember feeling really free in that I never felt I had to couch anything I was saying with, “Well, I know this is weird but…” I don’t think I was my full, complete self [at Taft], just in terms of being able to find people who really connected on the same level of the interests that I had.
I will admit, my interests were strange. I preferred to be in my room writing fanfiction or [being] online; I had comics delivered to the student mailboxes. So I was definitely a little outside the norm of what everyone else was into, but it was nice because, as Black students, we had to take in the misfits. Every year there would sort of be like, one white student who didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the white majority at the school, who we would take in. They would sit with us at our dining hall table. We would hang out with them. Then as soon as they figured out how to navigate the larger, white student body, they would slowly drift off. But we were definitely the group that took in the misfits.
Black students in general have that moment where something happens and they’re in trouble and things change suddenly. That happened to me in the public school system, too. I wrote an article for Bitch about when my teacher dragged me out of the classroom. I was six years old; I didn’t know what was happening. I feel like you were in a similar spot while you were at Taft.
It’s interesting because they use the phrase “in loco parentis” a lot, which means “in place of the parents.” That’s like a big boarding school thing—you are sending your kid off to essentially be raised for three or four years by this group of adults that you don’t really know, but you’re just putting your trust in them. The problem with that for students of color is that a lot of these adults are white. Thus, there’s no way for them to act “in loco parentis” because they just don’t have the same experience that Black parents had. They don’t have to think about the things that Black parents have to, so when you have a disciplinary action [arise], they are far more inclined to not ask questions and just go with it. The school runs on a honor code—and this isn’t a bad thing to put your trust in necessarily, because [there’s] a very sweet and utopian idea that the honor code always wins out in the end—but it doesn’t. I like to think that parents of color know to question that more than white parents would.
I wanted to tell a story that was different [from] the narrative that you might be used to hearing about Black and Latinx kids [at] these schools.
One person who did know the honor code was your father. He attended Taft and graduated [in 1974], so you were familiar with the campus from childhood. Do you think that your father assumed that Taft was better or could be better than what he experienced in the 70’s?
I think he definitely thought it was better. He was a trustee [and] he really focused a lot on issues of diversity. The big hill that he would die on was recruiting students of color and diversifying the pools of recruitment so that they weren’t just coming from the academic programs. I genuinely think that he thought it was better and that it would be the same enriching experience that he had had when he was there in the ‘70s. He had come from the south side of Chicago, so I think it was a better experience for him.
It got him into Brown, and [he ultimately landed] a job in finance, so it really worked for him. And, frankly, the academics worked for me. I credit Taft for really teaching me how to write. They took me out of math—when I was really, really bad at math—and [suggested I] take screenwriting instead. Now I work in entertainment, so I really do credit them with that. It’s just the social aspects that really still needed work.
There’s a part in Admissions where you share that your parents failed to adequately prepare you for discrimination in school. How would you frame these conversations with your own children if you were in their shoes?
I think what my parents didn’t do is… be frank enough. There was so much conversation in my household about what had happened in the past. I was so familiar with the history of slavery, for instance. I was familiar with the Harlem Renaissance. My mom read Langston Hughes when I was a kid. I had to sit down and watch Eyes on the Prize when I was five-years-old. I was Josephine Baker for Halloween in the 5th grade. I was very familiar with the history of race and racism in America. It’s kind of like they just stopped in 1988 when I was born—for them, that was the cutoff point. Then everything after that was kind of fine.
We didn’t really talk about the stuff that was happening [at the time]. We never had a conversation about the OJ verdict, we never had a conversation about Rodney King. We didn’t have those specific conversations that I think you need to [have with] your kids about what is happening in the present. Parents are a lot better about that now. At least our generation of parents seem to be a lot more open and honest about what’s going on in the world that we live in today.
What do you think has changed with the new generation of parents? Why do you think they are so straightforward with their children about what’s going on?
You’re going to turn on the television and see it, [even] if you’re not talking to our kids about it. They’re going to see it anyway. That was not happening back in the day. Kids know things, and it’s better to [be honest and] up-front. Load your child with the knowledge that they need, especially when it pertains to a subject as sensitive as race and racism, then let them get that information somewhere else, or experience that information somewhere else and then process it.
In hindsight, would you rather have gone to a public school than going to The Taft School?
I don’t think I would change it. I say that a lot because of the academics—they were very good. I needed to be in a place where I was one of 12 or one of 13 people in a class instead of one in 24 or one in 25. I know that for a fact. I really needed a lot of extra tutoring in some subjects like math, Latin, science. I needed that help that I wasn’t going to get at Columbia [High School]. Also, the college process was a lot easier coming out of a smaller pool of students, and I wouldn’t have gotten that at Columbia, either.
Despite everything that happened, I am glad that I went there. I definitely took away some lessons that I would want to do with my own kids. I don’t think I would send them to Taft or any boarding school, because, like I write [in the book, if you] have a child of color I think you just need to be nearby. I don’t think you can do the “in loco parentis” situation. I don’t think that works for us. Maybe I want to consider independent schools, but I have to be like a 10-minute drive away.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.