The Schooling of Gil Scott-Heron, Dead at 62

The Schooling of Gil Scott-Heron, Dead at 62

The Fieldston School in Riverdale has many famous alumni. They include: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Roy Cohn, Stephen Sondheim, Eli Zabar and Diane Arbus. Needless to say they’re all Jewish. But re-reading this New Yorker profile of the revered black poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron, I was reminded that the prestigious prep school has done much to reach out to less affluent non-Jews.

Scott-Heron died on Friday at 62–and many suspect his prematured death was due to drugs (the profile catches him smoking crack). He was revered for his acerbic Afro-centric poetry, and in the popular world, made famous by his iconic song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." He’s cited as a major influence on hip-hop–a label, to be sure, he outright rejected–but there is little doubt that his music, sampled and re-mixed, was and remains a boon for rap artists.

It’s not just his distinctive baritone voice, laid over sly rhythms, that makes him an icon. It’s the sheer force of his poetry–it’s biting critique of white society, of popular culture, and black values too. Here he is on the shame of a black man losing his job and having to face his family with the news in "Pieces of a Man":

I saw my daddy greet the mailman
And I heard the mailman say
"Now don’t you take this letter to heart now Jimmy
Cause they’ve laid off nine others today"
He didn’t know what he was saying
He could hardly understand
That he was only talking to
Pieces of a man
I saw the thunder and heard the lightning
And felt the burden of his shame
And for some unknown reason
He never turned my way

Scott-Heron had a gift for writing long before he became an icon. And it turns out his talent was shaped in part by his education at Fieldston. But how did he–a poor black New Yorker raised New York City projects–get to the expensive, predominantly Jewish prep school? Turns out he had an English teacher at the public DeWitt Clinton High School who noticed his precocious literary talent. She had him apply for a scholarship to Fieldston, which, once he got it, made him one of five black students in his class of 100.

The school is known as having an outsize influence on its students. In a response to a New York Review of Books essay on an Oppenheimer biography, a proud alumni wrote this: "as a graduate of the [Fieldston School], I can tell the reviewer that the philosophy of Dr. Felix Adler [the school’s founder] had an enormous impact on all of us."

The alumni went on: "The society and the school were dedicated to what, in Oppenheimer’s day, were advanced liberal concepts of social justice, racial equality, and intellectual freedom. They were havens for secular Jews who rejected the mysticism and rituals of Judaism, but accepted many of its ethical teachings. Additionally, because the institutionalized anti-Semitism of the times established rigid quota systems against Jews in private schools, the Ethical Culture School had a disproportionately large number of Jewish students. Ethical was the only one that did not discriminate because of race, color, or creed."

But what kind of influence was the school on Scott-Heron? He told the New Yorker that he felt alienated by the affluent demographic. For his admissions exam, administrators asked him how he might respond to seeing classmates driven to school in limousines, to which he responded: "Same way as you. Y’all can’t afford no limousine. How do you feel?"

When he was later punished for playing a piano when he was not told to, his mother’s reaction was similarly contumacious. She was called into the school for her son’s behavior and remembered her response this way: “My mother listened to them, and when they were finished she said, ‘You all know where we live, and the difficulties of our life, so I’m not going to talk about that. We got burglaries, assaults, muggings—it’s not the best place to raise a child—but whenever something happens down there that might involve my son, I don’t call you. I figure that’s my area, and this is yours. Now, I have read your discipline handbook, and what I suggest you do is expel him, because it’s this way or that, near as I can tell, so what I’m going to do right now, since this is your area, I’m going to leave and go to work, because if I don’t get there soon, they’re going to take half my day’s wages from me, and when I get home this evening he’ll tell me what you decided.’"

They did not expel him. Scott-Heron graduated, went to a black college in Pennsylvania, and later onto a remarkable artistic career. It can only be said that his formative years were at least brushed by secular New York’s Jewish culture. And yet it is an influence none too easy to embrace.

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