VIOLET PRETE, 18
Violet Prete, born and raised in New York City, is currently a drama major at the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan. She believes theatre has made her who she is today and provides the lens through which she sees the world. Prete contends that theatre from Ancient Greece to August Wilson has served as a voice for the oppressed and marginalized and is using her art as activism. Prete founded the Peer Tutor Club at her school, which recruits students to tutor fellow students who seek help. She tutors math in both English and Spanish at a middle school in Harlem. Her favorite quote by Bertolt Brecht says, “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
Prete also runs Picturing Harlem, an organization of her own design where students photograph the vibrant, beautiful people and community of Harlem and sell the prints. All proceeds are donated to City Health Works: a nonprofit organization providing in-home health care for residents of Harlem and the Bronx. After taking a summer writing intensive at the Langston Hughes House, also in Harlem, Prete was asked to serve as an intern for their collective which provides a voice for young, underrepresented artists and writers. She has also served as an intern for New York State Assembly member Rebecca Seawright, an advocate for minority, low income, elderly, and LGBTQ citizens. In July of 2018, through Global Glimpse, a nonprofit organization that provides leadership programs, Prete received a scholarship enabling her to travel to the Dominican Republic where she lived in an orphanage and worked with the children, taught English classes to adults, and helped construct a park in the community. As an ambassador for Global Glimpse, Prete now works with the students in New York who will travel with the program this summer. Prete will attend Princeton University in the fall where she intends to continue her work as an artist.
Harlem Nocturne/A True Story
by Violet Prete
Walk west on a Manhattan street and you’ll see buildings converge into a one point perspective like a Renaissance painting or an Art 101 charcoal sketch of train tracks. On a clear summer’s evening, at the vanishing point, a fiery orange ball sits atop swirling violet clouds, reminiscent of a Grateful Dead light show. Neil DeGrasse Tyson coined the term, Manhattanhenge. In seconds, it melts into the New Jersey horizon and sinks into the Hudson River. This dazzling display of color gives way to a deep, cobalt blue New York evening sky. This breathtaking sight always lifts my spirits, setting the tone for a pleasant evening...but, not this one.
I’ve always loved Harlem. Bright colors, the aroma of delicious food, and a constant beehive of activity make it a beautiful, vibrant place that demands your attention. Leaving my internship at the Langston Hughes House, I headed west on 125th, past the Apollo Theater, to meet my friend Anaya and catch the A train to our favorite cheap Mexican joint, Oaxaca, on 116th. Bathed in a pretty green light from the subway lantern, she waved. We hugged and descended the stairs.
It was early, yet no one was on the platform, creating an eerie, midnight feeling. As we leaned against a beautiful mosaic of Harlem’s Cotton Club, two men approached. I hoped they’d pass, but no such luck - they stopped. One had stringy hair and missing teeth, the other, homemade tattoos on his fingers. Real creeps. “What’s happenin’ ladies?” said the first of the two morons, as they looked us up and down. “Thing two” placed his hand on the wall next to my head, preventing me from walking towards the exit, and in a lame attempt to be suave, muttered, “You’re two fine lookin’ chicks, wanna hang out?” Terrified, I politely countered, “No thank you, we’re heading home.” As we bolted for the exit, one of the degenerates yelled, “F**k you, n****r bi**h!” They were white, Anaya is black. Her face had a defeated, violated look and tears rolled down her cheeks. Anaya is a kind, loving friend, and that painful, defeated look in her eyes will be etched in my mind and heart forever.
I come from a poor family living in a wealthy neighborhood. When people visit Manhattan's Upper East Side, they see expensive boutiques on Madison Avenue and penthouses overlooking Central Park. They don’t see run down, walk-up tenements, but they’re there. I know because I live in one. They don’t see people struggling to pay rent, filing bankruptcy, or being evicted. They don’t see Dreamers whose parents face deportation. They don’t see welfare checks and food stamps. But they’re there, trust me. It’s tough growing up with no money, but even tougher when everyone around you has it. My elementary school had very little diversity, mostly wealthy white kids.
I now attend Professional Performing Arts, a public high school in gritty Hell's Kitchen near Times Square. It’s just across town, yet it seems like a different world. I have friends who are rich, poor, gay, straight, black, and white. Different people focusing not on differences, but collaborating on mutual interests. I found my niche.
Childhood taught me valuable lessons. The subway incident brought them into sharp focus. I learned about the disparity between rich and poor and the ugliness of racism. I also learned that I can do something about it. I am committed to making my education and life’s work about working for causes of social justice. On The Daily Show, President Obama said, “The best education I got was working in low income neighborhoods as an organizer, not really knowing what I was doing, but understanding that I wanted to commit myself to something bigger than just me.”
I want to commit myself to something bigger than just me.
Epilogue: Anaya and I put that traumatic incident behind us. We still enjoy beautiful Harlem on a summer’s evening, laughing, eating, and strolling down Lenox Avenue, imagining we hear Billie Holiday’s voice or Duke Ellington’s piano floating on the breeze.