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Top of the Class

Alison Stewart Unplugged



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"I would interview people and they'd all say the same things, how excellent the teachers were, that they had PhDs. But I also had to write the sides that were more problematic, like intraracism." During its heyday, Dunbar had a reputation for social elitism—and for favoring lighter-skinned pupils. "I had to stay true to journalism. I knew I had to address the color issue, even though it's a funky one," Stewart says bluntly. "I don't believe in objectivity—a child of divorce has a different perspective on divorce. Objectivity comes with what you choose to use or not use."

There were other issues as well. "My subject, my protagonist, is a thing—it's a school. So that was a bit of a challenge."

So was juggling her very full schedule as newswoman, author, and new parent. Though she quit her day job as co-host of the PBS news show "Need to Know" to focus on her book, the mom hat was harder to shed. "If I ever tried working at home, my son would find me," she says with a rueful smile. When he started preschool, she joined a cooperative writers' space, working for five or six hours at a stretch. "I'd drop him off, carrying two boxes of files. I went into my little cubicle and just went for it."

Stewart had a specific deadline: She wanted the book to be out before the August 2013 grand opening of Dunbar's new building. Since the school's facilities seem to have to mirrored its changing fortunes—a once-proud "Tudor" tower was demolished to make room for a disastrous 1977 building often compared to a prison or parking garage—the $122 million "Dunbar III" sounds a welcome note of hope. Its grand opening was attended by DC mayor Vince Gray (Dunbar '59), Bill Cosby, and other celebrities. Alumni of all generations turned out; many had been interviewed by Stewart.

"A 91-year-old woman came up to me on a walker and said, 'Thank you for telling the story,'" she says, visibly moved. "There's so little positive about African Americans in the media, especially as intellectuals and contributors to this country. It's time that generation gets some props and respect."

Stewart would love to develop a TV series set in the 1940s, "the very beginning of the Civil Rights movement, just before Jackie Robinson, just before the Army integrated. That first wave is often forgotten, but the second wave couldn't have happened without the first," she says, adding, "It's time. This year we had 42, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave.... There's an interest in this unrecorded history."

Essence magazine just named First Class one of 2013's four best books, and Stewart hopes to book more appearances during African American History Month in February; she's also joining a Woodstock Writers Festival panel in April.

She's currently writing a children's book about birthdays. (Her own is the Fourth of July, about which she says, "It was great. You always had the day off. Your parents had the day off. And you could convince yourself that the fireworks were for you.") Her next long-term project might be another nonfiction book, a master's in education and public policy, or a new TV project about creative solutions. "I've always tried to work on projects I would actually watch, something that's useful. That's a big word for me, useful."

Stewart used her book advance to launch the First Class UNCF Scholarship Fund for college-bound Dunbar graduates. The fund has also received checks from readers and people who saw her promoting First Class on TV. "I wanted to give something back," she says. "Not that my advance was so big—just in photos alone, the book cost me a fortune."

She whips out her phone to display some of those photos, green fingernails skittering over its touchscreen to find favorite images: a vintage yearbook cover, a group of uniformed Dunbar cadets, US postage stamps featuring Dunbar alumni, her son Isaac carving a pumpkin.

It's 3:30, and right on schedule, Stewart's phone starts to buzz: first a filmmaker friend, then a message confirming her son has been picked up from school. Within seconds, it buzzes again. Alison Stewart rolls her eyes, her smile radiating contentment. "Who wants me now?"

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