Wednesday, February 19, 2014

American Promise

I watched the Sundance prize-winning film American Promise and parts of it broke my heart. The documentary, by filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, is about two Black boys who enroll in kindergarten at The Dalton School, a predominantly white Upper East Side private school, one of the wealthiest and most prestigious in the country. Over the next 13 years, Brewster and Stephenson, the parents of one of the boys, film their educational journey at the school, which turns out to be an alienating experience for both boys. One of them, a gentle artistic boy with dreadlocks named Seun, begins to struggle in middle school, is diagnosed as dyslexic, and ultimately leaves to attend the Benjamin Banneker School, an all-Black public school in Brooklyn with an excellent academic record. There he finds the support and cultural understanding he needs to begin to achieve. His best friend, Idris, stays at Dalton through high school, grappling with his dawning awareness of race and class, even as his parents fight assiduously to secure him.

At one point, an 11-year-old Idris asks his parents with wrenching sincerity whether his life at Dalton would be easier if he were White. Maybe then he wouldn't have to stand alone in the corner at school dances. His parents don't know how to answer him. "Is that what you think?" they ask him. Idris's voice has a plaintive edge, as if he really needs to grasp the truth of this, as if there will be some peace in understanding that it is his skin color—not him—that is part of making his experience at the school so isolating. "I'm not saying I want to be White," he tells his parents. "I just want to know. Would it be easier if I were?"

In the film, his parents never actually say, Well, yes, it would be much easier for you if you were White, and easier still if you were wealthy, but of course, the answer is obvious. And yet Idris, a thin, light-skinned Black boy with a delicate mien, fares better than the larger, darker-skinned, dreadlocked Seun. What struck me so forcefully as I watched the film was not so much the implicit bias in some of the school's dealings with the boys. There are no real villains here, only the entrenched and often unconscious prejudices born of the cultural stereotypes we marinate in day in day out by way of history and popular media. But what really struck me was the toll on the boys of being in that environment, where if the slings and arrows that pierced them daily were mostly invisible, the result was decidedly not. The boys went from being bright engaged laughing children in kindergarden, to being watchful, guarded young men, despite their parents' best and most loving efforts to shield them from the negative effects of being ever the outsider. It hurt my heart to see the veil come down over their eyes. Both boys eventually do enroll in colleges they are excited to attend: Idris at Occidental and Seun at State University of New York at Fredonia.


I sent my own children to private schools in New York City. I tried to spend some time beforehand watching how the Black children at the school moved in the space, whether there were enough of them so they wouldn't feel as if they had to single handedly represent, whether they felt comfortable and able to express themselves, or seemed to pull themselves in. But you can never really tell beforehand what the experience will be like. For my kids, it appears to have worked out mostly okay, though I did have to get very up front with my daughter's high school college counselor about her initially low expectations for my child. We did manage to get on the same page after that rather difficult but ultimately fruitful conversation. And once she got to know my girl better, it was all good. On the other hand, my son's college counselor at his Jesuit all-boys high school thought he walked on water, despite his good natured mischief and high jinks. I think that school was an excellent fit for him and his rather kinetic learning style. And both my kids were able to engage in a wide repertoire of extracurricular experiences because private schools are so resource rich. The playing field is not at all level.

My daughter's K-8 school was also perfect for her. It was founded on the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., and the only history they ever learned there was of African Americans, the Civil Rights Movement, Native Americans, the Middle East and Africa. The founders reasoned the kids would get the traditional American and European history curriculum in high school, and they wanted them to have a larger context in which to place that learning. At a young age, our children became very critical thinkers in matters of race, class, gender and sexuality, and the historical contexts of each. Even though a slight majority of the kids at the school was White, and many were very wealthily, still the families who would choose such a school for their children were not the sort to buy into the society's usual divisive cultural narratives without questioning the underlying assumptions. The families in our daughter's class in particular became and remain even now very connected.

Even so, in high school, my children's social group was mostly Black. They still had good friends of all descriptions, but the ones they became closest to as teenagers tended to be kids of color. I think there is such a thing as body comfort, or seeing yourself positively reflected in another's eyes. Familiarity can be very comfortable to rest in, which is probably why my daughter and her middle school friends also stayed close, though my son's friends from his middle school years have mostly fallen away. I think it is my son who let it happen. They tried to stay in touch with him, but he was hard to pin down. His closest friends are still a kid from next door, a kid from high school and his camp friends, a United Nations of young people. And yet, his friends in college were mostly White, the fellow members of his track team, while my daughter's closest friends in college are mostly Black. She says, only half joking, "I went to the great White north and discovered the full expression of my Blackness."

I do think our children are generally less hung up on categories of race and class than we were at their age and still are. All the same, America in the age of Obama seems far more racially polarized than in the 1990s, when my kids were born and started school. Our children will always have to navigate that polarization, which means that when my daughter accepts an internship that could place her anywhere in the country, her mother still has to hold her breath and pray that she will be located in a part of the country that will be friendly. We're not close to post-racial yet.

In honor of Black history month, go read this post from Grady Doctor. It swelled my heart with pride and possibility for the future.


21 comments:

  1. Thoughts like these have been on my mind so much lately, especially spurred by the latest travesty of justice/proof of the deep racial bias in my state (the murder of Jordan Davis) and I am brought to my knees by parents like you and your husband, Grady Doctor and her husband, who have to deal not only with all of the things all parents have to deal with but this whole other huge level of a reality that I've never had to contemplate as a parent.
    How can change be so slow? I don't know. It always seems to be one step forward, two steps back.
    Well, so is birth. Which is also painful and yet, the most magnificent goal of all travails.
    You have done such a good job. Consciously and with love and pride and you need to remember that. Always.

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    1. Mary, I do believe we are moving forward, and that all the racial animus is the result of the deep bruises of our history coming to the surface, a precursor to healing. One hopes. Thank you for being the thoughtful soul you are, you and your family; you are definitely part of the healing.

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  2. Gorgeous post -- I've linked to it and am grateful for your beautiful writing today.

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    1. I'm honored that you entered this deeply enough to link it. Thank you, dear friend.

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  3. I love that you wrote about American Promise. I saw it on a special viewing a few months back and was alone so had no one to really discuss it with me. Your perspective and your writing is always so . . as Elizabeth put it. . .stunning. Yes. That.

    I feel honored that both you and Elizabeth--moms that I deeply respect--would link my post. I mean that. I love that we have this space to think and share and grow together. You pointed out things in American Promise that I didn't even think about. I spent so much time feeling conflicted by Idris' father that I had to go back and watch it again when PBS posted it on line. Also I hated that they didn't even seem to consider Morehouse as a viable option for him, rattling it off as an acceptance akin to the least competitive junior college in town. Funny. That was a "sliding doors" moment for me--my first thought being that sending that boy to Morehouse College (King's alma mater) would have poured so much into him that those years sucked out.

    And this is what I was talking about today. This idea of a place like Morehouse not even being a real, legitimate consideration. Like brown boys who see brown girls as buddies and blonde girls as their ideal. I'm not saying the blonde girl can't be the love of a brown boy's life--not at all. I just want the girls that look like his mama to be in the running, you know? To have a chance to be handed the final rose, too.

    I appreciate thinking together today. I do.

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    1. Dear Kimberly, I absolutely loved your post today, and especially those videos of your boys. They are so whole, so fully themselves, so in the flow of their lives. You and the BHE are doing such a great job.

      I too had a little trouble with Idris's dad. At first. But I let it go because his intention for his son was clearly from a loving place even if he wasn't able to take in the whole picture. He's a Stanford University and Harvard Medical School man, and often Black folks who go through the Ivy League think that it's the only thing guaranteed to open doors for their kids. I think they see how it opened doors for them and they aren't able sometimes to see that it's not the only path to success. Indeed, the numbers show that the most successful African Americans are those who went to HBCUs, who were nurtured in the ways Idris might have been nurtured at Morehouse. I noticed the dismissive note when Idris got into Morehouse, too, and felt sad that in the quest for the Ivy League, his parents weren't able to pause in that moment to really congratulate their son on his very real accomplishments. Maybe it was about the father wanting the son to attend his alma mater? I don't know. I just decided not to judge, because he is not a bad father and interestingly, he didn't edit out those parts of the film that did not flatter him. But yes, I know what you meant about that Morehouse moment (and others). I felt it too.

      But I think it's such an important film. I think over the course of 13 years (what commitment!) it reveals what a shorter project might miss, the evolution, the incremental losses, the light going dim, and the power of loving parents to mitigate the harm. It at least helps us understand the issues, which is the first step to healing them.

      As for the brown girls being in the running? I have a daughter. I sure as heck want her to be seen as the prize. So yes. Oh yes.

      I appreciate thinking together today, too. I wish sometimes we could just sit down across a cup of coffee and just share notes. But thank you again for that beautiful, true post.Thank you for being you.

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  4. This is on my list to watch. The thought of that lost innocence is heartbreaking. I am also struck by your daughter's words. What wisdom and awareness she expresses there. I know what you mean about things seeming more polarized now than they were in the 90's. I do have hope for the younger generations, but the price has been so heavy.

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    1. Brittany, my daughter brings the different groups together often, and I think this is one of her gifts, to be a connector. She has this thing where people feel light in her presence. I hope nothing ever dims her beautiful light. Thank you for hearing who she is.

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  5. I don't know why I broke down completely watching the trailer. This speaks to me. Volumes. From growing up in racist France where my spirit was broken the second day of school when all the children I had made friends with the day before said they weren't allowed to play with a negro. To moving to NY and finding a better life, yet still experiencing curious (but not negative) looks from our all white neighbors where we lived in Soho first then the village.
    Many neighbors who would later become friends and admit to their initial prejudices. But always feeling like an alien everywhere. Even if a welcomed and often loved one. My heart breaks because I know that this isn't over. I fear so many things for my future children. Also because I will not have the economic means of my parents. Which made a difference in my life, I'm not sure a positive one, but it did. A difference my parents always mentioned, resented, especially my father who comes from a proud working class background but made them feel leveled in that world.
    While I haven't seen the film yet, I know (as you most likely do) Dalton and out of many private schools in NY, it seems like the worst place for those young boys. It is a school of yes, academic achievement, but also a place where money rules. Big money. Growing up in NY in the prep school circuit, we all knew each other more or less, socialized, shared sporting events, tutors, after school activities. The Dalton crowd was always... less inclusive. And I agree with Grady doctor, Morehouse is a wonderful choice for many, especially if you've gone to an all white school. Many of my black prep school friends chose HBCU and are successful in the same way, if not better than those who went to Ivy Leagues. And they seem to have to the most personal, real, connections in the business world that people sending their kids to Ivy Leagues hope for.
    Anyway. Sharing this.

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    1. Miss A, you're right, Dalton is a lot more wealthy and exclusive than most of the private schools in the city. I did look at it when we were trying to choose a high school for our daughter, and I immediately ruled it out as a choice for her because the black kids there seemed so cookie-cutter, as if the pressure to be an imitation white upper east side preppie was intense. I know I was only seeing the surface, how much can you really see in a parent tour, but still, it didn't FEEL right for my child; I wanted a place where the kids felt free to be individuals, to not fit the mold, and Packer Collegiate in Brooklyn seemed more like that. I remember when I toured Packer I saw a group of Black kids in the lounge together, and no one seemed uncomfortable with that (you know the inside joke: too many blacks talking to one another at the water cooler and the fear is they're plotting a revolution); at the same time they didn't seem isolated either because as I watched an asian kid and three white kids joined them, one launching himself into their midst and they all laughed and talked and it FELT very free.

      I am sorry you had such a painful experience as a child in France. I really know what that felt like because I had a similar experience as a kindergartener in London. I wrote about it on the blog here in a post called London Child. It's painful and never really leaves you, that sense of being somehow not okay.

      I love you, woman, and am so glad you are here.

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    2. Love you back and I'm always here, even when I don't post, but I read you daily like the good book! Packer is indeed a great school and it seemed like the right choice for your daughter. Dalton. Argh. I'm going to see that film but I'm so fearful of what I'll feel!

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  6. It seems here in Canada we don't see to the same extent all these injustices. When I read this post my stomach went into a knot and I felt ashamed of my skin tone. I mean, dear god, why? Why is this even a topic? Why? I can't begin to understand. Who are these people that hate and why are they they way they are?

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    1. Dear Birdie, never ever be ashamed of who you are. You are a wonderful and good soul and that has nothing to do with skin color. Which is the point. We are who we are under the skin, and it's so sad that some can't ever see beyond the wrapping. Hugs.

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  7. This is on my 'to watch' list too. Before knowing much about the film I figured it would go the way of showing the isolation of the boys. Now that that's confirmed, I'm almost inclined not to watch it... too depressing. But I'll watch anyway.

    Doing errands the other day I was in 3 different stores that had magazine racks by the checkout. Each rack held 15 - 20 mags. These things that teens set so much store by. None of them, not one, had a person of color on the cover. I naively thought that 6 years into a Black presidency, this teensy representation of this country's narrow thinking would improve... how naive. May this upcoming generation be the one to break the cycle.

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    1. Hi cuz! Please don't let what I wrote stop you from watching the film. I think it's so important that it exists, that it actually documents 13 years of these two black boys' life, and shows more than a project of lesser duration could ever capture. I think the generation coming up will be more open, but I wonder to what degree it will endure? I think racism is also about who has access to the most toys, and people never want to let go of privilege. We shall see. Love to you and Ron!

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  8. This was a riveting post. It initially hooked me because I have a student whose parents both teach at Dalton. I attended Dalton's shows for the past 5 years and, because I have grown close with the parents, I am privy to some of the inner workings at Dalton.

    It also struck me because I am a teacher. My situation may not be typical because I work in a specialized field with students mainly from lower income families. My class is incredibly diverse. We teach social justice with a philosophy to match. We are never questioned by parents or administration about trying to promote equality or told to stop challenging the traditional views on everything from Columbus to social rights to what "family" means today (that includes families with same sex partners).

    Posts like yours make me want to be a better teacher. You talk about how subtle the message can be and that is so true. We are conscious of even the small things like not printing out posters or using pictures with only white children. It is important that all of the students see themselves in our work and in the children's books we read. In those instances we don't make a big deal and say, "Notice the children in this book..." but the children notice. They will comment sometimes but most often they don't. I think they still notice.

    It's a quiet message sometimes.

    I saved this movie on my Netflix queue. I can't wait to see it.

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    1. Gary, I am happy there are not just teachers like you, but human beings like you. I'm so glad to see you back in blog land.

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  9. Interesting. That sounds like a fascinating movie. I can only imagine that the isolation those boys must have felt at Dalton -- that sense of standing alone in the corner -- must have been especially harsh and oppressive.

    I can totally see why your kids gravitate generally, as you said, to people of color. There is indeed comfort in seeing yourself reflected in the eyes of your friends, and sadly, race is a high barrier to surmount when it comes to that reflection. (Am I mixing metaphors, there?) I have black friends, but in a similar vein, my closest friends are white. Then again, I grew up in a 99-percent white suburb and didn't really even have the opportunity to make friends of other races until college. (There were, I believe, two black kids at my high school, across four grade levels. Crazy!)

    I suspect race is less important now in the same way that sexuality is less important. Happily every successive generation seems to be better at looking beyond labels.

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    1. Steve, I think you're right about successive generations moving us a little bit further down the road. But we still have a long way to go, especially in certain pockets of the country. Welcome home from China!

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