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.