American Promise (2013)
American Promise is a pretty insightful film. Maybe not in the way the filmmakers intended, but it gave me more insight into the shared experiences of many students of color, especially Black students, in schools where they are drastically underrepresented. American Promise tells the story of two Black males from Brooklyn, NY, Idris Brewster and Oluwaseun (Seun) Summers, and their journey at a prestigious, historically White private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, The Dalton School. Both of the students begin the school in kindergarten, but due to academic challenges, Seun leaves Dalton after eighth grade to attend a predominately Black, public high school. While the documentary’s purpose seems to be to show the difficulty Black Males experience in a predominately White School due to a difference in treatment by administrators and teachers, to me, it more-so reflects the cultural identity struggles that students of color experience when attending predominately White institutions. As an African American whose educational background is somewhat similar to Seun’s (I started off at a private PWI in elementary and later transferred to a predominately Black school during middle school), I have selected three scenes in the documentary that I identify with. Hopefully, these shared experiences will shed light on a few of the cultural identity challenges many of us face during childhood, when we do not see a strong representation of ourselves in our schools.
1) Seun’s mom wants him to feel comfortable around White people, because she does not.
Somewhere in the beginning of the documentary, when asked why she wants Seun to attend Dalton, Seun’s mom in true transparency tells the camera that she wants Seun to be comfortable around White people because she is not. How loaded of a statement is that? The belief that attending school with White people will make one more comfortable around them, can be argued, especially for me, but there is also the implication of the opposite of her statement. By being one of two or three Black people in a class, and one of a handful in the school, over time, how will that affect the way the child feels around Black people, specifically, Black people who are not being socialized by private, prestigious, predominately White schools such as Dalton and the like?
I related to this because of the well-intentioned beliefs of our parents who choose to sacrifice and work very hard to put us in schools like Dalton. I am grateful that my mother and grandmother worked hard to give me a “better” education, but where I can relate to Seun’s mother’s statement is in our parents’ beliefs of what qualifies as “better.” More challenging academics, exposure, and resources, yes, I agree that those qualities make for an awesome educational experience, but socializing children, especially students of color, to talk in a certain way, not have an opinion, look a certain way, “behave” a specific way, and basically fall in line with the majority to allow white people to feel comfortable around THEM (because it’s never about US feeling comfortable around THEM) is a crap-load of respectability politics that is extremely harmful to the child and can take a lifetime to unlearn.
2) Idris is teased by the kids on his neighborhood basketball team (mostly Black) because of the way he talks.
This scene pulled at my heartstrings, not only because I’ve experienced it, but also because every Black person with a similar educational background can probably tell you the same story. There is a huge struggle with being true to yourself, which is speaking however you have been taught in school, to fitting in with those who look like you, live near you, and often, live WITH you. I don’t feel bad for adults of color who constantly complain and rant, usually on social media, about people saying they “talk white” because I have found that they typically fall into one of two categories, 1) those who want to be perceived as smarter, better, or in my mind “more White” than others in their racial group, or 2) those who typically sound stupid anyway but they need a reason to pat themselves on the back. It’s all a bunch of attention-seeking nonsense to me, but watching a middle school Idris, honestly explain learning to codeswitch hurt my heart. I wanted to hug that little boy through the screen and tell him to love himself, and don’t worry about those who are teasing him because its only their hurt speaking because they have not yet learned to love themselves. Love them and love you, but love you more because that’s the only way you can truly, genuinely love them.
3) Idris asks wouldn’t it be easier to be white since none of the girls (White) at his school wanted to dance with him at the Bar Mitzvahs or seemed to be attracted to him.
I didn’t mention it earlier, but the entire documentary was filmed by Idris’s parents, Joe and Michele. In this one scene, Idris, who I believe was in eighth grade at this point, was speaking to his Dad who was holding the camera. His father asked if he ever kissed a girl or did he want to kiss a girl, which was extremely awkward on camera, and Idris went on to tell him how none of the girls like him, and everything would be easier if he was White. He asked his Dad was this true, in hopes of receiving some validation of his belief, but his Dad did not answer, he just let him ask several times with no response. I hope that his father spoke to him off camera, but it was one of the harder to watch scenes in the film for me. I remember being one of two and sometimes three, Black students in my class throughout my elementary education at a private school, and as ashamed as I am now, I experienced the same thoughts, only I did not talk to anyone about them because I didn’t think anyone else could understand, and at that time, I was right.
In first or second grade, one of my classmates had a birthday party at her house, and she invited most of the girls in the class, except for me. When me and my bestie at the time asked her why, she explained that her grandmother did not like Black people so I could not come into her house. I brushed it off and pretended not to care. I buried the experience deep, so deep that I didn’t even remember it until over twenty years later when my department did a team exercise where we had to talk about a painful time related to one of our identities. That was mine.
Would I place my own children in a predominately white school in order to provide them with the best formalized education possible? I’m not sure. I am not yet a parent, but I do understand the desire to provide your children with the best resources possible to better the chances of them having a successful life. The problem is that as I mature, my definition of success changes and therefore so do the desires I hold for my unborn children. Right now, my greatest desire is to raise a Black child who is self-secure and free. Free from society-imposed standards, free from living for others, free from self-doubt, and most of all, free to be whomever he or she wishes to be. Maybe raising my child to be free has less to do with the formal learning institution and more to do with the learning they do outside of the classroom. Either way, one thing I know is that we must work on being free parents in order to raise free children, regardless of the source of their formalized education.
American Promise is currently available on Netflix under “Documentaries.”