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American Promise

Craig McCoy

Please welcome back guest writer, Craig McCoy, who shares his review of the documentary 'American Promise' that he originally wrote as part of an academic assignment:

The documentary American Promise tells about the 13-year grade school careers of Idris and Seun. Both kids started out at the Dalton school, a private Manhattan school that was very prestigious but that didn’t have diversity. The private school was historically white and it admitted Idris and Seun, along with other African American children as part of efforts to diversify its student body. This effort alone didn’t make it diverse. This invitation proved that the school was non-racist, but it didn’t make it anti-racist.

Idris’s parents Michéle Stephenson and Joe Brewster, and Seun’s parents, Stacey O. Summers and Anthony (Tony) Summers, two middle class families, decided to send their kids to the prestigious Dalton school, in hopes of better educations for them. The parents shared their feelings about the boys attending Dalton. Joe, Idris father felt that it would open doors going to Dalton. Stacy, Seun mother, thought it would be better to go to Dalton School because he would learn to be more comfortable being around white people. But Michéle feared that Idris would lose his history if he went to Dalton.

American Promise movie poster featuring Idris and Seun

The boys began at Dalton when they were five years old and attended there together through the eighth grade. Then Seun transferred to Benjamin Banneker Academy, a public school in Manhattan, that he attended all thorough high school and graduated from. Idris remained at Dalton School and graduated from it, although he continued to struggle at times.

One of the early signs of non-diversity in this private Manhattan school was when Seun tried to scrub the color out of his gums so he would be like all the other kids. There were more white people in his class than people of other cultures and colors. Seun and Idris, were around these people that had different features than them. They were different, and wanted to be the same as everyone around them.

The teachers at schools like Dalton need to get ready for the new changing school environment. In the article “I Don’t See Color”: Challenging Assumption about Discussing Race with Young Children it says

“the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES 2000) predicts that by the year of 2035, students from racially/ethnically diverse backgrounds will comprise a statistical majority of the public school population. In spite of these demographic shifts, few early childhood educators make conscious efforts to respond to these changes within the curriculum on the basis of developmental and or political concerns. Many early childhood educators believe that children are too young to engage in critical discussions of race.”

If there had been educators at Dalton who changed for the times and had discussions about diversity early with Seun and Idris, maybe they would understand that everyone is different in lot of ways and that it is fine. We don’t know if Dalton knew about the gums incident with Seun, but if they were more anti-racist instead of being non-racist, they would have been more sensitive to these African American boys. 

The above article also states “One reason early childhood teachers should integrate anti-racist education in the social studies classroom is that children are constantly constructing meaning and understandings about race as they interact with other children and adults in different social and cultural contexts in society.”
Filmakers Michéle Stephenson and Joe Brewster
with their sons
When Idris was in middle school, he was made fun of by his peers while playing on a recreation basketball team. The kids said that Idris was talking “white”, because of that, Idris would try to fit in by talking “black”. This made Idris feel he didn’t fit in either place. If the school were more diverse, they would understand and talk about the different between “white talk” and “black talk” and that there is room for both.

Another incident happened when Idris was in high school. He couldn’t find a date for any dances. He was frustrated and said maybe it would be better to be white so he could get a date. Instead of the school understanding and appreciating Idris for who he was, he had be thrown into a “white setting” and he was having to “become white”.

The Dalton School was living with the ‘color blind’ myth. They thought adding Africa-American kids would make their school diverse. It didn’t. Adding kids of a different race, culture, background, and expecting them just to fit in wasn’t enough. The Dalton School didn’t understand that they were not appreciating what the kids were bringing to the school. 

In the article, ‘Seeing past the ‘Color Blind’ Myth of Education Policy’, author Amy Stuart Wells argues that “even when education policies are color blind on the surface, they interact with school systems and residential patterns in which race is a central factor in deciding where students go to school, what resources and curricula they have access to, whether they are understood and appreciated be teachers and classmates and how they are categorized across academic programs.”
Stacey and Anthony Summers with their son, Seun,
at the Sundance Film Festival
Idris remained in The Dalton School in this hostile environment--one that expected him to be “white.” His father Joe, kept pushing him to succeed. When he began school at 5 years old, he was happy and outgoing. But as he grew older, he became more frustrated. Growing up is already hard to begin with. With Idris, it was worse because of his school environment. It was a great school, but because of the failure of the school to be truly diverse, Idris suffered.
After the other student, Seun, transferred to Benjamin Banneker Academy, he was in a safe school environment. Even though he faced his mother’s cancer and the death of his younger brother, he did well in school. Policy Recommendation Number 2 in ‘Seeing Past the Color-blind Myth of Education Policy’ states having “supporting curriculum, teaching, and assessment that taps into the educational benefits of diversity” provides a supportive school environment.

Even in hard times, Seun was able to make it at a school that was less prestigious but more supportive of him. If Seun had remained at Dalton it is very possible he would have been left behind. There needs to be a supporting factor in schools. At the more prestigious school in this documentary, Idris often felt different and left out. At the less prestigious school, Seun felt like he belonged and supported. He didn’t have to try to be someone that he wasn’t.

Two paths split in a woodsWhen making a decision about schooling, there are many types to choose from. There are schools that are very prestigious. Then there are other schools, that may be not as prestigious but has diversity, but these schools may take the time to learn about many cultures. Is it better to go to a prestigious school, with no real diversity or color culture, or to go to a school that is not so prestigious but where you learn and experience more about diversity and color culture? By the experiences of these two boys, it is evident that it would be better to go to a less prestigious school with more diversity and color culture.

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