ORLANDO, Fla – Raising black boys to be successful in a society dominated by forces that are bent on breaking them instead of nurturing them can be tough.

And not just for those black boys born to poor single mothers.

Filmmakers Michele Stephenson and her husband, Joe Brewster – two successful, Ivy League-educated parents – documented their own struggle in ensuring the academic success of their son, Idris, through Manhattan’s prestigious Dalton School in their documentary film, “American Promise.”

The film, which will be shown on PBS in its entirety in the fall, was produced as part of its POV, or Point Of View, division which specializes in showcasing small, independent, non-fiction films about the American experience.

In “American Promise,” which was previewed recently at the National Association of Black Journalists’ Convention in Orlando, Stephenson and Brewster follow their son, Idris, and another black male student, Seun, from their sixth grade year in Dalton through their high school graduation. Idris graduated from Dalton but Seun withdrew from the school and enrolled at the mostly-black, Benjamin Banneker High School in Brooklyn.

Both are in college now.

The film is both heartbreaking and enlightening at the same time. There’s the part when Idris winds up being suspended from school over a minor scrape with another boy that began with name-calling, followed by other disciplinary actions over other issues rooted more in growing pains than in pathology.

“I don’t understand,” Brewster said. “He’s not a problem at home, he’s not a problem in the community…he’s only a problem at Dalton.”

Then there’s the scene where Stephenson and Brewster refuse to put Idris on hyperactivity medication, and when Seun declares: “I hate school. It’s bad. It’s hard.

“I’m in the sixth grade.”

And there’s the part where Idris asks his father if things would go better for him at Dalton if he were white.

His father doesn’t have an answer for him on that one – and the fact that he doesn’t says a lot.

But as it turns out, Idris’ parents and Seun’s mother did provide a solution that repaired their sons’ esteem and ultimately guided them through school and to college.

They spent time with them. They constantly questioned the academic recommendations being made for them by people who were, even though well-intentioned, trying to mold them into tin soldiers before trying to teach them. Evenings were spent reviewing homework.

They didn’t allow their sons to define themselves by whether they survived Dalton, but helped them to use their experiences there as lessons for surviving life.

Stephenson said the film raises questions about where the disconnect lies when it comes to educating black boys. Nationally, the black male graduation rate is 52 percent, while the white male graduation rate is 78 percent.

As I watched the film, I thought about how easily Idris and Seun could have been lost in those early years to multiple suspensions.

I thought about the black boys who wind up on Ritalin and other drugs that they don’t need, or in special education classes because their parents are either too intimated by the school officials, or too frustrated by their sons’ behavior, to seek second or third opinions.

And the boys wind up being stigmatized for it.

One crucial thing this film does – and one thing that is especially important after the nation saw 17-year-old Trayvon Martin be put on trial for his own murder – is that it humanizes black boys. It shows Idris playing with his dog, Seun contemplating his life and future, and black boys being boys who hurt and cry, and who aren’t cursing and swaggering.

But it also displays one key answer – parental involvement. If Idris’ and Seun’s parents hadn’t believed in their sons and hadn’t loved them enough to question the decisions being made for them by others, then they might be headed to prison instead of college.

So as “American Promise” attempts to unravel what’s behind black boys’ academic struggles, the film also underscores a solution that black people can collectively work on right now. We can find ways to help more struggling parents become involved with their son’s academic success.

Because black boys can succeed academically – but they can’t do it without a fight.

And it’s a fight that they can’t win alone.

Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her at @tonyaajw. Like her at www.facebook.com/tonyaajweathersbee.

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14 thoughts on “To Educate Black Boys, It’s Important to Believe in Them, Not Break Them

  1. It is not that difficult to educate a black boy in America. The problem is we BLACK Americans make it hard and this is why.
    (1) Black national opinion leaders, media organizations and many elected black officials teach them that they are inferior because they are black males, then the black community create nonprofit organizations designed to teach them that they are not inferior. (Confusing right?)
    (2) We teach our black youth that America should not be trusted because of the dark history of slavery and Jim Crow. As a result, we find ourselves only focusing on black history and inadvertently created an oppositional culture.
    (3) The oppositional culture itself: The argument has always been, white people have their own, so we must have our own as well. As a result, black Americans have their own media, entertainment, political and community base organizations which together help to cultivate the values, beliefs and attitudes of an entire demographics. In effect, we have created an own America inside America and as result, we are ultimately responsible for the outcomes.
    (4) And lastly, we will not let our kids think for themselves and become who they want to be. I once asked Dr. Cornel West a question about what advice I should give a young person who is thinking about being a police officer or considering becoming a Republican. He told me I should tell the young person they should reconsider becoming a Republican and if they want to become a cop, get advice and mentorship from a black cop only.
    In conclusion, we have taught and raised countless generations of black boys to be meanness to society because we refuse to teach them the good in being an American. #African-Americanism

  2. So the parents started filming their son in sixth grade? Maybe his problems come from having parents who see his life as a chance to make a crappy documentary. How about they focus on making sure he takes advantage of going to one of the top schools in the country instead of filming yet another “life is so unfair for black kids” self-fulfilling piece of junk.

  3. Joe Ann Wilson-James on said:

    As the mother of two children in school in the seventies and eighties I know the hard work a parent
    must put in to get the best education for their children. My daughter was encourged to so well in a
    mostley white school system and my son was not. Stereotyping of our young black sons has been
    around for a long time. As an educator and school counselor have seen our young boys mistreated
    by both white and black teachers. Many black educators have bought into the negative stereotyping
    of our black boys. This is the cruelist behavior of all, because when your own people so not believe
    in you, who will.

  4. 55th st silverbacks on said:

    WE ARE A VILLAGE BY DIVINE DESIGN , we have lost our way of being and is is not by accident. i look forward to seeing this program as i am an avid pbs viewer. and as i speak with all youth regardless of the current “mask” they wear. swag and thug are veils our kids wear to hide the insecurity that racism brings. our elders are not elders but children that have kids, WE ARE OUR BROTHER AND SISTERS KEEPER , I AM TRAYVON

    • You’re Trayvon? Really? You think he was an avid watcher of PBS when he wasn’t busy dealing pot and tweeting recipes for Lean (what he was shopping for the night he was shot). Keep making excuses for the way so many black boys act, it’s really serving them well. It’s all society’s fault. Good luck with that approach.

  5. jhuff on said:

    Yes we must openly actively publicly encourage children to excel in education. I’m
    still baffled by children being ridiculed by others kids when they do well in school
    as if to say “your not cool unless your stupid” REALLY?

  6. hdwilson on said:

    All of your commentaries are very good but this one is the best. Thanks for the reminder of what we all can do especially to help our children as well as children of others.

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