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.