Black history can’t be made unless there are black men who educated and alive to make it. As Black males fall further and further behind educationally, they also fall further and further behind socially and financially. A new documentary 13 years in the making, American Promise, premieres on PBS on Monday, February 3 at 10 p.m. Timed for both Black History Month and Black Male Achievement week, the doc focuses on two young men and their families who try to break the stereotypical mold.
Joe Brewster and Michelle Stephenson were raising two sons in Brooklyn, N.Y. when they became alarmed by statistics of Black male educational failure. A Harvard trained psychiatrist and a lawyer, the middle class parents decide to send their 5-year-old son Idris to Manhattan’s prestigious Dalton School and record his progress until graduation. His best friend Olawaseun (Seun) is attending there as well and his parents agree to have him be part of the documentary. Along the way, both sons and parents find out a lot of surprising things about Black male achievement. Their findings are valuable to all Black parents raising children, but especially those who are parenting Black males.
We talked to author Hilary Beard, co-writer of Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed In School and LIfe along with Stephenson and Brewster, a companion book that offers resources to parents trying to give their sons the best start in life. Here’s what she had to say.
Blackamericaweb.com: Two black families decide to send their sons to Dalton, a prestigious private school in New York. Along the way, the boys experience their fair share of challenges, which surprise their parents.
Hilary Beard: Yes, it’s a documentary of them from grades K through 12, over 13 years. They started filming the boys in kindergarten and through graduation and off to college. They filmed in their home and in the community and school. If you ask Joe and Michele, they are not going to tell you they are a doctor or lawyer. They are going to tell you they are filmmakers. They were familiar with the 7Up series that followed this same set of British kids through the educational system every seven years. So they thought it would interesting to do a film. Seun’s parents thought it would be great to preserve memories.
This sounds like something that every family would like to do – put their kids in the best educational surrounding possible. So what happens?
What happens is that the boys encounter challenges related to race, gender, class, privilege, implicit bias and questions as to whether these institutions knew enough about black children to educate them well. Questions arose around learning differences and what they would find out is called ‘stereotype threat,’ test-taking anxiety that disproportionately attacks black boys. It’s basically a reality show that unfolds in front of the camera. There are no experts, no talking heads, no voiceovers. The boy’s experiences unfold and in watching, things are revealed.
There is a companion book that you co-authored with Idris’ parents that offers resources for other parents concerned about their children’s education. So American Promise raises all these questions, Promises Kept provides the answers. By the time the boys were in second and third grade, they started experiencing academic difficulties. Their parents were puzzled and shocked. The family couldn’t understand why their sons were struggling so much. They didn’t realize that even when children are able to handle the academics, there are social and emotional issues that impact their ability to learn. Joe [reached out to his former advisor) Dr. Alvin Poussaint and took some of the video they’d recorded with him. As a result of unconscious bias, the development stages of a Black child are different because because they start getting hit at a younger age with issues beyond their developmental stage. Dr. Poussaint pointed them to experts able to help them and gave them the information to support their son. And that turned into a book.
So what is the takeaway for parents interested in helping their sons succeed and even excel?
The book contains a cafeteria menu of strategies for parents, educators and members of our son’s village in 10 different areas. The strategies are answers to a lot of questions in the film. Most of the parents of Black boys do not use the optimal parenting style that correlates with the highest level of academic achievement, best behavior and best self-esteem. Many of us are using outdated parenting styles or parenting styles from other communities that don’t work for our sons. The good news is that now that we know that, we can all tweak our parenting style. The ideal parenting style is called “a warm demander.” Hug him, tell him you love him, listen to him, respond to his concerns, support and encourage him, have very high expectations of him and hold him accountable.