NEW YORK–When Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster began filming their son Idris and his friend Seun at the start of the boys’ kindergarten year over 13 years ago, they thought they would make a charming personal history about two talented young boys coming of age. But the Brooklyn, New York-based filmmakers ended up with something very different—a disarmingly honest documentary that shows the complicated expectations that exist for black children, especially boys, in this country. American Promise will have its broadcast premiere on POV, the acclaimed documentary series aired on public television stations, on Monday, February 3rd.
“We conceived of this project as a celebration of diversity,” Joe says, “and over the course of more than fourteen years, while we do celebrate diversity, we began to understand that diversity is not enough. Over time, we began to focus on the plight of African-American boys. We began to see that some of their needs were different. And we wanted to address that. It’s sort of absurd, but the reality is, when you talk about African-American boys, you are hit with a barrage of statistics that are not quite hopeful.”
While making their documentary and raising their family, Michèle and Joe came to better understand the nuances of race and privilege in America, and how these factors influence education. Their hope was not merely to document their family’s experiences, but also to help change the broad and sometimes unconscious biases that affect students like Idris and Seun.
Over the course of the film, both Idris and Seun are challenged in school by teachers and peers. They struggle with homework, sports, and with fitting in to their school communities. Neither sails smoothly through the educational system. We see Michèle working closely with Idris on his schoolwork; sometimes she is encouraging, sometimes frustrated. “We have to be balanced in our approach to raising our boys,” she says. “We need to be able to counter the low level of expectations that exist out there for them by raising the bar, by being more demanding. But at the same time that we’re more demanding, we must also be more nurturing.”
Joe recommends reading to children for a half-hour each day; participating in summer programs; and maintaining a regular, thoughtful dialogue with your child. “Ask questions–open-ended questions–beginning when they’re two.”
Michèle and Joe also know that this dialogue should not shy away from the topic of race. “It’s very critical for us as parents to engage with our children in talking about race,” Michèle says. “Children to whom race is talked about in a way that’s open and age-appropriate actually do better in school and feel better about themselves because they have a way of analyzing the experiences that are happening.”
In addition, families should realize that their experiences rarely happen in isolation, and that there is support in community. In one poignant and illuminating scene from American Promise, a group of parents meets around a kitchen table to talk about their sons’ experience in school. “We know that if parents come together and talk about the issues that they’re having with their sons,” Joe says, “we can make a significant impact on this ‘problem.’”
Schools, too, must play a part. “In terms of what educators can do,” Michèle says, “it’s very important for there to be some kind of systematic, culturally responsive teacher training.” The educators in the documentary seem well-intentioned, though it does become evident that some are far more attuned to the issues around race, class, and privilege than others.
Spoiler alert: By the end of the film, Joe notes that “there’s hope for these boys. Through the pain, through the process of failure and getting up, there’s a way forward. What we do know now–what we didn’t know before–is that this is the process that you have to go through to raise healthy boys.”
The work Michèle and Joe are doing to better understand child development and encourage achievement and progress doesn’t stop with their film. They have authored a book with co-author Hilary Beard, Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life (out January 2014 from Random House), that serves as a companion.
“This film is just a starting point for a larger conversation around black male achievement,” Michèle says, “and how we as families, communities and teachers can really get our hands dirty and create positive change.”
Check http://www.pbs.org/pov/ for details about American Promise. If you miss the premiere Monday, February 3, PBS POV will be streaming the film on their site starting Feb 4.
To learn more about the film and the book, visit http://www.americanpromise.org
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Bill Hilliard, Docent for South Pasadena Historical Museum, Pasadena, CA