Being a student is a hard enough task on its own. Put aside the toil of maintaining good grades, and you are left with the inevitable adolescent social obstacles of peer pressure, fitting in and trying to be cool. But what happens when juggling classes and extracurricular activities becomes the least of your worries and, instead, you find yourself confronting issues of race and discrimination in the classroom?
American Promise is a captivating documentary, 13 years in the making, that tackles these issues. It follows the schooling of two middle class African American boys, Idris and Seun, and aims to understand the root causes of the Black male achievement gap. The filmmakers (parents of Idris) create an exigency for action by emphasizing how “only one of out every four African American boys will graduate from high school.” The students, teachers and administration are familiar with the facts and figures; however, there are misunderstandings about why, exactly, this is happening or where the disconnect between African American boys and achievement occurs.
The film challenges the notion that the gap is merely about opportunity or resources. As we see in the film, both boys routinely struggle to perform on the same level as their White peers, despite relative economic stability. Idris and Seun have access to a prestigious private school education that many African American young males do not, yet they still face many academic and personal challenges in their years at The Dalton School. Race looms as a part of interconnected struggles in the boys’ lives. Young Idris appears to fight an ongoing battle with his Black identity. When his father asks if race is an issue, Idris shakes his head and replies, “No, it’s never an issue.” However, in another scene he asks, “Isn’t it better if I were white?”
The film highlights a complex contradiction: While access to a prestigious education may promote heightened academic achievement, the cultural dissociation caused by isolation may also cause ruptures within a community. The boys often experience conflicting pressures, such as when parents and teachers praise them for their excellent grasp of English grammar, while friends and teammates from their Brooklyn neighborhood ostracize them for their perceived difference. These contradictory opinions create even more individual confusion.
American Promise is slated for release this month in New York, and New Yorkers, especially, can take a lot from this documentary. It is not solely about opening doors; it is about hard work, persistence and drive. We must demand better, more equitable schools and mobilize all actors–students, parents, educators, community leaders–to become proactive in narrowing the achievement gap. I propose we start now.
by Qi Xu