‘Isn’t it better if I were White?’

Felicia Haney | 2/5/2014, 12:13 p.m.
There are a host of issues with Black boys and how they’re fairing in our educational system.

See two families’ ‘point of view’ in a film focused on helping Black males achieve academic greatness

“All American families want to give their children the opportunity to succeed. But the truth is, opportunity is just the first step, particularly for families raising Black boys.” – Michéle Stephenson

There are a host of issues with Black boys and how they’re fairing in our educational system. The Cleveland Public School System is no exception to this rule. This desperate plea to close the achievement gap and help Black males to choose graduation over incarceration and diplomas over death bleeds outside the lines of Cuyahoga County. It’s an epidemic that sweeps our nation. Unfortunately, this is not breaking news. It’s what we oftentimes hear so frequently that it becomes the norm. But, what we don’t always hear about are the stories of those everyday Black boys who make it, who go on to be living examples and heroes in our communities. This week the Call & Post joins the efforts to celebrate Black Male Achievement Week in honor of such individuals and encourage our readers to make the same “American Promise.”

At 11 p.m. this past Monday, POV/PBS premiered the documentary “American Promise.” “‘American Promise’ is an intimate and provocative account, recorded through the course of 12 years, of the experiences of two middle-class African-American boys who entered a very prestigious – and historically white – private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.”

At the age of five, two Black boys and best friends from Brooklyn were admitted by The Dalton School, a K – 12, high-pressure learning environment that prides itself on being a launch pad for success. The school had made a commitment to recruit students of color. Idris Brewster and Oluwaseun (Seun) Summers were two of the gifted children who were admitted.

Although demanding, the environment provided new opportunities as well as challenges for the friends like dating, being teased for “talking White” and dealing with the fact that some people say “Black is ugly.”

Idris’ parents – Joe, a Harvard- and Stanford-trained psychiatrist, and Michèle, a Columbia Law School graduate and filmmaker – decided to film the boys’ journey back in 1999. They – along with Seun’s parents, Tony a systems engineer for CBS, and Stacey, a nursing care manager for elder health – and members of the large Summers family, soon found themselves struggling not only with the kids’ typical growing pains and the kinds of racial issues one might expect, but also with surprising class, gender and generational gaps.

The film traces the boys’ journey from kindergarteners all the way through their high school graduation. Along the way, the film finds the greatest challenge for the families – and maybe even perhaps the country – is to close the Black male educational achievement gap. This process has also been dubbed “the civil rights crusade of the 21st century.”

Joe and Michèle, along with Tony and Stacey have worked hard to build their careers despite early disadvantages. Like most parents, they are united in their drive to have their sons succeed at school and in life. For them, the film provides inspiration for other parents going through similar issues. Those people now see that they’re not alone.

But there are differences in outlook. Michèle, with Latino-Haitian roots, has some hesitation about sending Idris to private school, where she is afraid he will lose touch with his heritage, while Stacey, who hails from Trinidad, wants Seun to learn something she admits she hasn’t—how to be comfortable around White people. While both fathers have high expectations for their sons, Joe is particularly demanding, while Tony tends to be more forgiving of Seun’s ups and downs.

Both boys struggle with the weight of parental and school expectations, as any kid would, though for Idris and Seun, the weight might be even heavier prompting Idris to ask his parents an innocent, heartbreaking question: “Isn’t it better if I were white?”

The local PBS premiere of “American Promise” airs at 11 p.m. this Saturday, Feb. 8 with an encore showing at 4 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 9.