February 14, 2014

Black is the New Black

So it’s Black history month. I want to focus on two documentaries which had their premieres on PBS this month – American Promise and The Prep School NegroI had the fortune of seeing both documentaries in Philadelphia before they hit PBS.  I saw American Promise in the theater this past November, after being unable to find it showing ANYWHERE in the state of Arizona (which is another blog post all together).  I saw The Prep School Negro in an earlier incarnation with the director at an event sponsored by the Arts Sanctuary.  I highly recommend both films, not just to Black folk trying to raise sons, but to every educator who thinks they understand their students, think they are “progressive,” think that they are being genuine when they present the false concept of being “color blind” or living in a “post racial America.”

The film American Promise centers on the lives of two young Black boys, Idris and Seun who attend the prestigious Dalton School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  At the end of their eighth grade year Seun transfers to a predominantly Black charter school while Idris continues to matriculate through Dalton to graduation.  The film is directed by Idris’ parents who are not afraid to show all their warts in the film.  Some have criticized them for being “helicopter parents” or for being “tiger parents.” I find judging parenting styles extremely problematic, especially when they are positively looking out for the best interest of their child.  

In The Prep School Negro, Andre Robert Lee reflects on his experiences at another prestigious independent school, Germantown Friends (GFS) in Philadelphia.  Unlike Idris and Seun, Andre received a scholarship to attend the school through a special fund created by the school to increase minority enrollment.  Another difference is that Andre attended GFS just for high school, thus accelerating his need for acclimation into a different world.  Rather than growing up around diversity (i.e. White folk), and high academic
expectations, Andre grew up in what he describes at the “ghetto” in Philadelphia.  Ironically in the film, he seemed to be ostracized more at home than at GFS, where he seems to outwardly adjust quickly.

I want to explore three common themes from these two films. Early in American Promise, one of the administrators at Dalton expressed that both Idris and Seun were bright, sensitive and curious. They also expressed that the school promotes a sense of self-esteem and nurturing a “voice” in each child.  One of the critiques of urban public schools is that they mirror the prison system and prepare students not for a world in which they are allowed to be “independent thinkers” but rather “cogs in the machine.”  Is this intentional?  Is it structural/institutional?  Perhaps. Imagine if urban public schools truly sought to explore and nurture the inner “voice” in each student.  What would that look like?  How would their experiences be different?

Another commonality is that all three of these students experience explicitly what Du Bois called “double consciousness” – a sense of living in two worlds, one Black and one White.  What has always been problematic to me is the definitions of these two worlds.  I doubt Du Bois would argue that living in a “Black” world would consist of loose fitting pants, speaking in a particular slang, and listening to hip-hop.  In fact, those very descriptors are problematic to not just Black folk, but many Whites as well. Ironically many teens of varying ethnicities, genders and races have co-opted that particular self-representation.  Do we, as Black people, define Blackness as a checklist of characteristics and exclude people like a bouncer at a velvet rope if certain folk don’t fit?  Or do we allow for a diversity of perspectives, opinions, musical taste, clothing options (which include cardigans which were discussed in American Promise in a funny scene between Idris and Seun)?  Identity, regardless of what age, gender or race/ethnicity is a tenuous, difficult process which should not ever be broken down into its most simplistic parts.  It should be allowed to be messy, confusing and public.

Finally, what do these three “gain” from going to Dalton and GFS?  Have they discovered a key to unlock racism?  Do they know how to navigate the world as it is a bit better?  Can they code switch a bit more effectively?  Were these the desired goals of their parents when they sent their children off into this “new world?” In my own experiences in Independent schools I can attest that the “cultural disconnect” articulated in both films is real. I think it takes a strong individual to be able to be rejected from their “home community” (as I have been for decades) and at the same time not feel completely adopted by their “new community.”  I call it being without a “home.”  This is a confusing paradox.  On one hand I appreciate my ability to be able to relate to and interact with those in tuxedos and gowns at night while working in partnership with the community during the day, but there is still a certain...longing to completely belong? What gets consistently challenged, by, myself most importantly but others as well, is which "me" is the authentic self? While there are some physical markers which indicate a particular race, gender and the like, once children who grow up in Independent schools and other types of mixed environments enter a world in which they are supposed to perform race in a particular way, they are oftentimes at odds, internally and externally.

In the end, what is the real purpose of education?  To achieve intellectual proficiency, social integration, identity development, or conformity? 

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