If the first two episodes are any indication, this is going to be a powerful, dramatic, raw, honest look at this thing we call “race” and how we white folks believe the myth of “equality”. Having watched both “What’s the Big Deal About Oak Park?” (episode 1) and “Stranger in a Room” (episode 2), I am struck by the potency of the real-life stories.
One of the lines that sticks out in my memory is from the first episode (repeated in the second) and spoken by then Assistant Principal Challa Holland about how the school is failing the kids. One of the reasons that resonates with me is that I believe part of the focus of the documentary is on racial inequities and the achievement gap, a point made clear by several charts in episode 1. It isn’t the kids that are failing – we are the ones failing. The irony is thick, and very sad.
I started to follow Kevin Shaw on Twitter, and it seems like he constantly asks folks what their take-aways are. Here is my response.
– Relationships are crucially fundamental to success and maturity
A good chunk of episode two is devoted to two language arts programs, one being the amazing spoken word club, and the other a much-needed reading program with a forward-looking, upbeat growth mindset. In both cases, it becomes evident that a sense of community engenders success and achievement. English teacher Jess Stovall exemplified how important this truth is to her via her actions and words as well. I am reminded of Lisa Delpit’s tribute to an Alaskan Native in her “Other People’s Children” book: “In order to teach you, I must know you.” Everyone has a story, and usually we only read the back cover. And yet because relationships tend to be inefficient, slow and flat-out hard, we tend to prioritize other quick fixes.
– Good intentions can sometimes be damn oppressive
Near the bottom of the AmericaToMeRealTalk website organizer page, there are links to further “Raise your awareness”. One of those references a paper by Dr. Robin DiAngelo entitled “White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement“. White fragility is new to me but it totally makes sense. My take away: this is why white people can’t handle the angry black man – worse, whites just don’t get it at all. White people just want everyone to be happy and get along. It makes me wonder, what pushed out a passionate, student-centric administrator like Challa Holland?
– White people don’t understand what systemic racism, institutional prejudice and racial inequalities really are
And yet black folks live it. And others, for sure.
I think, and I could be wrong about this, but maybe the intended audience of this documentary is the dominant majority – the ruling class with all the authority. The Spoken Word club is such a magnificent response because it gives a voice to those are otherwise mute, figuratively speaking. Another amazing aspect of the documentary (so far) is that we get to see some heroic adults who intuitively perceive that the decks are not “equal” by any means. These teachers, parents and staff members are fighting for the kids.
But the backdrop is much darker. There is a story about a mom reliving her short tenure in ’94; she tells the story of a teacher who refused to teach because the students weren’t going to learn anyway, and later another story about being abruptly kicked out of school. One staff person talking about the expectation of acting a certain way, and accounts from the security guards and what they have to endure.
– Let America Be America Again
As I was preparing for the first episode, my brother-in-law pointed out that the title comes from Langston Hughes. I had no clue, and no recollection ever reading it before, so thanks again to http://www.americatomerealtalk.com I found his poem.
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine — the poor man’s, Indian’s,
Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Where to go from here?
I am reaching out to others in my area in an effort to start a conversation about this. I don’t know if I am doing it all wrong or not, but I feel compelled to do something. I have also reached out to local educators. I am grateful that we have some amazing people in Unit 4 who have been doing “real talks” and racial/cultural awareness for quite some time already.
There is too much violence, too much greed, too much oppression, too much harassment.
Kudos to folks like Kevin Shaw (@KevinShaw23) and Steve James and all the other folks who worked so hard to produce a high quality look under the racial covers at a modern high school. Thank you for enlightening us. Thank you for provoking and challenging us. May we take your warnings to heart and invest better in our kids.