What is this “America to me” documentary you write about?

A reader has asked me a couple times for more details about the context of #AmericaToMe, so I am going to use this post to answer those questions.

 

1. What is it?

Basically, “America to me” (#AmericaToMe) is a 10-part documentary series (some say docu-series or docuseries) about the perspectives of students and staff at Oak Park & River Forest High School, a suburban Chicago school situated in a town and community that prides itself on diversity. The series focuses mostly on 10 students (mostly African-American, some Latino, some White, some multi-ethnic or bi-racial) and tells their stories, including other family members, their friends and teachers. The series focuses on race, diversity, and “equality” (quotes because the idea of equality is questioned). From the website:
“Academy Award nominated filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) examines racial, economic and class issues in contemporary American education in the multipart unscripted documentary series “America to Me.””

 

2. Where can I watch it?

Right now, I believe the only way to view it directly is via STARZ, and any streaming platform that supports STARZ (ie, Amazon Prime). You can get a free 7-day trial of STARZ, or pay a $8.99/month subscription. Alternatively, you can go find someone else that is watching it and watch it with them. To date, I have only found one venue in the Champaign area that is a planning a public screening; the details are still being worked out, but keep 2:00 pm, September 26th open. STARZ releases one episode per week – Episode 4 was released last Saturday (Sept 8), Episode 5 should be available this coming Saturday (Sept 15).

 

3. Why watch it?

This is a critical question. Overall, we still struggle with issues of racial tension, and I believe we still have systemic/institutional racism that is detrimental to the success of some members of society. The title of the film is based on a Langston Hughes poem, as referenced in my first post on this series – I agree that America today is not the land of the free. But it can be. I see the documentary being exceptionally relevant for two reasons:

  1. The title of the first episode is “What’s so special about Oak Park?” In some ways, the whole point is that this could be Anywhere, USA (as confirmed during an interview with filmmaker Kevin Shaw). We have similar issues here in Champaign.
  2. It seems that the documentary takes pains to highlight the impact of teachers (and to a lesser extent, I think, administrators). I believe it really comes down to building relationships – for some of us (looking at white people here), that means recognizing the baggage we bring to the table with us, most of which we may take for granted.

I see the documentary as a conversation-starter.

 

4. How do I catch up and join the conversation?

Perhaps the first place to start is with https://www.americatomerealtalk.com. You can also find many folks posting in social media – I happen to follow the #AmericaToMe twitter hashtag (which is overloaded, meaning people have started using that hashtag for other things), and have seen several links for online magazines, newspapers, tv and radio stations that run segments based on the documentary.

Advertisements

#AmericaToMe : Part 2

Right off the bat, my two take-aways are (briefly):

  1. White people really don’t understand what blacks (or other minorities) are going through
  2. What do I do about this? (And coming up with an answer is not a further obligatory responsibility to weigh down the black person with)

 

I watched episodes 3 (“There is no pain that compares to the struggle”) and 4 (“There’s nothing funny about Race!”).

 

Episode 3 is titled after a line in then-senior Kendale McCoy’s poem; a personal story about how his life could have taken a much different turn as he grew up with troubled parents, but his life now is “dope”, raised by his mother’s aunt and uncle. I think that line was chosen to highlight the daily struggles (pain) black folks go through as they journey in a white dominant majority environment. Later in episode 4, Ke’Shawn laughingly jokes about how he got in trouble “walking while black”, a reference to any number of racial profiling examples with perhaps the most infamous one being “driving while black.” That a teenager can make a devastatingly apropos joke about that tells me how messed up things really are. Another aspect is the attempt by several faculty to bring racial and cultural awareness to a higher level within the administration and they are met with “white male silence.”

Episode 4 might be highlighted by a physic teacher’s (Aaron Podolner) attempt to build rapport with a couple black students, whereby he shares his memoir on racial experiences; the student’s responses are quite polarized, with one (Charles) laughing and saying he has no problem with race, while the other (Jada) pointedly chastises Charles and Aaron.

On some level, I feel I can somewhat relate to Mr. Podolner – here you have a white guy who puts himself in front of the camera and thereby judged by everyone. He thinks he is doing the right thing, and at least he is trying to be different than “other white people.” But I had to cringe during his exchange with co-teacher Jess Stovall in episode 4, when Aaron falls into the pitfall of saying he “understands” the black experience – you can almost hear Jess, who grew up bi-racial in a practically all white Wisconsin town, say “wait, WTF did you just say?” but instead her response is much more gracious and she inquires how he understands.
In episode 3, Glenn E. Singleton, founder of the Pacific Educational Group, said of white liberal people “[their] liberalism only goes so far until it challenges their situation personally.” “And that is what you have at OPRF.” It is obvious that this statement applies to the white males in power within the administration. I am curious, how does it apply to folks like Podolner, or Peter Kahn of the Spoken Word Club, or football coach John Hoerster? How does it apply to me? Is liberalism really that sacrosanct in the first place? (Note I ask because I believe Mr. Singleton is correct, but I have yet to understand how, like an ocean lapping up on a beach, liberalism goes so far until.)

 

What really boggles my mind about these “America to me” stories is how much pressure these kids, their parents, and their teachers are under. I recall Behavior Interventionist Michael Byars, and how it seems like he is one of the better things going on in Ke’Shawn’s educational experience (aside from Jess Stovall), a model of respect and mentoring – and yet Mr. Byars tells us that Ke’Shawn has been told not to talk to him.

 

On a more local level, for those that are familiar with Unit 4, I invite you to participate in a simple experiment. There were two board meetings back in April, one on April 9th and one two weeks later on April 23rd. In both we have a presentation by African-Americans, both basically putting forth ideas (really amazing, neat, fascinating ideas) for ways to address the achievement gap and racial disparities. And yet the environment in which these two presentations were made are radically different. Your task is to comment on the differences:

 

There are some really amazing things happening in Unit 4 right now, especially in regards to cultural awareness and addressing racial issues; from initiatives like Restorative Justice and A.C.T.I.O.N.S, to student-led R.I.S.E and “real talks” (mentioned in comments for the first post), to efforts to hire minorities and women, and further, programs like Operation Hope, Lead for Life, and other excellent partnerships. What is hindering the needle on the achievement gap from moving faster? Why is there still a significant racial disparity in discipline? And I have to ask myself, what is my role in answering those questions?