American Promise is an intimate and provocative account, recorded over 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. The Dalton School had made a commitment to recruit students of color, and five-year-old best friends Idris Brewster and Oluwaseun (Seun) Summers of Brooklyn were two of the gifted children who were admitted. The boys were placed in a demanding environment that provided new opportunities and challenges, if little reflection of their cultural identities.
Idris’ parents, Joe, a Harvard- and Stanford-trained psychiatrist, and Michèle, a Columbia Law School graduate and filmmaker, decided to film the boys’ progress starting in 1999. They and members of the large Summers family soon found themselves struggling not only with kids’ typical growing pains and the kinds of racial issues one might expect, but also with surprising class, gender and generational gaps. American Promise, which traces the boys’ journey from kindergarten through high school graduation, finds the greatest challenge for the families–and perhaps the country–is to close the black male educational achievement gap, which has been called “the civil rights crusade of the 21st century.”
The Dalton School, which provides classes from kindergarten through high school, is a launching pad for success, but also a high-pressure learning environment for all its students. Joe and Michèle, along with Seun’s parents, Tony, a systems engineer for CBS, and Stacey, a nursing care manager for elder health, have worked hard to build their careers despite early disadvantages and are united in their drive to have their sons succeed at school and in life. 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.
Idris and Seun are bright, playful boys. Idris is outgoing, while Seun is a bit shy. At school, the boys begin to see the differences between themselves and their classmates. The very young Seun is found trying to brush the color out of his gums because, as he explains, some people say that “black is ugly.” Idris, an enthusiastic basketball player at school and in the neighborhood, finds that the way he is comfortable speaking at home and in school is mocked by other black kids as “talking white.” As puberty looms, Idris feels a distinct disadvantage when he is turned down for dates and suspects that race must be the reason. He asks his parents an innocent, heartbreaking question: “Isn’t it better if I were white?” Along with getting good (and not so good) grades, both boys begin to have emotional and academic problems that confound parents and teachers alike.
Seun’s father, Tony, sheds a humorous light on the situation when he recalls being the only black kid in an all-white class. When the class learned the story of Harriet Tubman, the students turned around and looked at him in unison. At a meeting, the African-American parents of Dalton sixth graders find that their boys are being tracked into special tutoring programs, which may, inadvertently, reinforce some of the root causes of the black male achievement gap.
It soon becomes clear that the situation with Idris, Seun and the others is not as straightforward as simply reflecting the disparities between blacks and whites in America. African-American girls at Dalton and in similar educational settings regularly outperform their male peers, a gender disparity that baffles parents and teachers. Certainly the boys spend a lot of energy on sports, upon which their parents place great emphasis. Idris, nursing dreams of a basketball career–improbable, given his modest height–experiences wins and losses on the school court. Seun is diagnosed with dyslexia and Idris with ADHD, conditions that are widespread among American children and adolescents of all backgrounds.
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. American Promise is especially revelatory in showing how the fight to succeed hits home in these two black families. The parents are often frustrated by what they see as their sons’ relative lack of drive, compared to their own experiences.
The boys’ paths then diverge. Upon graduating middle school, Seun leaves Dalton to attend the mostly black Benjamin Banneker Academy, a public high school in Brooklyn, where he thrives, traveling to West Africa with his school’s Africa Tours Club and setting his sights on a career in graphic design (to his parents’ consternation). Idris stays at Dalton through high school, but is disappointed when he doesn’t get into Stanford, his dad’s alma mater. Now dating a girl he adores, he is accepted into Occidental College in California and exuberantly comes to see that what seemed a setback is just another challenge to overcome. Even Joe, the Stanford and Harvard graduate who admits that he has at times been too hard on Idris, accepts that there are roads to success that don’t run straight through the Ivy League. Seun gets into the State University of New York, Fredonia, where he will study graphic arts, and his parents, too, realize there are many paths to success and happiness.
The ins and outs of familial relationships, as parents push for success and boys struggle to find their own identities, plus the challenges and tragedies that life brings, such as Stacey’s colon cancer and the accidental death of Seun’s beloved younger brother, form much of the drama of American Promise. At stake, beyond the challenges of being white or black in America, is the meaning of success in our country. “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,” says co-director and co-producer Michèle Stephenson. “We hope American Promise shines a light on these issues.”
“Our goal is to empower boys, their parents and educators to pursue educational opportunities, especially to help close the black male achievement gap,” adds her husband and filmmaking partner, Joe Brewster.