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Promises Kept Book Excerpt

Excerpt from the new book Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life by Joe Brewster, M.D., and Michèle Stephenson with Hilary Beard.

About this Book


In this book we will share what we learned along our journey that helped us to support our son in fulfilling his promise. We also reached out to more than sixty of most accomplished researchers in the nation, experts who are performing cutting-edge studies on a wide variety of issues that impact the intellectual, social, and emotional well-being of black boys. Indeed, a lot is known about how to create an environment in which black males will succeed. Within these pages we set forth ten parenting and educational strategies that researchers have discovered can assist parents, educators, and other members of their proverbial "Village"—aunties, uncles, neighbors, coaches, youth leaders, faith leaders, and others—help black boys become the happy, healthy, well-educated, well-developed people they are capable of being. These ideas are intended to address both the achievement gaps captured by official government assessments such as the Nation's Report Card and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) but also some of the gaps that lie beneath these gaps.

We share these strategies through the lens of our personal experiences raising Idris and Miles and through the stories of other black parents and boys from many different backgrounds, including Tony, Stacey, and Seun. To protect their privacy, we have masked the identifying characteristics of most of these parents and children, except in the final chapter, where some activists and advocates asked us to use their real names. For similar reasons we do not include the names of the educators who have shared the joys, challenges, and heartbreaks they've experienced while teaching and co-parenting our sons. We do, however, credit the many academic and medical experts whose research and ideas have informed the strategies. Importantly, although they strongly impact the outcomes of black children's lives, we will not delve into the social, political, economic or historical factors that have resulted in unearned privilege for some and unearned disadvantage for others, including depressed black male achievement. Experts ranging from Michelle Alexander, to Lisa Delpit, to Asa Hilliard III, to Jonathan Kozlow, to Carter Woodson and some of the scholars we've interviewed can do a far better job of shedding light on these topics than we can. We encourage you to educate yourself.

american-promise

To our surprise, even before we finished writing Promises Kept, we started to receive feedback about it. A lot of folks wanted to swap horror stories, but three concerns surfaced repeatedly:

  • Why were we writing a book about black boys when black girls are struggling also?
  • Why were we writing a book only about black boys when boys of all races and backgrounds are in crisis?
  • And why were we airing black people's and Dalton's "dirty laundry" in an era when our nation has elected a black male as president—not once but twice—and the school has been so progressive?

In response, we say that we hope that Promises Kept helps improve the lives of all children, but in our household we are raising black males. The questions we asked, the information we gathered, and the advocacy in which we engaged pertains directly to our sons. That said, many of the ideas we share transcend race, gender, and color. We encourage you to apply whatever seems relevant to your own experience, no matter the background of the child you are parenting or teaching. When possible, we include information about black girls (whose well-being is closely intertwined with that of their brothers), and Latinos, who often face similar challenges that black boys do (also, through Michèle's ancestry, Idris and Miles have Panamanian heritage). In the few instances where data include mixed-race children, we report it, although children of many backgrounds can be classified as mixed-race. And while we don't buy into the stereotype of Asians as a "model minority," in certain areas Asian children set the performance standard. When it makes sense and the data are available we include them in the statistics.

What about the question of dirty laundry? The Dalton School has provided our son with an amazing education, has been a forerunner in providing a diverse independent-school education—today the number of students of color at the school has significantly increased since Idris started kindergarten—and were very generous to allow us to film at the school, although as with everyone else, there were times they backed out. No institution is perfect, and Dalton, with its tremendous resources and emphasis on critical thinking, has a great capacity to absorb, benefit, and grow from the critique they receive from us. In fact, Dalton still has a lot of growing to do. While it is critical—especially as the nation's racial demographics are changing—that independent schools increase the number of diverse students they educate, that is only the first step.

Particularly in elite schools such as Dalton, but also in our public schools, deeper conversations need to occur with parents of all backgrounds, not just the parents of color whose children are entering predominately white environments. White parents need to understand that diversity is not a one-way street; diversity benefits their children as well. And schools need to advance beyond entry-level activities such as celebrating our respective heritages. School leaders should be encouraging critical thinking and the unpacking of issues such as white privilege, the impact that stereotypes and racial bias have on children of all backgrounds, and the important role that affirmative action plays (especially come college application time)—and not just with the students, but with parents and faculty also. These are difficult conversations, but it's an integral part of reducing the racial achievement gap for students who go this route.

At the same time, more than a few middle-class and affluent black parents have worried aloud to us that drawing connections between their sons and lower-income black boys may cause their sons to experience more stigma than they already face. Indeed, we have encountered a surprising amount of resistance from middle-class black parents, many of whom hope or believe that their socioeconomic status, education, good job, great schools, and nice neighborhood can insulate their sons from the structural and systemic difficulties plaguing other black males. And they are probably right to a certain degree, but as we discovered firsthand—and as the experts that we cite throughout the book attest—this is largely wishful thinking.

"It's not just poor black boys who are having problems, it's black boys," says developmental psychologist Aisha Ray, senior vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development located in Chicago.

In fact, we've concluded that parental denial is one of the greatest risk factors facing middle-class and affluent black boys—and we admit that we suffered from it.

"It's a horrible head game we're playing," Atlanta-based sociologist Adria Welcher put it. "There are not enough markers that you can possess that will make a predominately white, affluent community welcoming of too many of you, even if you're the highest of the high income."

Well said.

And the truth is, Barack Obama may be in the White House, but most black middle-class parents we talk to eventually confess to being worried about something that's going on with their boy. As one suburban Atlanta father told us: "Our daughters are doing well in school, going on to college, and being successful in their lives. But black DeKalb County's secret lament is, 'What's happening to our sons?' "

Even though they are still children with immature and still developing intellectual, emotional, and social selves our sons are not merely the victims that we may want to portray; they are active participants in life who make choices. At one point or another, some do behave in ways that Dr. Noguera says can "make them complicit in their own failure." For instance, Dr. Welcher told us about black boys who had grown up in suburban McMansions but had internalized a criminal identity from the media—and were breaking into their neighbors' homes.

We hope that by making ourselves vulnerable and by being transparent, we will spark a fresh, frank, and thoughtful conversation about race and gender that doesn't cast aspersions, play the "race card," manipulate (or avoid) guilty feelings, recycle played-out platitudes, or conform to worn-out social conventions. Some of the ideas we share may feel unfamiliar to people who aren't black or of color; people who may not engage in such discussions often; folks who may not even see themselves as a member of a racial group; or those who may not have realized that they experience racial, cultural, or skin-color privilege, for instance. Still, enough nonblack educators have told us that they want to become more effective in educating diverse children. So we feel very optimistic about the prospects honest dialogue holds.

As one white school psychologist told us, "At my school we are just starting to talk about these types of things. We have more diverse students than we have had in the past, and I haven't always known how to handle the issues that come up. I want to do a better job." We believe that she speaks for many.

Embracing Change


Joe's training as a psychiatrist tells us that if we talk about uncomfortable topics, step outside our comfort zones, quit worrying about what others will think about us, and use guilt to motivate ourselves rather than paralyze ourselves, we can grow and overcome being stuck. On many different occasions, the truths that we have had to face about ourselves, our sons, our family, our approach to parenting, our educational system, our community, American society, and our world have made us very uncomfortable. But we're learning and growing from them in a way that helps us to advocate not just for our own black boys but for other people's children as well.

Knowing how much we have grown makes us feel very optimistic about the amount of change that we can achieve collectively. Change is extremely difficult, of course, and it is best undertaken as the maxim describes: one bite at a time. We should expect to encounter resistance—you may resist, your son will definitely resist, his Village will resist, society will resist. Resistance, opposition, and even haters are all part of the change process. Human beings are wired to embrace ideas that feel comfortable and familiar and resist those that require change or extra effort. However, that we live under the gravitational pull of a certain world view doesn't mean that we shouldn't jump from time to time or attempt to build an airplane, space shuttle, or some new way of catapulting ourselves into a universe of undiscovered ideas, possibilities, and solutions.

At the ETS conference, Dr. Barbarin informed the audience that although "black boys respond more negatively and have greater deficits when environments are poor and deficient, when those environments improve they show the greatest gains. If we improve things for them we improve them for everyone."

Consistent with this, we think that it's time to stop thinking of black males as a problem and instead start seeing them as solutions to many of the challenges America faces. Rather than only seeing them as being "at risk," we think we need to see more of their promise.

We hope that you learn something in Promises Kept that helps you enhance a black boy's environment, whether you are a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a school superintendent, a coach, a faith leader, a tutor, the head of a nonprofit, a social service provider, or the president of a corporation. Together we can improve the life trajectories of many children and help them unleash their potential to transform our world.

From Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life, by Joe Brewster, M.D., and Michèle Stephenson with Hilary Beard, © 2014 by Joe Brewster, M.D., and Michèle Stephenson with Hilary Beard. Reprinted with permission from the author and Spiegel & Grau. www.randomhouse.com





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