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'American Promise' Probes Race Issues In NYC Private School

Two families are featured in <em>American Promise</em>: Tony and Stacey Summers (left) stand next to their son, Seun. Filmmakers Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster are with sons Idris and Miles (right).
Larry Busacca
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Two families are featured in American Promise: Tony and Stacey Summers (left) stand next to their son, Seun. Filmmakers Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster are with sons Idris and Miles (right).

Monday evening, PBS will air American Promise, a documentary that traces the lives of two African-American students for 13 years. They both enroll as kindergarteners at The Dalton School, an elite private day school in New York City that says it's making a commitment to diversity.

In the beginning of American Promise, filmmakers Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster set out to chronicle the complete pre-collegiate education of their son Idris and his best friend, Seun Summers. But as time goes on, things become complicated.

Seun's father, Tony Summers, worries about Dalton's ethnic composition — it's about 75 percent white.

"I've been the only black child in the classroom," says Tony. "Wasn't a pleasant thing back then."

He hopes time has changed that — and as the film shows, in some ways, it has. In the early grades, both Idris and Seun did well and enjoyed school. Interviewed at age 5, Seun appeared delighted to be at Dalton.

"I love being at Dalton because it's my favorite school now, and it's always my best school, and I love it there," he said then.

But just a few years later, Seun is no longer thrilled about attending Dalton.

"I hate school," he said. "It's bad, it's hard and I'm in the sixth grade."

So what happened in between? For one thing, explains a Dalton administrator, expectations increased.

As the film progresses, we see it's not just academics that can be challenging, but issues of race and class. In a candid conversation with his dad, a Harvard and Stanford-educated psychiatrist, Idris asks a devastating question.

"I bet if I were white, I'd be better off," says Idris. "Isn't that true?"

Idris is treading a fine line between two vastly different communities — the one at Dalton, and the one in his neighborhood:

"Sometimes I change my voice, where I go, 'Hey, y'all, what's up,' " says Idris. "And I don't talk like I talk at Dalton so they won't make fun of me."

Two Paths

The boys' paths diverge in high school. Sean is very bright, but Dalton's academic demands and his learning style aren't a good match, says Libby Hixson, then head of the middle school.

"This is a high energy, fast turnover, a lot of volume, a lot of ownership," says Hixson. "A lot of things happening at the same time."

Seun transfers to Benjamin Banneker Academy, a mostly black public school devoted to demanding academics and cultural affirmation. Idris continues at Dalton.

Parents of the school's black sixth-grade boys gather at the Brewsters' house for mutual support. One ponders whether the trade-off they're making has other costs.

"We put our children in this environment, and if they are seeing this now, what perception are they having of themselves?" she asks. "Is this something that's going to help them in the future, or hinder them?"

That jury's still out. Filmmaker Michèle Stephenson says part of the reason she wanted to make American Promise was to correct what she says are implicit assumptions built around black boys.

"Around their ability to learn," says Stephenson, "around expectations and impressions of them being, perhaps, a little more dangerous than others."

Increasing diversity, she says, is a good but not final step.

"Diversity is not enough," she says. "There are biases that come along with that diversity that need to be unpacked and dismantled."

She turned the camera on her family and on the Summers so other black families might learn from their experiences.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.