An American Promise is a 12-year longitudinal examination of the experiences of two African American boys from Brooklyn at an elite Manhattan prep school. The film provides a rare glimpse into the challenges faced by first generation middle class African American families as they try to provide the best education possible for their sons, and grapple with what that truly means.
Set amidst the backdrop of the racial achievement gap, when 60 percent of African American males do not graduate high school, and interlaced with interviews from urban sociologists, experts on race and child development, the film is an intimate examination of the issues – glaring and subtle – that face African American boys from their earliest experiences in school.
Beginning when the boys enter kindergarten at Manhattan’s renowned Dalton School in 1999, as the story unfolds and the kids grow up, we witness potent illustrations of factors underpinning the statistical evidence of a lag in educational success experienced by male youth of color. As four-year-olds, the boys struggle with their self-images and self-esteem among their mostly white classmates.
Both boys struggle with the demanding workload of an elite college preparatory school. One is diagnosed with dyslexia in the third grade. His parents wonder why it took so long for the school to identify this – their sons’ white classmates with dyslexia were diagnosed in first and second grade. Beginning in third grade, also, teachers insinuate that the other boy has ADHD, which hinders his ability to get organized and complete assignments on time. By fourth grade, one of the boys notices his classmates and teachers begin to treat him with apprehension as he begins to grow into a young black man, with all the cultural stigmas of stereotype attached.
By the end of middle school, one of the boys is asked to leave Dalton for academic reasons. He enters high school at Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development, a Brooklyn public high school with an Afro-Centric focus. The other boy enters the challenging high school program at the Dalton School. As their high school graduation in 2012 approaches, we witness how these divergent paths shape the boys’ educational philosophies, personalities, and plans for the future.
An American Promise examines how the boys adjust to the pressures and differences between school and home environments, and culture. The parents also deal with adjustments of their own—the demands of private school, the distance they have to travel, major illnesses and new additions to their families, and a school environment that is foreign to them that often makes them feel like outsiders. All of these issues boil down to simple, yet profound, questions that are central to An American Promise. As parents of color, what price must we pay to provide what society often deems is “best” for our children? What might these children lose or gain in order to get it? Through this 12-year process, the answers to these questions and more are grappled with and unfold before our eyes.