Documentary 'American Promise' examines hurdles faced by black students


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Stacy Summers doesn't feel comfortable around "white folks," but she expects more of her son.

This is just one of the reasons she enrolled her son, Seun, in The Dalton School, a predominately white, independent school in Manhattan's Upper East Side.

In "American Promise," film producers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson document the life of their son, Idris, and his friend, Seun, as the Brooklyn boys attend Dalton. It will be broadcast nationwide on PBS early next year.

On Thursday, the Heinz Endowments hosted a screening of the film and a panel at the August Wilson Center, Downtown, where the two families and local educators discussed the issues highlighted in the documentary and their potential solutions before an audience of roughly 500.

The screening was delayed as Heinz Endowments facilitators awaited the arrival of two school buses filled with college mentors and their high school charges. The students were a part of the Black Male Leadership Development Institute, a group co-sponsored by the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh and Robert Morris University, that challenges students to "strive for academic excellence, civic responsibility and integrity."

"In my mind they're the reason why we're here," said Carmen Anderson, chair of the Heinz Endowments' African American Men and Boys Task Force, as she explained the brief delay to the audience.

The screening began with Mrs. Stephenson's introduction of the film that she said she and her family has dedicated 14 years of their lives.

The audience watched as Idris and Seun struggled to co-exist with the mostly white students of the Dalton School. Issues of identity, equality and education created a tension in the audience that was only broken by the periods of laughter prompted by scenes that comically captured the boys' daily lives.

"Wow," responded a woman as the ending credits rolled.

"I think there are many things that we would do differently," Mrs. Stephenson said during the panel discussion that followed. "I'm very proud of my son and where he is today. I've grown, and I think that's what's important."

Moderator Chris Moore, a local TV and radio host, asked the panel: "[Do] you feel that this film provides an accurate assessment of the challenges that are faced by African- American students in the educational system?"

Panelist William Generett Jr., who is black and a graduate of the mostly white Shady Side Academy, said he could relate to the challenges that the boys faced.

"This brought back a lot of memories," he said, noting the feeling of isolation he felt at times. "I remember the pain."

In 1989, the school held its prom at a country club that didn't allows blacks. While he was granted an exception, he decided not to attend.

After graduation, Mr. Generett attended Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta.

"That's what I needed, in many ways, to heal," he recalled. An attorney, he is now president and CEO of Urban Innovation21.

In one scene in the movie, Idris and his black friends were repeatedly refused cab service in Manhattan. "Did you ever try to catch a cab in Fox Chapel?" Mr. Moore joked afterward.

The audience broke out in laughter.

"It's more than just a film," said Mrs. Stephenson. "Our goal is to empower educators, parents and youth in their own work toward equity in education."

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Antoine Allen: aallen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1723.


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