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E.M. Monroe

"I knew, not from memory, but from hope, that there were other models by which to live." Weems

Month

December 2013

On Black Boys in American History (Part 2)

Gentle, quiet, well-mannered black boys are unrecognizable actors in American history; instead, these children are most always fiendish brutes in the cultural imagination and reified as such in daily life. The attempted crucifixion of Brenton Butler exemplifies this unfortunate truth. On Sunday morning, May 7, 2000, a white woman was shot in the face by a black male assailant who ran off with her purse. The Jacksonville Police Department set out looking for a tall, skinny, black male wearing dark shorts and a fisherman’s cap. 15-year-old Butler, on his way to apply for a job at Blockbuster video was asked if he would come to the police station to answer a few questions, to which he agreed. Before reaching the station, police asked Mary Ann Stephens’s now widowed and traumatized husband, James Stephens, if he recognized the young man in the backseat of the police car as the shooter and he confirmed that it was. The documentary film, Murder on a Sunday Morning, follows the public defenders’ efforts to prove Butler’s innocence.

I rented this from iTunes but you can view the entire film on YouTube--though I cannot verify its quality.
I rented this from iTunes but you can view the entire film on YouTube–though I cannot verify its quality.

This poor child was beaten by at least one detective and compelled to sign a false confession by another. Once the police decided on Butler’s criminality, they gave up performing any real detective work. They did not attempt to verify Butler’s story by asking his parents or neighbors about his whereabouts; they never went to Blockbuster to verify Butler’s claim of applying for a job there; they never took fingerprints from the purse once it was discovered in a dumpster. All the police did was find this church going, bespectacled, quiet, disciplined black child and turned him into the black brute of American historical fantasy.

This case highlights the importance of teaching my son these lessons:

1.) Don’t confuse the state of Florida with a theme park. Thinking of Florida through the lens of Disney World, the “most magical place on earth,” won’t help you as much as knowing about the Rosewood Massacre (1923), the lynching of Rubin Stacy (1935), the fate of the Groveland Four (1949), the bombing that killed activist Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriette on Christmas night (1951), and other sinister happenings in the Sunshine State.

2.) It will be good to teach my son to recognize the exceptionally talented alto saxophonist, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, as a surprising sonic emergence in Florida’s music history in light of the fact that it was not until 2007 that its state’s song was changed from the minstrel song, “The Swanee River.”

3.) I will remind him to be careful about work and play in Florida. Searching for work in the morning may leave you handcuffed in prison for six months and leaving home for tea and a snack at half-time might get you killed at night.

To be continued…

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Models Monday: On Black Boys in American History (Part 1)

Though it is usually unwise to make broad, sweeping generalizations, I’m going to risk being foolhardy in making this claim about black boys in American history: It is impossible to mark a single decade in American history where your entry point into it remains unblemished by some gross injustice carried out against black boys; the Central Park Five marked mine. I don’t quite remember understanding the race and gender narratives involved, but the key terms that stood out for me were: wilding and Central Park jogger. In the years following the 1989 story of five black teenagers who where charged with raping a white jogger in Central Park, I read articles and bought books about the case. Earlier today, I finally watched the Ken Burns documentary about the miscarriage of justice against these boys most clearly demonstrated after Matias Reyes’s confession.

According to journalists interviewed in the film, neither the police nor the former district attorney for the case, could admit to their mistakes–or what I prefer to think of as their lies and their abuse of power. The documentary recalls the venom shamelessly directed at the accused without recognizing that the politicians calling for blood and the prominent citizens, like Donald Trump, who were calling for the return of the death penalty recalled the lynch mobs that formed whenever black boys or black men were accused of raping a white woman. While I found the film interesting in some ways, it was trite in its focus on this case as representing a discreet moment in American history. The story of the Central Park Five is the story of the Scottsboro boys (1931-1937), George Stinney (1944), The Groveland Boys (1949)Emmett Till (1955), James Hanover Thompson and David Simpson (1958), Bobby Hutton (1968), Jonathan and George Jackson (1970/1971). The tragedy of their stories make for engrossing, compelling drama, but what about the story of those who cried “crucify him?” To that end, The Central Park Five might have been more interesting if those same people who shamelessly called for blood and the death penalty were asked to reflect on how they understood themselves in relationship to this story in light of the truth. What is that story like? How does it sound?

In light of this history, here are some of the ground rules that I have established for contributing to my son’s view of himself as a free human being:

1.) When I can control it, I will not allow him to speak to figures of authority without my presence; thus, no police officers and no guidance counselors. These two forces have been detrimental to black boys (and girls, for that matter) flourishing. As long as my son is enrolled in compulsory education, I will make a note in his file that no guidance counselor is allowed to speak to him without one of his parent’s present. If he is ever taken to a police station for the very likely crimes of collecting the mail from our mailbox, using his key to enter our home, or buying clothes from any place other than Goodwill, I will teach him to say, “I would like to speak to my attorney.” I will prepare him to recognize all the tricks they will use to compel him to deny his own truth, be on his own side. I will teach him that they will tell him that calling for an attorney will only make him look more guilty; how they will tell him that if he’s innocent, there’s no need for an attorney.

2.) Just as I will tell my son to know his own name, his identity, I pledge to also know it. To most people, black boys are thugs and that includes the sweet boy that I know I have raised. If ever I recognize that my son is being represented to me as some vicious stereotype of black male identity, I will immediately plan for his escape from that environment.

3.) If my son tells me that someone in a position of authority is cruel to him, I will believe him and takeover. If he is in school, I will tell him to ask to visit the Principal’s Office so that he can call his parents.

4.) I will not allow my son to believe that some notion of “institutional prestige” is worth his life. Enrolling at The Dalton School, Harvard, or Yale, working at Salomon Brothers or at the Cleveland Clinic, and living along the contours of Central Park is not worth his dignity, integrity, sanity, or health.

5.) I will teach him that as far as he’s concerned, there is no right place or right time already made for him. Thus, I will encourage his creativity and his development of a rich interior life, for without this skill or this careful cultivation he might be without sanctuary.

To be continued…

Card and Cookies

Christmas Snow and Christmas Sunshine

Christmas at the Westside Market 2

One of my oldest and dearest friends sent me the photo above with the message, “Caroling and crepes at the Westside Market! What could be better?” It’s a good question.

While I can’t say that I miss Cleveland’s bone chilling cold, it’s a beautiful place to experience Christmas. There’s rarely snow in the South at Christmas time, as a former resident of The Land, I have fond memories of snow on Christmas morning, brunch with my family, opening presents with my cousins. Christmas’s at my house now are greatly informed by those fond memories. So today I’ll be making cornbread for the dressing I will bake tomorrow, boiling sweet potatoes for the ease of pealing them before roasting them in butter, vanilla, and brown sugar early the next day, and making gingerbread people with my son to leave as a token of our appreciation to Santa for his hard work.

Even though snow and cold weather make for slushy, messy traveling, they also provide the conditions that make you want to get closer to people, experience their warmth, and luxuriate in the coziness that you have made in defiance of the frosty elements. It’s more difficult to replicate the warmth of human connections when it’s sunny and near 50 degrees outside. So too, against these bright, warm, shiny days we must stop ourselves from granting the sun omnipotence to create the warmth that Northern winters urge humans to make themselves–together.

Models Monday: The Limits of Ideology

The Thinker, Auguste Rodin.
The Thinker, Auguste Rodin.

I used to dread going to many of my feminist theory or feminist themed classes; especially the graduate ones. While the course content could have been interesting, the classes were often filled with women, many of whom were well beyond their twenties, who asked questions like these: Can you enjoy baking cookies for your family and still be a feminist? Can you want to be married and still be a feminist? Can you wear makeup and be a feminist? Having to endure these simple worries and flighty concerns about living in the world with an oppositional conscience was indescribably painful. This foolishness has followed me beyond the classroom to conferences where women make comments like this one: “As I heard you speak about women hiding from the spotlight instead of claiming their authority and revealing their credentials, I decided to put my speaker’s badge on and to stop hiding [THUNDEROUS APPLAUSE].” Again, I was miserable.

For me, being a feminist means having an oppositional consciousness that enables you to understand how systems of power operate and to then utilize that understanding to confront normalizing ideologies concerning one’s identity so as to resist those systems in order to insist on having freedom and dignity as a human being. Currently, popular, media conversations regarding Beyonce’s latest album remind me of those foolish graduate school discussions. Whether or not Beyonce is really a feminist or if she actually teaches us something about being feminist is just so much nonsense to me. First off, in order to learn more about feminism that spoke to her own developing consciousness regarding empowerment, Beyonce does not claim to have read any books that might have helped her; too, she does not claim to have drawn on her experiences traveling abroad to shape her views; nor did she even claim the fine art, that so clearly influences her aesthetic, as influencing her understanding of feminism. Instead of drawing on her own life experiences as primary sources to define feminism, she conducted a YouTube search. Now, I’m not hatin’ on her for any of this; at least she wasn’t on YouTube trying to figure out how to build a bomb to murder people at church, a movie theater, a school, or a hospital. What I don’t understand is how you can have the resources to read, travel, experience art in its many forms and yet lack the ability to read your world and to create “other models by which to live.” Why wouldn’t it be prudent to actually use your experience of the actual world to inform your relationship to feminism and supplement those experiences with other sources?

I have known people who were so poorly educated that they never learned to read. But these same people were committed to living with dignity and integrity; too, they could tell you what made for a good life on their own terms. I don’t think any of these folk called themselves feminists but they lived out their understanding of how systems of domination operated in direct opposition to their desire to be free. To that end, I don’t think people, even public personalities, are required to explain what may look like inconsistency or account for what may appear to be at odds with one’s ideological stance. Depending on the situation, your ideological viewpoint may not accord with what circumstances demand. There are numerous accounts of black people who saw nonviolence as an effective tool for systemic change, but who also carried guns or accepted the protection of folk who toted guns–even Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the protection of armed black folk in Birmingham in the aftermath of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

When I was growing-up, people used to say, “sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.” This pronouncement acknowledges flux and change in life thereby suggesting that ideological positions cannot serve as an answer for all things, at all times, and in all situations. If you have to give yourself a name that describes your political stance, Rodin offers a good one “The Thinker.”

Captivity + Time = Mark 8:36

Mandela

I never thought that I would be spending so much time thinking about Nelson Mandela and whales, but I have been. In paying attention to the many commemorative magazine covers honoring him, what appeared more profound than his passing was the documentation of a black man with a raised fist living as long as he did [A view similar to the one Rosa Parks offered through her remarks upon the death of Robert F. Williams, and reported by Timothy Tyson, in contending that she was “delighted…to find herself at the funeral of a black leader who had died peacefully in his bed”].

The New Yorker commemorative cover.
Kadir Nelson, author of a children’s book about Mandela illustrated The New Yorker” commemorative cover.

Black men who raise their fists like this, in a suit and tie–not a football, basketball, or baseball uniform after a championship game–are not supposed to live to be 95. In the United States, unarmed black teens can’t carry Skittles and iced-tea in their hands and make it past 17; and just forget about unarmed black men experiencing their mid-twenties as they lie face down on a rapid transit platform making it home to their four-year-old daughters; and no Lord, don’t even consider an unarmed black man getting married and celebrating his three-year-old’s birthday in two weeks or experiencing the personality of his five-year-old child after being shot four times in the neck and torso. It’s hard as hell to become a 25-year-0ld black man in these United States. In this country, any white person who declares themselves dedicated to “the daily practice” of making it possible for a community to “live safely,” is free to kill black boys and black men long before they could dream about living to be 95-years-old! Trayvon Martin never saw the other side of 17; and for Oscar Grant and Sean Bell turning 23 and 24, respectively, wasn’t even an option.

South Africa’s apartheid government certainly meant to kill Nelson Mandela. Held captive on an island, forced into performing hard labor in a quarry, and permitted meager access to visitors for 18 years at Robben Island, 6 years at Pollsmoor Prison, and rounding out his final years at Victor Verster Prison, Nelson Mandela was supposed to die long before now.

130208172017-mandela-cell-robben-island-horizontal-gallery

As Marvin Gaye has said, "No, no baby, this ain't livin'//No, no, no"
As Marvin Gaye has said, “No, no baby, this ain’t livin’//No, no, no”

In reaching the age of 95, Mandela experienced the longevity that Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t even expect. I have been more surprised by the fact that Mandela lived as long as he did, than I am by the fact that he died. Captives aren’t supposed to flourish.

The Whale

“If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your well-being like the waves of the sea” (Isaiah 48:18). If we pay attention now, Lord, can we still have “peace flowing like a river?” Would that then compel us to set “the captives free?”

Peace is unlikely in captivity, but money flows from it “like a mighty stream.” For centuries, the desire for money has despicably trumped the desire for peace. This must be true because captivity has been and continues to be a habit of history–from sea to shining sea.

I don’t know how you can view a film like Blackfish and not connect it to this world’s routine theme of captivity. If you haven’t seen this film, I highly recommend it. I first learned of it through a review where the director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, cites Tim Zimmerman’s article “The Killer in the Pool” as her greatest influence. After watching Cowperthwaite’s film, it serves as the perfect visual accompaniment to Zimmerman’s article.

widemodern_blackfish_072213620x413
Follow this link to the official trailer for the film.

Though some have criticized this film for being a biased, unbalanced, and thus self-serving visual screed against SeaWorld, I don’t really understand why that even matters. There is no way that SeaWorld can deny that they put an animal that can weigh as much as 22,000 pounds, grow as long as 32 feet, and travel up to 100 miles a day, into the equivalent of a kiddie pool. This nonsense about “rescuing” and “rehabilitating” animals in the wild has long been a ridiculous claim to me. If whales get sick and die, that’s what happens to living things; that’s that circle of life stuff. Instead of “rehabilitating” animals, humans need training in minimizing their waste and polluting the environment.

Human rescue missions into the animal kingdom make me very suspicious. I lived in an apartment complex when I was in college that was very close to campus. I saw this girl, who also lived in the building, carrying a squirrel in her backpack; so I asked her about it. She told me that she “saved” this squirrel when it fell off a wire and its mother did nothing to help it. It wasn’t clear to me how she knew that the larger squirrel was the smaller one’s mother or how her intervention coincided with what the squirrel needed to learn on its own about city living. Domesticating wild animals echoes justifications of human captivity wherein “civilized” people declared that their intervention into the affairs of presumed “savages” equalled salvation. Rescue efforts coupled with captivity and domestication have never facilitated peace, but they have produced lots of money.

Recognizing enslavement as the urtext of SeaWorld’s tale of Shamu emerges prominently in the  way pods, or whale families, are disrupted when their babies are captured. Orcas form pods that may be as small as five whales or as great as 50 whales. They speak their own languages and form very close bonds. Once a baby Orca is captured and then released back into the wild, it is very, very difficult for those whales to ever find their pods and in the rare and unlikely chance that they do find them, reintegration becomes difficult if not impossible; basically, it’s the Orca version of Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery. 

Mandela and the Whale

Mandela overcame captivity, which is extraordinary, but captured Orcas tell the most likely tale of captivity: brutality, trauma, and death. SeaWorld has seen profits exceeding $500 million, but “what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)

Models Monday: Wishes

This is the season for wishing, so I’d like to offer a few of mine. I wish that history meant more to young people, growing up saturated with instant facts and data, to see history as being more than social media timelines. Technological “advancement” has elevated the significance of media and diminished the value of history. So many titles I read suggest that we’re living during a time when being an avatar in the media outweighs the ambition to be a subject in history.

Locating one’s self in history beyond a social media timeline asks that we value an engagement with our culture, the various stories comprising the legacy of this culture, and it means recognizing the significance of records left behind that assist efforts to understand where we currently stand in culture. Those records, letters, photographs, songs, and scrapbooks, for example, provide us with more than information, they offer sites of process. Such sites challenge the expected immediacy that social media encourages and elevates the value of contemplation and reflection; requirements needed for making meaning and knowledge.

This blog and my email are the only virtual sites where I offer personal reflections out loud. I don’t trust Twitter, FaceBook, Instagram and other profiling sources. If you value history, then you recognize the dangers and hazards of profiling for people of color; It’s terribly lethal.

When I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I don’t ever remember being raised to put much effort into creating an image of who I wanted to be; instead, I was encouraged to figure out who I actually was: What did I like? How did I like to spend my time? What unnerved me and what made me comfortable? Authentic living asked that you listen to stories about World War II, get lost in old photographs, learn the names and faces of people whose music did not, to my mind, in any way compare to the masterful music Michael Jackson put out.

As someone who’s very aware of raising a child in an era when virtual living seems to have diminished the value of tangible experience, I will make sure that my son listens to stories, examines photographs, discusses music. These activities helped me to value myself as a subject in history and shun efforts to build and to value my personal avatar. These activities also helped me better understand that public scripts of black life are far too limited, and that working on the substance of my identity taught me to craft my own meaning of a rich life.

Ultimately, I wish that everyone could experience the significance of these sites of process. Not only might they enhance your life, they might just extend it.

Models Monday: Fox Asks an Important Question

Flossie-and-the-Fox-9780803702509

Flossie & the Fox is a children’s story that I love and probably value even more because it came as a recommendation from my dear friend Carmen. I’ve written about Flossie on this blog several times because of the admiral traits that allow Flossie to complete the task her grandmother assigned her. I find it admiral that this story revises the story of Little Red Riding Hood through the depiction of a little black girl who finds meaning in her grandmother’s words and uses them to create a way of addressing a predator on the loose. This strategy demands that she not concede to the predator’s presumed authority to tell her who she is (afraid girl) and by what name she will be called (easy target). Given all that I love about Flossie, there is something that I also love about the Fox. At one point in the story, in response to Flossie’s refusal to accept that he is actually a fox, he asks, “Whatever are they teaching children these days? A child your age should be simply terrified of me” (I may be slightly paraphrasing the declarative sentence because I don’t have the book before me). As much as I want Flossie to prevail, in this moment, I stand beside Fox in asking this very relevant question: Whatever are they teaching children these days? 

My friends who work as college professors tell the most bizarre stories about how their students, who graduated from high schools with honors and accolades despite serious writing challenges and their lack of intellectual commitment to rigorously engaging subjects that presumably interest them. One of my friends told me that coherence is a concept that her students struggle with the most. In an effort to tackle this problem,  she writes in class with them on a topic they determine on the spot. The entire class contributes ideas, language, and examples to support their topic as it develops towards a claim. After composing this introduction, my friend said that she asks the students what was different about how they compose individually in relationship to what the group offered under her direction. As if singing a verse in rounds, her students said, “well, you actually think about what you write.” She then asked them what could they possibly be doing if in writing, they were not thinking; their response was to giggle. Whatever are they teaching children these days? 

I have another friend who works as a college professor who struggles to understand how students who are granted the opportunity to draft an essay multiple times, only to submit final essays with egregious, flagrant errors. Here are a few real life examples of (un)polished final revisions:

1. Violence in America has continued ever since they hung Emit Till from a tree.

2. This group put a president on allowing anyone to come to their school.

3. These beliefs crept into ignorant, poor blacks who didn’t know any better than to lust after money.

4. Her character showed that she preferred to abet in the betterment of the black race.

5. The 1960 Sanitation Workers Protest was about the health and safety of workers in factories.

Whatever are they teaching children these days?

Young people could learn a lot about the art of reading by viewing examples of animated poetry as a source. Some of my favorite animations provide examples of what reading might look like in someone’s head:

Maybe watching an interpretation of text, of poetry, can offer a model of reading that restores the value of historical accuracy, meaningful word choice, and empathetic renderings of humanity in one’s writing. Maybe. Who knows? Why not give it a try ’cause whatever they teaching children these days ain’t helping ’em learn to honor the dead or to show gratitude for those “ignorant, poor blacks” who sacrificed their lives to make life a little bit better for the sake of a future they could not predict. Whatever they’re teaching children these days sho don’t seem like it could possibly help them carry out their grandmothers’  instructions or to outwit any foxes.

Models Monday: The Dozens and A Pound

I know a black woman who describes herself as having come from the ghetto but eschews an identification with what it means to be ghetto. To be ghetto, for her, means having little respect for decorum and failing to have an appreciation for reading and literacy. Interestingly, she also assumes that “being ghetto” means being black and articulating this identity through words and gestures associated with black folk. For example, she once told me about her five-year-old grandson’s first visit to the barbershop. Upon introducing himself to this child, the barber held out his fist and asked the boy to give him a pound. In recounting this story, the boy’s grandmother seemed so proud of the fact that her “grand baby” did not know what it meant to give someone a pound. According to her, he’s not raised “to be ghetto like these other kids running around here who don’t know how you’re supposed to greet somebody.” I thought, but did not say, giving someone a pound ain’t ghetto. Giving someone a pound represents a form of black cultural expression that signifies your membership in a community that recognizes this gesture as a form of communication. I don’t typically use “ghetto” as a way of describing a person’s identity, but let’s say we allow traits this woman associates with “being ghetto” to describe someone’s understanding of the meaning of “giving someone a pound,” then President and Mrs. Obama are ghetto.

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The “fist-bump” happened at a June 3, 2008 campaign rally in St. Paul, Minnesota.

What mainstream media called a “fist bump,” lacks creativity.  It is a flat, mechanical description that one might expect to find in an instruction manual. This unimaginative phrase lacks the richness of what I grew-up, as a black person, calling “a pound.” This description conjures an image of boxers pummeling one another in the ring, but instead of being adversarial, the pound, as a greeting, suggests membership in a community that has historically revised and reformed the terms of unrelenting brutality. Failing to respect this creative re-articulation of violence reflected in a punch or a jab influences the lumbering, inarticulate misrepresentation of eloquence as brutishness. The July 21, 2008 cover of The New Yorker offers an example of the flat, mechanical description of a “fist bump” in visual terms:

barry-blitt-the-new-yorker-cover-july-21-2008

This visual depiction of a “fist bump” casts the “pound” as a violent gesture signifying extremism and treason. While the illustrator, Barry Blitt, calls his work satire, I read it as a lazy caricature of racist constructions of the Obamas as reflected in right-wing criticism of them. The cover, which Blitt titled “The Politics of Fear,” might have revealed a more nuanced critique had he read the “fist bump” as “a pound.” Read as “a pound,” the Obamas were situating themselves within a historical context that uses this gesture to convey welcome, community, and inclusion. Had Blitt offered such an interpretation, he might have demonstrated a greater understanding of a politics of fear as it has been historically articulated and revealed through the destruction of black communities. From the destruction of the thriving black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, the Rosewood massacre in 1923, the bombing of black homes and black institutions in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s, and the 1985 bombing of the MOVE house on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia, “the politics of fear” derives from the lethal aggression that is fueled by racism and aimed at annihilating black Americans’ efforts towards making community or seeking self-sufficiency. Thus, what Blitt doesn’t do is read “a pound” as an expression of love; instead, he reads a “fist bump” as a phrase epitomizing fear and hate that exemplifies a shared understanding of “the politics of fear.”

Along these same lines regarding the denigration of black American forms of cultural expression, much was made of the moment when then Presidential candidate Obama offered a black vernacular response to a cashier when paying for his meal at D.C.’s famed eatery, Ben’s Chili Bowl. When the cashier presumably asked Obama if he needed change, Obama responded, “nah, we straight.” This moment, that rhetoricians call “code switching,” inspired me to consider the verbal agility that once represented one’s ability to actively participate in a community that showed deep appreciation for creative, verbal expression. I’m sure that the woman who I spoke of earlier would view her grandson’s similar ignorance regarding what black folk at one time called “the dozens,” an example of him not being “ghetto,” I view this inability to demonstrate verbal dexterity as a profound example of incompetence. What I appreciate about playing the dozens is that it expands one’s options for reading themselves in terms of the broader culture. In other words, playing the dozens helps to facilitate one’s development of a creative, oppositional stance towards an obviously provocative claim or statement masquerading as a truth and demanding your participation. I have been thinking more and more about this with respect to cross-cultural dialogue that plays itself out between young people.

While I missed the two days when the film American Promise was screened in Atlanta, I’m planning to view the film when it debuts on PBS in February. The trailer draws attention to the hazards of disregarding the value of learning to play the dozens. The film follows two African American boys who attend the purportedly “prestigious” Dalton School located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Both boys begin their tenure at the school for their primary years, but they part ways at the secondary level. The child who remains, Idris, enrolled through 12th grade, and is the filmmakers’ son.

The trailer offers descriptions of Dalton as “extraordinary” and voices the notion that Dalton is an “ivy league school in a brownstone.” The Dalton School website lists tuition as $40,220 for grades K-12 and I’m assuming that means per year and not the cost of one’s overall enrollment from kindergarten through senior year. Now, for all this money, Idris is obviously wounded when his black peers who do not attend Dalton contend that he “talks like a white boy.” I can only shake my head in pure annoyance with this child and his parents. I don’t understand how you can pay $40,000 in order to attend this “extraordinary” school and your kid gets hung up on “you talk like a white boy?” $40,000 doesn’t prepare you to have the verbal dexterity to respond to this tired association between erudition and whiteness? So I guess that $40,000 ostensibly prepares you to respond in formal academic terms to a presumably neutral, objective challenge but fails to teach you how to apply those skills to an everyday, vernacular challenge? So for $40,000 you are speechless when public school kids make assertions in the form of the dozens? I don’t get it. In the trailer, Idris’s father asserts that after attending Dalton, his son wanted to change what I guess is a name that estranges him from whiteness. The trailer shows no indication that these folk recognize  Idris’s desire to change his name as the detritus left in the wake of the surreptitious version of scorn and derision that bears witness to the ugliness of his Dalton School classmates. Thus, unlike the playground kids who were clear and explicit when they challenged Idris’s sense of legitimate belonging in stating that he “talked like a white boy,” and whose guilt is associated with the visual portrayal of black boys on the basketball court at the moment Idris cites their brutality, the same meanness occurs less blatantly at Dalton. The veiled derision of his cinematically invisible classmates at Dalton should find a visual parallel to the basketball scene. This lack of exposure hides the challenge Idris needs to address on the playground and in the classroom. Instead of his “exceptional” school supporting and encouraging him to develop a response that indicates his awareness of the meanness directed towards him, the attainment of such skills is devalued in the way that Dalton defines what constitutes an “exceptional” education. The fact that Idris consistently capitulates to meanness undermines the claim that his education prepares him to compete in the world; rather, from the little that I observed, this child knows how to concede but has no sense of what it means for him to fight and to win on his terms. Idris remains silent on the playground and at school, he consistently allows someone else to determine how he views his own name in both places. Without this ability to claim the integrity of his own worldview and the value of his own name, what will it mean for Idris to one day call himself a man?

One parent confesses that she sends her son to Dalton because she “wants him to learn to be comfortable around white folks” and admits that she lacks such comfort. It’s not clear to me why whiteness serves as her point of reference for determining meaningful exchange, civic inclusion, and one’s sense of belonging. The $40,000 price tag on enrollment at the Dalton School seems too steep if your child fails to learn the value of being comfortable with himself (or herself), which ultimately determines how that child interacts with others.

So, if you can afford to pay $40,000 for compulsory education, be sure to read the fine print regarding what that fee includes. If it doesn’t include “a pound” and “a dozen,” then you’re being ripped off.

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