Education
4:15 pm
Mon February 3, 2014

Black Child In A Mostly White School: Story Spans 13 Years

Idris Brewster and Seun Summers
Credit American Promise film

Over the course of 13 years, Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson filmed their son's progress through the elite New York City prep school called Dalton. As an African-American family in a predominantly white school, the years were challenging for everyone.

Their documentary American Promise airs on  UNC-TV Thursday 2/6/14 at 10 p.m.

A year ago, Dick Gordon talked with Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson when they were in Durham N.C. for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

The two say that they were initially excited to be a part of Dalton's "diversity experiment." They knew that Dalton grads performed at the highest levels, and that their son, Idris, would be seen by the top colleges in the country.

But soon, they say, they became to realize that the black kids were being treated differently than the white kids:

American Promise: The phone call from The Dalton School that changed the focus of the documentary.

It started with a phone message. The school called to say that Idris had gotten into a fight. The school said that he'd elbowed another child and shoved him out of the way. Administrators gave Idris a two day suspension for hitting the other boy. And when Idris argued - saying that the other boy had been calling him names, he was given a third day of suspension, for lying. Idris was in the 4th grade at the time.

I think that was really the beginning of understanding that, as a black boy, Idris and [his best friend Seun] were going to face very particular hurdles about how they are perceived, what kind of expectations there are about them, and what would be tolerated for them versus other students.

Both parents saw the suspension as something larger than a "he-said-she-said" in the schoolyard. Michele Stephenson: "I was angry because I felt that my son was being profiled. We felt that the punishment was beyond the action that provoked it. I think that was really the beginning of understanding that, as a black boy, Idris and [his best friend Seun] were going to face very particular hurdles about how they are perceived, what kind of expectations there are about them, and what would be tolerated for them versus other students."

It was at that moment, that the couple began to focus their film on their own son's experience.

Young Idris talked eloquently on film throughout the years. In one scene, he analyzes the two different personas he had to inhabit. He talked one way at school, and another with the neighborhood kids. And he tried to hide the issue from his parents. "I've been lying to my parents and saying 'Oh, I don't notice that I'm changing my voice,'" he says, "because I don't want them to think I am a coward or something."

American Promise: Idris talks about how he changes his voice, depending on whether he's talking with kids from his Brooklyn neighborhood or kids from The Dalton School, a mostly white school located in Manhattan.

Idris's father says that listening back to his son through the years brings him pain as well as joy. "I'm proud of that honesty, it's something we tried to develop. But I'm also realizing how difficult it was at times, wherever he went, whether it was in East New York, or the Upper East Side."

American Promise won a special jury award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Listen to Dick Gordon's full conversation with Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson.

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