America to Me: ‘What’s the Big Deal About Oak Park?’

Recently, I started the 2018 America to Me documentary series directed by Steve James. I don’t know if you recognize his name, but he’s the man behind 1994’s Hoop Dreams, often consider (for good reasons) the greatest documentary ever made.

This 10-episode series was filmed during the 2015-2016 school year at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Illinois. The series follows the daily lives of 12 students in different grades and stations in life.

The namesake of the docu-series comes from the Langston Hughes poem Let America Be America Again. Hughes’ point in that poem was that America was “never America to me,” i.e., America, despite having the founding documents that purport to be a place for him, nevertheless, it was never a place for people like him. And yet:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

And that’s essentially the thrust of the docu-series using the education system, and this particular school, as the microcosm for that two-track America idea. Essentially, the white kids at Oak Park and River Forest High School have better educational outcomes than the black kids. The docu-series wants to examine why that is through the lens of the day-to-day life of a number of black students.

This is the side of black life that suburban white kids don’t seem to know about or ever see. Because students bring with them all of that baggage (or the lack thereof, relatively) to school, and that clearly affects the ability to learn. But it’s also not just the students’ own baggage, but the bias baggage, if you will, that teachers and administrators bring to the classroom as well. The way a black male student is viewed by a teacher could be different than how a white male student is viewed by a teacher. Through the experience of the black male student, at least, they feel as if the teacher is already writing them off.

The school district also ignited controversy by holding a Black Lives Matter rally for black students only. That sort of spurred on the docu-series to come in and examine if the district’s race issue and how it manifests within education.

First in the series is Episode 1’s “What’s the Big Deal About Oak Park?” The episode follows the start of the school year for Grant, Tiara, Charles, Terrence and Ke’Shawn. All of them are having different experiences, obviously (stupidly obvious point is stupidly obvious point, but worth repeating: black people’s experiences aren’t a monolith).

For example, Grant talks in class about how other black people accuse of him trying to be white or talk white, and he’s like, huh? I’m just talking, this is my voice. As a freshman, Grant experiences one of the most relatable moments for me: getting lost trying to find his next class. God, that happened to me all the time, too.

In Tiara’s case, she’s bored of school and has no interest in it (highly relate to this at her age), but is into singing and performing. She wants to be like Beyonce or Christina Aguilera. She also has a huge crush on one of the boys in the choir group. Her geeking out about him complimenting her singing was one of the cutest parts of the first episode, too.

Her home life is living with her sister, Telicia, who is more like a quasi-mother figure given the age disparity, and Telicia’s children, like Terrence, who is also profiled.

Terrence, who is her oldest, is soft-spoken and within the Individualized Education Program because he has been diagnosed with cognitive delay and ADHD. Much like Ke’Shawn, Telicia feels like teachers have treated him a different way. She feels like she’s the only one in his corner, saying he can achieve more.

Charles is more aloof, using music and his headphones to keep to himself, at least when moving through the halls. When at lunch, he said he likes to try to talk to everyone, even though he notices that everyone seems to keep to their cliques, which he noted tends to fall along racial lines. Charles, is his mom, Tracey’s only child, and she definitely is trying to keep a protective shield over him, and is doing everything she can to give him a more normal upbringing.

“My main concern was getting him in a better environment and making sure … I didn’t want him to think it was okay to talk a certain way, sag his pants,” she said.

But, it’s still been hard for Charles growing up without a father. Even so, because of them only having each other to rely on, some of my favorites moments of the first episode are Charles and Tracey moving into a new house or working out by the track because they do have such a strong bond, and it’s beautiful to see.

Ke’Shawn is a boisterous type, who said people think he’s smart, but likes to goof off. He agreed with that assessment. And it’s his line, “What’s the big deal about Oak Park?” that becomes the episode namesake. To the earlier point, he talks about how teachers would treat him a different way as a black male.

“Like they already knew who I was,” he said.

One teacher assessed him as being afraid to show weakness and vulnerability.

Danielle, his mother, said she’s “praying small” that he has a good year.

But it’s Charles who had the two lines in the first episode that’ll stick with me forever.

“Growing up in Oak Park, I just wanted to be like all the white kids because it seemed like their lives were so perfect compared to mine. I repressed it a lot when I was younger, like I tried my best not to think about it,” he said.

That pretty much says it all. From his vantage point, that’s what it feels like.

The first episode was an insightful starting off point for examining one high school and the students traversing its halls and life itself, trying to make sense of their station in life and where that life is going beyond the school. As I said, the little details and interactions, where the docu-series is almost like a quasi-fly on the wall, is what makes the episode. When I finished, my first thought was wishing those who disparage #BlackLivesMatter would watch even the first episode of this just to gain a perspective they are likely unaware of.

Heck, even on a more basic level, I wish people, who feel like they already understand everything that’s wrong with the plight of black people in this country (that arrogance is worthy of its own blog post) or whatever else, would watch this episode and get out of their own bubble to see what the experiences of other people are like.

Most of us experienced high school. Most of us can relate to some of the high school-specific experiences like I mentioned of getting lost or crushing on someone, but it’s the baggage and biases I also mentioned that also inform such high school experiences, and are not so innocuous, but are also hidden from the view of white people.

Do you think a white kid ever grew up thinking, “I want to be like all those black kids because their lives seem so perfect?” That disparity in perception and actual experience should be cause for reflection.

I’ll hopefully be watching more episodes in the coming days and weeks and offering more thoughts about each.

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