Having grown up on the west side of Chicago, when I heard that there was going to be a documentary film that featured students at a high school in a suburb of Chicago, I wanted to see what it was about. Oak Park is an affluent white community just a few miles west of where I grew up. In miles, the distance between the west side and Oak Park was not great, but in racial and economic demographics, they might as well have been different countries.
During my years in high school, when people of color were seen in Oak Park, the assumption was that they were working in someone’s home or tending the yards, and not working in places of business or having a residence in the community. Decades after I finished high school and left Chicago, people of color began to move into Oak Park and many white people abandoned their homes to avoid living in a diverse community.
During the ten episodes of America to Me on the Starz network, filmmaker Steve James – known for making Hoop Dreams – and a diverse crew interviewed and filmed students during school and at home with their families. They also filmed portions of Board of Trustees meetings. Some faculty were willing to be filmed in their classes and to be interviewed. I was impressed with the courage of faculty members who allowed themselves to be vulnerable for the sake of students, given that the leadership of the school and of the school system were not willing to be interviewed and were clearly not happy with the filming.
When I began watching the series, I was surprised that most of the students featured were students of color. If I’m recalling correctly, there were only two white students featured and two biracial students. One of the two white students in the film revealed that another white student told her that her parents refused to allow her to be part of the documentary because the film would probably be about white privilege. I found this comment interesting and telling because the school is known for its diversity and the current Oak Park community is considered politically liberal because these are the families that stayed as the community became more diverse.
During an interview on NPR with Joshua Johnson, host of The 1A, James revealed that in making the film he wanted to present America “principally through the eyes of students.” He said that he thought that black and biracial students in this generation were thinking about racial equity in what he saw as “extraordinary and deep ways.”
In addition to James, other guests interviewed by Johnson on The 1A were Amanda Lewis, Director for the Institute on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago; David Stovall, professor of African American Studies and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago; and Charles Donalson, former student from Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Johnson asked his guests to comment on racial equity in public education. Dr. Stovall and Dr. Lewis spoke about redistribution of resources, opportunity hoarding, racial academic hierarchies, and such. Then the host asked Donalson his thoughts on racial equity in the following manner:
Charles, how do you see this? This difference when you were in high school, and I won’t ask you to speak for anyone’s high school but yours, but in terms of white students, students of color achievement. Those comments about students of color getting advantages just because of the color of their skin. Does that reflect your experience at all from high school or do you see it differently?
Here I am quoting Donalson as verbatim as possible because I don’t want to add to or subtract from his response:
Um, I think in general there is kind of like—There’s this blanket we put over white kids. It’s like they’re always going to be warm regardless of what happens. All of them are always going to be warm. When it comes to kids of color, there’s like, ok, we get like a whole bunch of sleeping bags, but we ain’t got one blanket for everybody and why some people get that sleeping bag, you know.
I definitely think for people like me and Gabe, who was also featured in the documentary, the school has prominent interest in us because of what we do with our extra-curriculars, so it was first already a thing. Ok. Well, we need to make sure those kids are good, you know, but for someone who isn’t in extra-curriculars, who doesn’t have any type of non-student-teacher relationship with any adult in the building, like it’s hard. They get trapped in between the margins because they don’t get the sleeping bag I was talking about. They’re not even considered to get one. And I think that’s the whole thing right there. It’s blankets versus sleeping bags.
Whereas all the white kids, all those kids who come from those types of homes, have stakes in the school, their parents are big funders, their siblings went there, whatever. Luckily I found Spoken Word.
As I listened to the student’s response, I wondered if Donalson realized the profundity of his analogy for white privilege. The image of a blanket brings to mind the comfort and warmth of a bed, togetherness, and everyone being covered. By contrast, the image of sleeping bags is one of being on the floor or ground, a feeling of discomfort, and each person being alone. There are never enough sleeping bags for everyone.
After hearing the student’s comments in response to a question about racial equity, I went to the Langston Hughes poem from which the title of the documentary is taken and read and reread this stanza:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Let America Be America Again
This documentary series is hard to watch for those who know, and can be insightful for those who want to know. Most encouraging is the idea that the grandparents and parents of these current students started the Civil Rights Movement, and this new generation will carry it forward with a clear-eyed assessment of racial reality in America.