“American Promise”

When asked what the title of her 2013 documentary, “American Promise,” meant, filmmaker and human rights activist, Michèle Stephenson, responded that it was synonymous to the “American struggle.” When asked the same question in an interview with Shadow and Act, an online collective of writers, filmmakers, film enthusiasts and film critics dedicated to the discussion of cinema of the African Diaspora, she replied that this promise could be looked at through a number of lenses. The lens could be the promise of the parents to provide for their son, the promise of society to its families or the promise the boys make to themselves. By placing the film within the American context, the filmmakers hoped to break the stereotype of black issues to focus

instead on American issues. And while both are true, the title could also have a variety of other meanings, depending on the experiences and background of the audience. To me, the title signifies the promise of the glorious American Dream, a seemingly elusive dream that was passed down from my immigrant parents, who have never stopped hoping that I might have more than they had and to know more than they knew. To others who have watched the movie, maybe it was the promise the school made to its students or maybe even the promise of a better future that all parents have for their children. In a way, this last one coincides a lot with my understanding of the word “promise” and the American Dream: that your children will live a better life, be more knowledgeable, have security and, most importantly, be happier. 

On September 16, Michèle Stephenson came to Colgate to introduce her documentary at a film screening organized by ALANA ambassador, Antoinette Nwabunnia. Stephenson and husband Joe Brewster followed the lives of their son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, for 13 years as they made their way through one of the most prestigious predominantly white schools in New York City. The documentary served to bring up issues of race and diversity not unlike the issues of our racial climate and diversity here at Colgate; in fact, many turning points for Idris and Seun can be paralleled to similar experiences on campus. Both Dalton, the private school both boys attended, and Colgate are predominantly white, prestigious institutions tasked with tackling the issues of race and diversity, issues complicated by ignorance manifested in everyday


Stephenson and Brewster did a great job isolating the racial aspect of the boys’ lives to showcase those struggles, but the absence of intersectionality limited the sphere in which the movie could operate. The film did not seem to touch upon the issues of class or gender too much. Idris’ family and maybe even Seun’s seemed to be middle-class families, and the only comparison the audience has to Idris is Seun, another boy of similar background. It seems strange that race and class especially had been separated when in practice, these two issues are very much intertwined. This very same knot is at the core of whatever tension there is on campus, whether it’s an issue of race, an issue of class, or a mix of both. The nature of this struggle is kept under wraps, furtively discussed among the few who are aware and condescendingly spat among those who don’t take the time to learn.

No one wants to be told they are privileged, to be forced to admit that the playing field didn’t come even, and to be enlightened of the fact that the liberation of one is tied to the liberation of the other. While it has to be done and should be done, in doing so the illusion of meritocracy is dashed and the cycle of dominance is confirmed. The implications of these are two-fold: the American Dream or promise is that much more fragile and difficult to reach; and confirming the cycle of dominance means that it exists. Trying to solve a problem that not all believe is a problem will prove to be useless for all; discussion and engagement cannot be furthered if the existence of these inequalities isn’t confirmed. 

The film was great and did generate some good discussion, but nothing sustainable from what I’ve seen since. When those Love Auditorium doors opened, that was the end of the discussion on race, and students went back to their lives, all lessons learned from the film gone. We need to keep those discussions alive if we ever want a more diverse, safe, and open space for students. Hopefully as people become more comfortable with the fact that America is not a true meritocracy, we can begin to have these conversations about how race, class and gender intersect and affect our society.