A Black Woman’s Response to 'American Promise' Because We Were There Too

by Dominique Atchison of The Mad Preacher Posts about the POV documentary American Promise  bega...

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by Dominique Atchison of The Mad Preacher

Posts about the POV documentary American Promise began to appear in my Facebook newsfeed about a week before it aired on PBS. Two black male friends of mine in particular began to post over and over again that this was not a movie to be missed. One is an educator, the other works for an initiative that speaks specifically to issues that face young black men. So my assumption was that this movie would speak to the education and gender disparities and the general difficulty parents face when attempting to educate their black male children. I assumed the movie would take a look at boys in a variety of educational settings.

Alas, it was not that at all. Instead it was a story documenting the journeys of two Black boys attempting to navigate the same educational world: New York City Independent Prep Schools. As a black woman who is a product of this specific world, I longed to hear the stories of girls in that school. One of the faculty members stated in the film that the black girls tended to be better able to adjust when compared to the black boys. I would love to hear more about her definition of the term “adjustment.” And then I’d like for her to pay me back for the time and money I spent in therapy attempting to unpack the trauma that came with daring to enter that world in a larger, dark-skinned and female body.

New York City Independent schools consumed 11 years of my life from first through 9th grade and then 11th through 12th. I did Kindergarten in my local public school and went to a Catholic school for 10th grade. As an African American girl born into a family recently catapulted into Reagon-era poverty, I entered “the Harvard” of Independent Prep Schools at the age of 6. I was a child of a recently single mother and without the “cultivation” of programs like Prep for Prep. If that wasn’t awkward enough, I was close to a foot taller than everyone else and at the age of 8 began going through “precocious puberty” (a cute term used to describe the painful experience of going through puberty early…).

Therefore education was overshadowed by the absolute marginalization of my body. I was an extremely smart child who could read by the time I was two. But my grades suffered in elementary and middle school because I simply couldn’t focus. My sensitive, introverted spirit could not bare being the constant object of the many forms of body shame that come with existing in that world. And the little baby civil rights activist within could not deal with the injustices at the root of my pain.

I often talk about the many racialized microaggressions I faced in school, for instance, the time when we took bus trip to Colonial Williamsburg 2 kids were looking for the “Nigger on the bus” and found me. And as I inch towards my mid-thirties and struggle furiously to finding a mate and believe that my body is worthy of love, I have begun to realize the root of this turmoil. That root is my experiences at these “prestigious” schools.

From elementary school through high school, my body was a subject of unwelcoming commentary. There was never a safe space for my physicality. In elementary school, the commentary came mostly from white students and teacher. But as we moved from elementary school to middle and high school, the majority of the body shaming and damning came from boys of color. The comments and behavior that linger in my spirit 20 plus years later were perpetuated by those who would have been the subject of a movie like American promise. Therefore I struggled to be empathetic when the film spoke about one of the boys struggles to find a girlfriend.

I would love to hear that things are different now. I would love to know that the girls in the school featured in the film were actually well adjusted. I would love to hear that black female bodies are allowed to grow and develop and love and be loved in this world. I would love to hear that things have changed so much since I graduated from high school. But the fact that the girls of color were not even present in the movie, makes me think that some of this systems still exist. But I am willng and would be happy to be proven wrong.


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