I watched this fifth episode, the one in which we’re introduced to the first two white students the documentary series profiles, on the day I interviewed Austin and Michelle Harton.
For 13 years, the Hartons operated Math Academy — a hands-on tutoring program for African-American students in Oak Park looking to break into advanced math courses. They began by teaching the students algebra, before advancing to other kinds of math. Eventually they found the need to introduce some history into the curriculum.
They made the students watch Eyes on the Prize and other movies starring positive black role models like Men of Honor.
They also made the students read “On Being Ashamed of Oneself: An Essay on Race Pride,” written by W.E.B. Du Bois and published in the September 1933 issue of The Crisis — the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“My grandfather left a passage in his diary expressing his indignation at receiving an invitation to a ‘Negro’ picnic,” Du Bois writes.
“Alexander Du Bois, born in the Bahamas, son of Dr. James Du Bois of the well-known Du Bois family of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., had been trained as a gentleman in the Cheshire School of Connecticut, and the implications of a Negro picnic were anathema to his fastidious soul. It meant close association with poverty, ignorance and suppressed and disadvantaged people, dirty and with bad manners.”
The same stereotypes of Negroes that Du Bois recalls his grandfather entertaining, the Hartons said, were the ones that their students would trot out when asked to describe how blacks are perceived (and how we at times perceive ourselves) in the world of the 21st century.
After asking the students to list these negative perceptions, the Hartons would then have the students counter the stereotypes they listed with actual attributes of the people they loved and respected.
“We have to help our students break free of these stereotypes,” Michelle said, “but first we have to acknowledge that they’re real and that they don’t apply.”
If the high-achieving black students who went through Math Academy — many of whom ended up at Ivy League schools — needed this kind of deprogramming, I shudder at what self-perceptions Ke’Shawn Kumsa may entertain.
“Thank you for being one of the few teachers pushing harder than I am to succeed,” Kumsa writes in a card to Jessica Stovall in Episode 5.
And if we need any more convincing of how powerful perception is, look no further than the basketball game between OPRF and Fenwick, which devolves into the predominantly white fan sections of each school trading stereotypes with the other side.
We see whites stigmatizing whites based on perceived socioeconomic differences, and white OPRF students responding to some of the negative stereotypes they hear by doubling down on their stigmatization, becoming the rebels without a cause that the Fenwick students perceive them to be.
In this moment, the late comedian Dick Gregory might say, white OPRF has become “niggerized” because race — black and white — has always been about more than skin color; at bottom, it has really been about power and control, about subjugation for some and freedom for others, about marginality and one’s distance from it.
It is not merely coincidental that many of the whites we see in the documentary series so far, those most understanding and sympathetic to the struggles of black students, are well-versed in what Du Bois calls the “stigmata of degradation” — i.e. physically and psychologically within proximity to social stigma, suffering and shame.
Paul Collins, the wrestling coach, is a reading teacher who was once, by his own admission, one of the students he now teaches. He lived mere blocks from the West Side of Chicago.
His colleague, soccer coach Emily Steffen, who also teaches reading and English to lower-track students, recalls one of her athletes telling her, “Whoa, coach I didn’t realize you taught those classes.”
Fenwick and OPRF are contrasted most starkly by their proximity to poverty, economic precariousness and, quite frankly, blackness. The cheering OPRF students, black and white, are bonded, in that moment, by stigmas they have in common. During that scene, I thought of Bacon’s Rebellion.
In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy white landowner who had serious differences with how Virginia was being governed, gathered a militia comprising black slaves and indentured servants, both black and white, and rebelled against William Berkeley, Virginia’s governor.
Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, wrote that the rebellion alarmed elite planters, “who were deeply fearful of the multiracial alliance of [indentured servants] and slaves. Word of Bacon’s Rebellion spread far and wide, and several more uprisings of a similar type followed.
“In an effort to protect their superior status and economic position, the planters shifted their strategy for maintaining dominance. They abandoned their heavy reliance on indentured servants in favor of the importation of more black slaves.”
After half a semester has passed, Steve James says, he finally finds whites who are willing to be profiled. We see both of them, Brendan Barrette and Caroline Robling-Griest, not as paragons of privilege, but from families that are positioned nearer to the periphery of the great radius of white, solid middle- or upper-middle-class comfort.
There are, after all, degrees of assimilation. Money can buy distance from spaces and social conditions that are more often reserved for minorities. Absent that financial protection, there is just mutual struggle.
And a myth that sticks out like an open rib cage.