Growing up absurd in Oak Park

Life in Oak Park, before and after 'America to Me'

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

It's been four years since Steve James and his film crew were allowed into the halls of Oak Park and River Forest High School to document how the institution deals with race on a day-to-day basis. The resulting 10-part documentary, America to Me, aired in 2018 on Starz, but life hasn't stopped for one of the film's subjects. 

Charles Donalson, 21, said recently that people stopping him on the street are not as frequent as they used to be in those heady days after the film aired, but he's still processing the chasm between his low-frequency fame and everyday reality. These days Donalson is an independent artist who currently works in Oak Park at Friday Night Place, a recreational and educational program for Oak Park middle-schoolers. 

"When I started working with Friday Night Place in 2018, I had just dropped out of college and was living with my dad," he said, adding that, at one point, he was "going to work from different houses almost every day. But those kids were the high point of my day. I see a lot of myself in them."  

So much so that on Feb. 13, Donalson will release a music project he said was largely inspired by the young people he encounters every day. In addition to working at Friday Night Place, he also volunteers at the James R. Jordan Boys and Girls Club in Chicago.

The project, Donalson's first mixtape, will be available on streaming platforms like SoundCloud and DatPiff for free starting Feb. 13. He said the songs are about his experiences growing up African American in Oak Park, where school suspension is almost a rite of passage and the racial landscape is akin to a real-life game of Minesweeper. 

"Used to call the cops on the kid for just playing and now they want my autograph, I find it insulting," Donalson raps on "Old School," one of the most resonant songs on the album that give insight on how the OPRF graduate has processed the dissonance between life lived in liberal Oak Park pre- and post- his Starz recognition. 

In elementary school he was suspended for "some wild stuff," Donalson said. One song on the mixtape may fill you in on the details. The mixtape, the rapper said, is mostly about his elementary and middle-school years in Oak Park, which were fraught with racial slurs and childhood relationships damaged by prejudice. 

The great tragedy in the project is that, from the perspective of Donalson and the young people at Friday Night Place, not much has changed. Oak Park, according to Donalson and the kids he works with, is still a place where the overwhelming majority of suspended students within District 97 are black and where African-American culture is insufficiently recognized. 

And the village is still a place that is reluctant to talk about these chronic problems with the young people who bear the brunt of them, he said. 

The mixtape isn't Donalson's first music project. Last year, he released the album For Whatever You Do, which he co-produced with a friend; however, Donalson considers this year's mixtape (yet to be named) his first solo project — and his most personal.

He said he hopes the project sparks the kind of conversation on growing up black in Oak Park that wasn't had when he was younger. 

"At the end of the day, I'm saying what I wanted to be said to me," Donalson said.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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Tommy McCoy  

Posted: February 4th, 2020 5:42 PM

Christopher Bell there is a stigma to a student who is held back a year, and when that happen's the student become's less interested. The first thing is how did all of the student's make it through high school 100 year's ago, and were able to go on to invent, create, develop and build if the idea is to increase the level of education, and the answer is not every student is going to be academically successful. With out during research, I recall that Ray Kroc, did not do well in school, and there have been many other's, too. If the goal is to educate each student exactly the same, then the goal is not going to be successful and those pushing for it need to go back to school and find out why. This is a continual recycle story of the school's inability to educate student's. It has been going on for decade's now. If adult's are not aware enough of what the problem is then throw the programs away and get back to the basic's including grouping student's who need to shift to a different teaching method with other student's. Student's respond from home environment, friend's behavior's and if school really matter's to a student. Get rid of so many assistant to the assistant's and bring in teacher's who have a diverse background who connect to student's and direct them with that diverse background

Christopher Bell  

Posted: February 4th, 2020 5:14 PM

@ Jasper and Jim agree with your comments. Need to tackle the gap long before high schools. Study shows if a student is 1 grade behind reading by 2nd they will likely be 3 years behind by high school. Simply clustering all the kids wont close the gap for most (can for those on the margin that have intellectual horsepower but unmotivated) The other issue is cultural (OP Culture). We need to hold teachers/accountable - worked with students at Julian and some could not read or write a sentence (literally). No way thos kids should be passed on - need intense help.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: February 4th, 2020 10:02 AM

@Chris, welcome back! I'm confident that your son is thriving at college and congrats again to him and everyone who played a part in his academic successes. I'm weighing in because, like your son, my son also was asked by several other kids his age while out of state whether OP is really as "racist" as the movie depicts this town to be. It was striking to him-- and not a bit discouraging-- because, for all its faults, OP is actively working so hard to be a beacon. People who don't know OP certainly don't get this, and it's amazing how A2Me seems to have resulted in an image of Oak Park as absolutely what every community should NOT be.

Jasper Long from Oak Park  

Posted: February 4th, 2020 6:41 AM

I agree with you, Chris. The method that OPRF is using is not necessarily the right one. I do appreciate them really trying to come up with solutions, but really there is no one size fits all, due to the many different factors that come into play. Nature v nurture, discipline disparities, the drive of the student, etc. Also, I personally believe this needs to be addressed at the elementary level, and not so much at the high school level as it may be a little late. It's hard playing catch up.

Jameel Rafia from Oak Park  

Posted: February 3rd, 2020 9:17 PM

Tommy McCoy, your writing is great, I was able to understand everything you were saying. And I agree with you, the work even though it's a huge undertaking; we take steps toward building bridges not walls.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: February 3rd, 2020 4:24 PM

Jameel Rafia Thank you for sending the link of Joaquin Phoenix acceptance speech. I noticed the audience was mostly White and in agreement. So why has nothing changed, and the answer is, it has to come within. The 60's and early 70's had some outstanding music that I thought was the hope to breaking through the divide. You did in my opinion a great job raising your children, and it is so nice they have thanked you for it. The Black on Black crime is something I think has been created. How and by who, I have no idea, although we both know within the community so much is driven by drug's, and I am sure you know those drug's do not just show up on a corner in a box. It is a destructive economy and now that Chicago, has a second Black Mayor, I would hope that there would be real job's come to the most needed area's and supported by education, and health care service's so the community can build up and outward to other area's and the Black communities can stop a type of inner hatred toward's each other that is self destructing. I hope you understand what I am writing, because this is what I have observed and it need's to stop. As far as Joaquin Phoenix taking responsibility, he is not the one who control's the film or television industry. That is controlled by supply and demand, and I really believe that enough White people would ban media that does not reflect in a true sense. I know the Wednesday Journal bends over backward's to create a positive message, and many White's try, too. Bring real work to poor neighborhood's with education, and health support, and I am positive so much change will happen. I am not always clear in how I write, although I hope I did write well enough to get my message out

Jameel Rafia from Oak Park  

Posted: February 3rd, 2020 3:36 PM

@ Tommy McCoy I totally agree with you: Television, social media and music depicts Black people in a bad way. In the 60's women signing groups were the Supremes; Now ever other lyric is B- this or B- that. But we have to start somewhere When I got Custody of 10 of my Children, I didn't drink, curse, or smoke, I didn't have friends over, no parties, we didn't have T.V, I didn't let them listen to the radio, and we sat down at the table each night and had family dinner and fun.They thank me now for raising them in the way I did. And we start where we can, here is a qoute and a video clip from Joaquin Phoenix It's the "obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it, so that's on us," wins Leading Actor BAFTA 2020 ? - BBC" on YouTube https://youtu.be/UohtVuaT2Ls

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: February 3rd, 2020 2:19 PM

Jameel Rafia I understand it is the shortest month in the year and it was designated as Black History Month. Thank you for your top 10 list on how to celebrate Black History Month. Here is some thing you probably did not know. The famous Hollywood sign was once called Hollywoodland. Check out what the developer had in mind at the time and if the sign should still stand. Also, I already enjoy actor's who happen to just happen to be Black. I do not have any privilege because of whatever my race happen's to be. If you want to make a difference, ban movie's and television shows that show a Black person as a con, a pusher, a gangster, a hustler, or any other negative stereo type that continues to happen because it gives the wrong perception and that perception need's to change including within the Black race. Demand education

Jameel Rafia from Oak Park  

Posted: February 3rd, 2020 1:05 PM

10 Things White People Can Do To Celebrate Black History Month. 1.Donate To A Blcak Woman's Self-Care Fund and Tell No One 2.Buy Books By Black Authors Read Them. 3.Contribute To Local Black Organization 4. Acknowledge the Ways You Personally Benefit From White Privilege 5.Watch Movies Which White People Are Not the Hero 6. Ask Your Faith Organization To Stop Ignoring Black People 7.Educate Yourselves On the BLM Movement 8.When Talking With BLack People Listen More Than You Talk 9. Make A Purchase or Many From A Black-Owened Small Business 10. Read "White Fragility"

Christopher Bell  

Posted: January 30th, 2020 6:19 PM

@ Tommy you are right ... not a project for education. Yes, kid at Ivy and I was fortunate .... the issue is very complex and I don't have answers .... but a lot of data is missing .... for example many of top performing African American oak park families send kids to Fenwick etc .... My point is the school is preparing to turn everything inside down and not sure right hypothesis to start with ....

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: January 30th, 2020 5:59 PM

Christopher Bell The 2010 U.S. Census at 12.1 for African American's so OPRF was rather close with the percentage when you attended HS. The documentary was either a project the producer felt there was a message to tell, or it was for profit. Either way, he did not start until he secured financing and that is how it is done. The student's would have had parent's sign off allowing minor's to appear on camera and they may have received a small amount for their appearance and of course the people who were on camera were screen before appearing. That is how it is done. If I recall, you and your wife are both Ivy League college graduate's or many it is your children who are attending Ivy League college's. Either way, you should be able to figure out this was a project for profit and not a project funded by the National Institute of Education to find out if each race is being fairly educated. If you can share how you did it, and how your children did it, then maybe tax payer's can save money on the constant demand's for new innovative way's to improve grade score's for all race's

Christopher Bell  

Posted: January 30th, 2020 3:33 PM

@ Kevin you are spot on. Attended funeral for oprf classmate and spoke w African American alumni ... when we graduated only 9% of school was black and people at funeral discussed the scarifice our parents made just to live in oak park. My class had 47 black males ... 38 are still alive ... so you see I have a 50 year view of oprf - as a African American - A2m was not fair or balanced ... I had Person on east coast (son college) ask if oak park is really racist..... not good for goodwill

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: January 30th, 2020 10:43 AM

@Christopher Bell: "America to Me" was a typical effort by Oak Park to perform self-flagellation, for no discernable gain.Some felt good after more self-inflicted pain. Like the martyr Savonarola, we can't be too pure and must die trying.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: January 29th, 2020 9:17 PM

@ Peter good point. The damage A2Me did to Oak Parks brand and property values far outways any value he created. Charles is smart and talented - lets hope he refocuses on education. Cant help but wonder if the after docuseries etc created lack of focus or simply the cost. Either way wish him and all the kids involved in series well. they paid their pound of flesh for Oak PArk.

Peter Hermann from Oak Park  

Posted: January 29th, 2020 7:14 PM

Just wondering: did Steve James, who received a few chump millions on this documentary, give any support to the students that he used, to make it through college?

Chris Johnson from OP  

Posted: January 29th, 2020 11:00 AM

Who knows... but he is getting more attention for dropping out and talking about his past. I hope he is looking towards his future somewhere in all those song lyrics and comments back at those that sinned against him. Hopefully the reason he dropped out isn't something that can be blamed on others.

Jasper Long from Oak Park  

Posted: January 29th, 2020 8:17 AM

I wish this piece would have delved into why he dropped out of college.

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