Watching 'America to Me'

Episode 1: 'What's the big deal about Oak Park?'

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter | Opinion

This is the first in a series of reaction pieces to each episode in the 10-part docuseries, "America to Me," currently airing each Sunday at 8 p.m. on the Starz channel. 

'The room numbers — that's deep'

The first scene of the first episode shows an African-American male student negotiating the terms of an interview about the explosive Black Lives Matter assembly that happened at OPRF during Black History Month in 2015. 

The assembly was held exclusively for African-American students — the school's auditorium, at least for that day, transformed into a protected space where black students could vent on their own terms about the way they are treated at the high school. 

At the time, the assembly provoked a harsh reaction from some community members and students (many if not most of them, presumably, white). James includes those voices later in the episode, but only as disembodied internet commenters. "It sounds like treason," one comment reads, referencing the assembly. "#BlackRacismMatters" reads another.

"Did you go to the Black Lives Matter assembly?" someone behind the camera asks an unnamed black male student.

"Wait, I don't get to ask the questions?" the student shoots back. 

"Did we go over answering in complete sentences?" a voice from behind the camera asks another student — an African-American female. 

"I naturally do that when I talk, so umm," the student responds. 

There's a lesson in this opening scene that frames the remainder of the first episode. James and his team masterfully reveal their own inadequacies and far-from-nimble attempts to engender trust between themselves and the students, who are highly sophisticated at jostling for control of their own narratives. 

That the filmmakers have, from the outset, ceded narrative control to the students is obvious — it's an exercise in active listening that is a staple of Steve James' documentaries.

The first scene, however, also works to disarm any whites who may come into the viewing experience with certain preconceptions, namely that they'll be made the villains in a great racial morality play. That's obviously not the case. 

But there is racial tension nonetheless and James shows how this often plays out, in very real terms, when he interviews the whip-smart Ke'Shawn Kumsa, an African-American student who is both supremely self-confident and dangerously vulnerable (Aside: at certain points in the episode, Kumsa wears a technicolor basketball jersey; he looks like he could be the regal subject of a Kehinde Wiley painting). 

"What's the big deal about Oak Park?" Kumsa asks, starkly announcing his position outside of the great liberal tradition that the village has built for itself since the 1970s. 

James, a longtime Oak Parker whose kids went to OPRF, explains in a disembodied voiceover that the tradition that Kumsa dismisses has to do with Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway and Percy Julian (whose "home was firebombed twice," James points out).

But the biggest deal of them all, James notes, is the tradition that most Oak Parkers pride themselves on; it has to do with the fact that the village resisted the phenomenon of white flight — of whites who moved, en masse, to other places when blacks started moving next door. 

"The white people who fled were mostly older and conservative," James explains. "The white people who moved in were younger and more liberal, wanting to be part of the American experiment in true diversity." 

What Oak Park since then has learned, however, is that "diversity is not the same as equity." 

Therein lies the crux of what James and his team attempt to explore. How can a bastion of liberalism, a national model of racial integration, maintain such stark racial disparities when it comes to how it educates its young people? 

How is Kumsa, a young black man who, according to his mother, has lived in Oak Park since he was 3 years old (whose own mother, we'll see in the next episode, attended OPRF) be so estranged from a liberal tradition that was expressly meant to benefit blacks like him?

The irony frames the whole film series and is announced in the film's title, which is pulled from a 1935 Langston Hughes poem, "Let America Be America Again." The poem is Whitmanesque in a technical and stylistic sense and also hauntingly contemporary. 

The poem's first stanza ("Let America be America again / Let it be the dream it used to be / Let it be the pioneer on the plain / Seeking a home where he himself is free.") echoes a chant by an unseen OPRF student on the first day of school ("We are OPRF … we embrace our diversity and our uniqueness, we thrive on opportunities given to us").

And both instances of idealistic rhetoric, whether we like it or not, echo this famous claim of a glorified, but mythical pastime: "Make America Great Again." To which a voice in Hughes' poem replies, "America never was America to me." 

Traditions, even great ones, can result in blind spots if the kind of criticism that anchors Hughes' poem isn't taken into account. But how to confront that blindness is easier said than done. 

Race at OPRF, the film shows, is lived as an amoral fact. It's a series of real-life propositions, split-second decisions, day-to-day tradeoffs. Race is a conundrum built atop layers and layers of decisions, some good, some bad, that actual, flesh-and-blood people are forced to navigate in the here and now. 

While viewing the first episode, I felt like the biracial freshman, Grant Lee, who gets lost (literally and metaphorically) trying to navigate OPRF (that massive, racially-charged maze). Lee not only has to contend with his own shyness and inexperience, he also has to contend with upper classmen who deliberately give him wrong directions to his algebra class for kicks (which is a non-racial hazing ritual at the school). 

Aaron Podolner, a physics teacher at OPRF, describes the injustice of it all. 

"The room numbers," he says. "That's deep. The school was built in 17 different parts or 17 different times. It's just terribly obvious who a freshman is, because they have this vacant look in their eyes, almost a sense of unfairness. They're like, 'How come 289 is not next to 288?"

That's race, in a nutshell. 


Reader Comments

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Jason Cohen  

Posted: August 30th, 2018 3:51 PM

@Jim, I do see your point but I think it's simply about focus and my numbers are much lower for Hispanic and Asian students. They make up about 15% total which is still meaningful. You are likely adding in multi-racial students which is somewhat represented in the doc at least. I also only watched the one episode so I don't know if they do focus any time on anyone else. I am sure the majority of the focus will be on the AA community but maybe more will be discussed. For anyone interested here's the detail from the school on the most relevant demographic info.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: August 30th, 2018 3:46 PM

One of the most interesting aspects of this documentary is that it actually does send a wake up call to all the liberals in OP myself included. Here we live in a very liberal community that professes to be so diverse and support everyone and yet we aren't. There's a whole lot of NIMBY here. The attitude is "I am happy to help as long as it really doesn't impact me very much". This isn't everyone to be clear but it's a lot of people. As much as the right leaning folks here don't like this documentary I can tell you plenty of people on the left don't like it either. It cuts to the core of our community and what it really means to support each other. This has nothing to do with money. There's enough money. It's about a willingness to do things differently and being open to these issues so they can at least be discussed.

Tom MacMillan  

Posted: August 30th, 2018 3:19 PM

the big deal about Oak Park would seem to be that if people from Chicago want to avoid the schools there, they just find an aunt or sister or whatever living in Oak Park and somehow they are magically in the Oak Park school system. These all seem to be great kids on the program, but at least two are doing that, so how many other kids are also doing that and does Chicago or the State help pay for it, or is that cost all on the Oak Park taxpayers? At a cost of $100,000 per kid, it has to add up to a big part of the school's budget. If every kid trying to avoid bad schools in Chicago comes here, is Oak Park going to just eat all of that cost? Is this why costs at D97 a D200 are going up so much? Are they really living with their guardians? No one is talking about it on the show, but they imply the people of Oak Park are bad guys while we are funding all of that. Not very fair. At a minimum, Chicago should be helping us, then we could do more for the kids who are coming in that way..

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: August 30th, 2018 2:18 PM

And thank you to @Bridgett for answering what I thought was a very reasonable question. I'm glad to hear that the other races, including mixed ones are represented! Looking forward to watching-- and FINISHING -- the series!

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: August 30th, 2018 2:15 PM

@ Jason, here's why including other races matters. When most people view the series, they do so to answer 2 general questions: 1. What is (truly) happening? and 2. Why? Setting aside your assumption that this is solely about AA and whites, which frankly I can't find substantiation for anywhere (every single review and interview of Steve James I've seen on the "purpose" of the documentary is to talk about "race" and "students of color," which obviously includes Latinos and Asians, not just AA), I don't see how not including the perspectives of almost 25% of the student population can possibly adequately tell the story that answers question 1, much less question 2. As for me, I would want to know if there are the systemic root causes across the different racial groups that are impacting the achievement gap, or solely confined to one racial group. Without that consideration, you get a very partial picture which may lead to very imperfect conclusions. On the other hand, if one already has their mind made up then one has no interest in answering either questions 1 or 2, and is probably fine with a partial picture. My guess is then that all they want to do is yell and scream their point and then feel good about themselves afterwards.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: August 30th, 2018 8:39 AM

What I'm saying Bruce is that people are bringing their own preconceptions to this discussion. The film maker shot more than 3,000 hours over a year, and boiled it down to some 20 hours. I acknowledge you've said you'll view the remaining episodes to "affirm or deny" your first impression. I just think an issue that is as multifaceted and complex - and sensitive- as the one James is attempting to tackle deserves a wait and see approach. But that's just me.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: August 30th, 2018 7:27 AM

@Bruce, explain how focusing on the Asian and Hispanic students changes anything about this documentary? The focus is on the AA issues and the comparison between these students and the white students. These two groups make up a vast majority of the students. When you watch a documentary on the civil war that focuses on one side or the other do you turn it off because it doesn't have every single angle covered? I am guessing not. I am sure the Asian and Hispanic students have their own experiences that have merit but it's not the focus of this documentary. I get that you don't want to like it and this provides an out for you to marginalize the content in some way so there's no real point trying to change your mind. The good news is many in our community care about this topic and are at least open to learning more.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 11:50 PM

Jason: Good points. Although sometimes what is left unsaid says a lot about what is in fact said.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 11:48 PM

Bill: Let me get this straight. Are you saying before one can utter an opinion one way or the other one must sit through all ten episodes? One must remain silent until then? If so, why have discussion groups as was done at the high school after viewing episode one (and will have after future episodes), or at various private homes, for that matter? And guess what? Apparently, opinions, some very strong opinions in fact, were expressed at said groups despite only viewing one episode. IMO, one can have an opinion about a part of a work of art which may in fact differ than the overall opinion of the whole piece. One can like a book overall, but find a particular chapter very bad, or vice versa. Same thing with film: a particular scene may be particularly noteworthy while the whole film quite mediocre or vice versa. As near as I can tell, opinions expressed were based upon episode one, and no pretense was made about the work in full. I see nothing wrong with that, nor do I infer, the many that have had discussion groups as well as those who have participated in such groups ... even after viewing only one episode.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 10:24 PM

How about instead of judging this based on the people left out we judge it on the actual thing it's focused on. Nobody seems to mention gay and lesbian students. What about transgender? What about kids that have been bullied? The list goes on and on. The documentary is focused on something. That's why it was made. Instead of being so concerned about the people not in it, at least as of yet, let's focus on those they are showing.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 10:18 PM

Amazing to me so many people have an opinion about a 10-part series that has aired just one episode. Perhaps they should finish reading the book before forming an opinion. Otherwise you're just being- what's the word? Pre-judicial?

Bridgett Baron  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 9:34 PM

Jim, to answer your question, one student they follow in this doc is bi-racial AA/Asian, and another is Hispanic. Another student is bi-racial AA/White. Two are white, and the rest are AA. In addition to racial diversity, there is also diversity in gender, gender identity, economic levels, family structure...It's a lot of different stories, different people to follow...quite an undertaking, for sure.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 9:28 PM

Jason: In terms of "gaps" I believe the "math gap" between "asian" students and "whites" is bigger than said gap between white students and black (at least on a national level). And I agree with Jim. Attack ideas first, not people. And so far based upon my viewing of episode ONE a person, from say Peoria, would come away with the impression that while white, asian and latinos at OPRFHS are physically present (the percents are displayed in one graphic if I recall correctly), their perspectives and views are irrelevant. I will try to view the next nine episodes to either affirm or deny this first impression. But episode ONE is extraordinarily one sided, which is c/w Mr. James use of artistic license ... but not truth necessarily.

John Abbott  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 6:29 PM

Michael, thanks for this, and I look forward to following your commentaries over the coming weeks. That said, I have a bone to pick with your discussion of the fallout from the Black Lives Matter assembly from 2015. I don't doubt that many OP'ers were critical of this event (I remember arguing with several of them at the time). But it strikes me as sloppy journalism to assume that "disembodied internet commentators" could be assumed to be "community members and students." (Actually, this criticism extends to the documentary itself, which seems to take selected internet comments about the assembly at face value.) We should know enough by now about social media to acknowledge that not everyone weighing in on a topic is necessarily a direct stakeholder in the situation at hand. Beyond that, of course, lies the realm of professional social media trolls (some of them employed by the Russian government), who spend a lot of time intervening in these channels with the express aim of sowing division and acrimony. Again, I make this point not to suggest that the OP community was free of these sentiments. But we need to stop dignifying online commentary sections (and yes, I fully recognize the irony in my saying this here) as *necessarily* representative of real, face-to-face community opinion. Thanks!

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 6:02 PM

Sorry.. meant to say "if it's true that they're (Latino and Asian kids) not represented..." then it's a shame.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 6:00 PM

@Jason, thanks. That said, I don't endorse ad hominem attacks on people with whose opinions one disagrees, because it diverts attention from the argument and prevents understanding. I suspect that the Latino and Asian students at OPRF would disagree strongly that their perspective is not an important one to understanding the dynamic at OPRF and what may or may not be contributing to the "achievement gap." I do think it it's true that they're not represented (and I haven't seen it...YET) that the series will omit a key element of what folks want from watching it -- an more comprehensive understanding of the truth.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 5:47 PM

Alex Garcia from Berwyn? Stay in your lane!

Jason Cohen  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 5:35 PM

@Alex, instead of showing your ignorance you might want to educate yourself a bit and watch the documentary. One of the kids they spend a lot of time speaking with is biracial. Sorry to ruin your rant. There's also no one side versus another portrayed at least from the first episode. Knowledge is power so you might to try some.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 4:15 PM

I see, Jason. Thanks for the explanation. White versus black; black versus white. No subtly. No nuance or recognition that just maybe Latinos, Asians, biracial folks, whomever play a role in some way. Perpetual black/white racial discord and animosity stoked by a (mostly) white lefties who seem to have made careers for themselves out of it. And so it goes...

Jason Cohen  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 2:21 PM

@Jim, it's on the achievement gap between white and black students. That's the largest disparity so that's the focus of the documentary.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 1:56 PM

I asked this question before but no one seems to have an answer. If this is about race, then are the perspectives of Latino and Asian students also explored? I'm just wondering since it seems like an obvious question, to me at least.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: August 29th, 2018 1:41 PM

"Race is a conundrum built atop layers and layers of decisions..." No, Michael. Evidently, "race" is something for you, James and certain others in our society to use as a wedge and a platform from which to get paid. For the rest of us, it's usually an incidental distraction subsumed within more important aspects of day-to-day life.

Jessica Mackinnon from Oak P ark  

Posted: August 28th, 2018 4:37 PM

Another incisive piece of writing by Michael Romain. I'm looking forward to reading his takes on each episode for the next two months.

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