The tension around a hotly debated 2015 school event held only for students of color is still palpable in the opening scene of Kartemquin Films' first installment of America To Me, a 10-part documentary series about a Chicago-area high school airing on Starz. The first episode jumps into a controversial Black Lives Matter event at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
A voice emerges from behind the camera: "Did you go to the Black Lives Matter Assembly? Why?"
“I chose to go because that was the first time the school had ever put on an assembly like that. Also because I am black,” says one student.
Students' quips are punctuated with footage of their classmates flowing in shapeless blobs throughout what looks like a normal -- and visibly diverse -- Midwestern school. But there’s more than what meets the eye.
"I was told that it was a chance for African-Americans to express their feelings about what’s going on in this school," said one black student.
Schools have long been a battleground for a fair playing field in the quest for the American dream. The Chicago-area is infamous for it's systemic redlining of communities, as well as its uncanny history of mirroring Illinois' imbalanced allocation of resources across its schools.
Episode one of award-winning Hoop Dreams director Steve James' documentary series introduces viewers to twelve students and staff at OPRF as they wade through their fight against the permanence of racism in their own microcosm.
Hundreds of people come out to OPRF to watch #AmericaToMe. In comments before the screening, Supt. Pruitt-Adams vows "we are beyond talk. OPRF is committed to action to achieve racial equity." pic.twitter.com/54kWvCUJ5R— Linda Lutton (@lindalutton) August 27, 2018
Since America To Me was filmed in our backyard -- and across town, watch groups are tuned-in on Sunday nights -- we decided we’d watch and follow the discussions, too. Over the next several weeks, we’ll highlight key takeaways from the series and point to resources designed to deepen the watch experience. Don't show up to class without the talking points. Here's a quick fill-in:
'In this community, you mention race and all hell breaks loose'
Back to the top of the show. Viewers are walked through screenshots of news headlines pointing to a “really bad idea” going down in the township. That “dangerous precedent” was one of OPRF principal Nate Rouse’s -- a black man -- steps taken in District 200’s strategic plan to improve racial equity. Although Principal Rouse declined to appear in America To Me, articles quote him at the time standing firmly by his understanding that affinity groups like the BLM event could be healthy for students of color during today's political climate. One group of parents said an event like this was long overdue, while even more parents protested in outrage.
The featured OPRF students explained that the event served as a safe space for students of color to have a frank discussion about racially charged obstacles they had recently encountered.
“There are a lot of things you’d assume that wouldn’t have happened at this diverse school that did happen to kids -- and teachers,” said one student.
“Sometimes I don’t want to go to class because I know I’m the only black kid in that class...and then little comments from the white kids like, ‘How did you get in this class?’" shrugged another.
One of my most distinct memories of drill team is when a white girl said she didn’t want to touch my skin during kick line because “it’s gross.” Another is when the captain asked me if “eyeshadow even shows up on black skin.” #AmericaToMe— Britt Julious (@britticisms) August 27, 2018
As the music ramps up, episode one puts the big deal in Oak Park into black and white.
"People of other races were like, ‘Oh, why can’t we can’t we have an assembly? All lives matter, too’ " remembered one student.
“I guess they say that’s not fair that nobody white was able to voice their opinion but they are not going through the same stuff that we’re going through,” said Ke'Shawn, a featured high school junior.
One white student pressed: Why couldn't the event be open to students of all races? "Make it something that everyone hears because potentially everyone could help solve that kind of problem.” he asked.
An Illinois Report Card racial breakdown of OPRF's more than 3,200 students shows the school is 53% white, 22.5% black, 11.3% Hispanic and 3.3% Asian. America To Me unpacks how such a racially and culturally diverse school became a hotbed for this discussion.
Desegregation and integration in Oak Park
Thing about #AmericaToMe?— Patrick Erwin (@PatrickErwin) August 27, 2018
Oak Park is a town that tried. Miles ahead of most other towns in trying to build integrated living areas, squash redlining, etc.
Yet it's clear that there are still divides. Some hidden, some not so hidden. And almost never talked about.
OPRF is considered to be an academic leader and well-integrated school. It's home, Oak Park, is recognized for being home to renowned writers and architects, but it’s also known for some firsts and feats in civil rights. The township at the edge of the city made intentional strides towards integration of its schools and services, including fair housing policies.
A definition of integration from the episode 1 Real Talk discussion guides states: 'Integration' involves more than just mixing together people of different races - it involves leveling barriers, creating equal opportunities regardless of race, and developing a culture that values diverse individuals and traditions.
James explains that racial integration and inclusion is etched into his hometown's history over images of picket signs for integrated schools and equal housing. His quest for a renaissance of actionable hope between Austin and Oak Park Avenues moves us through time and tattles on the continued struggle for racial equity, which had enveloped his and his children’s experiences.
In the series, James and his crew ventured to his old stomping grounds to follow twelve students over the course of one year to shed light on those struggles. But that didn't come easy.
Over a swell of music, a misty eyed woman appears on the screen. It’s Dr. Chala Holland, the school’s assistant principal. She explained that the superintendent swooped down on OPRF to address the blowback from that Black Lives Matter assembly, and asked why the same urgency wasn’t expressed over years of stark racial disparities in academic achievement.
“We are failing our kids every single day,” Holland said. “Why are we not treating that with the same urgency as the Black Lives Matter thing?"
OPRF’s principal and superintendent didn’t want the cameras in the school. The school’s administrators spent five months debating whether or not to allow filmmakers inside.
One of the school board members, Dr. Jackie Moore, makes a candid statement which likely resonates with some of the opposition heard in the documentary about the series being made.
“If you’re feeling as though you can’t be honest or you’re afraid to say what you’re feeling because there’s a camera there -- and we’re talking about race -- what camera is in your head as you’re going through your day?” asked Moore.
The episode narrows to a single idea, that the racially and economically mixed school was no more special than other Chicago area schools like Naperville, Lisle, Aurora or Schaumburg. But it did demand special attention.
For the first time in 12 years, OPRF had looked into the racial disparities in student achievement. The results: “We are preparing our black students less well to compete with their peers,” said Amy Hill, Director of Assessment and Research. This school’s achievement gap had widened between black and white students again. That’s the “big deal.”
What to look out for in the next episode
A portion of Langston Hughes’ lauded 1935 poem, “Let America Be America Again” brings the first episode to a close:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
As one teacher towards the end of the first episode put it: “To move forward we have to step out of what society has put in both of our heads and connect together.”
Opportunities to watch America To Me with neighbors and OPRF students are scheduled weekly through the beginning of November. Keep a lookout for locations and times here.
Take the lead with learning materials and guides here.
America To Me airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on STARZ.
Gabrielle Wright is a producer for WBEZ. You can follow her @gabiawright on Twitter.