When Theodore Rosengarten won the National Book Award in 1975 for “All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw,” he beat out a classic of nonfiction, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s “All the President’s Men,” at the height of the Watergate scandal.

Forty years later, general readers tend to know “All the President’s Men” while Rosengarten’s work is obscure. Now the New York Times has drawn fresh attention to “All God’s Dangers” in “Lost in Literary History: A Tale of Courage in the South.” (Read full story here.)

The book began simply — as a conversation. In 1968, Rosengarten accompanied his future wife, Dale, on a trip to Alabama for research on her senior thesis, an examination of the Sharecroppers Union of the 1930s. The union, which existed only a handful of years, once attracted 10,000 members. Many members were forced underground after threats of violence turned into lynching – making a study of a primarily black, Communist-led organization difficult work.

Once the couple arrived in Alabama, they met “Nate Shaw,” then 84. His real name was Ned Cobb. One question — “Why did you join the union?”–  led to eight hours of quotes from the former farmer, whose sharp detail convinced Rosengarten there was a story here. The writer returned again and again to collect Cobb’s recollections. In 1974, the northerner brought them to the public as “All God’s Dangers,”  changing Cobb’s name for his family’s safety.

Cobb, an illiterate sharecropper whose father was born into slavery, went out on his own at 19 and was almost immediately successful, in spite of not having a formal education. He managed to become one of the first black farmers to own a car and his own share of mules. Critics lauded Cobb’s tales, with one review mentioning “All God’s Dangers” in the same breath as Homer’s Odyssey.

Today Rosengarten is a 69-year-old professor at the Zucker/Goldberg Center for Holocaust Education at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

One sign that the book may be finding a new generation of readers: its current rank among Amazon bestsellers is 33.

Twenty years ago, Charlotte-based consultant Valaida Fullwood encountered philanthropy close to home. Her 70-year-old aunt, Dora Atlas, right around the corner from retirement, began a new project: serving free meals to residents in a public housing community in Asheboro, North Carolina. 

Now in her 90s, Aunt Dora’s soup kitchen is still operating. Fullwood tells this story in her book, “Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists,” which praises the legacy of everyday givers in black households. 

Fullwood knows the legacy is impressive. Each year, African-Americans allocate a higher percentage of their income to charity than other racial groups. Yet, most hesitate to label themselves “philanthropists,” a term more closely associated with the wealthy. 

To enlarge perceptions of what giving looks like, the Cleveland Foundation hosts the biennial African American Philanthropy Summit. Its mission is to raise the visibility of African-American philanthropy and to encourage more. Anisfield-Wolf jury chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. will deliver the keynote in conversation with journalist Russ Mitchell for the 2014 summit April 26. 

 “The African-American Philanthropy Committee was created as an advisory committee of the Cleveland Foundation in 1993, under the leadership of then-CEO Steven A. Minter. Ever since, the committee has served as a national model of community engagement,” notes Ronald B. Richard and Kaye M. Ridolfi in a joint letter. He is the foundation’s CEO and president and she is its senior vice president of advancement.

Taking a note from the foundation’s centennial, the summit is cataloging 100 acts of African-American philanthropy, encouraging everyone to submit examples of giving, whether it’s in time, talent or treasure. Join the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #GivingHasNoColor or email your story to AAPC@clevefdn.org.

A few tickets for this year’s summit remain. For more information or to register, visit www.clevelandfoundation.org/AAPC

In early February, Facebook rolled out 56 new gender identities for user profiles. Selections such as “pangender” and “two-spirit” now drop-down in a list that gives users more ways to describe themselves.

When she heard the news, transgender advocate Janet Mock, 30, sent out a simple “Yeeesss” on Twitter. Over the past three years, Mock has been increasingly visible and unapologetic about her goals: to provide more spaces for the trans community to be open about their stories and their identities. Hers began 30 years ago in Hawaii and continued during her teen years in Oakland, Cal. She was the first member of her family to attend college, graduating with degrees from the University of Hawaii and New York University.

In 2011, Mock publicly proclaimed her identity as a transgender woman in an Marie Claire essay.

“When I came into adulthood, I learned from other trans women that you need to be quiet,”  said Mock, who had gender reassignment surgery at age 18.  “Go and move on and be successful; that was the model that they had…So I did that, and for a while it was amazing, but part of myself felt like I was silencing myself again.”

After publication of the Marie Claire essay, Mock began the #GirlsLikeUs hashtag on Twitter, intending to use it as a safe place for trans women to gather and connect. It is thriving, with close to 1,000 tweets transmitted per day, and ample participation from trans women on Facebook, Instagram, and Google+.

“These social media platforms can be a lifeline for people who are struggling with identity, who are struggling with self, who don’t have validation, affirmation and real-life friendships,” Mock explained in a recent At Google talk. “Most trans women grow up in isolation.”

Mock’s 2014 memoir, Redefining Realness from Atria Press, continues her advocacy, and amplifies her narrative beyond transitioning and gender reassignment surgery. Mock chooses to be bold on the page, diving into the pain of childhood sexual abuse, the teenage period of engaging in sex work to pay for her surgery, and the mending of her relationship with her strict, Southern Baptist father. 

In a series of short videos filmed in concert with the book release, Mock discusses her thoughts on “passing” as a cisgender woman (one aligned with their assigned sex at birth), the significance of pop culture in her life’s journey, and more. Take a look. 

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.— who served as executive producer, host, and writer for “The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” —learned this week that his six-part documentary won the highest honor in broadcasting: a Peabody Award.

“This is a great victory of all of us that love African-American history and those of us that want to see it become an explicably intertwined part of American culture,” Gates said in a statement on TheRoot.com. “This took five years and is a great victory for our ancestors and their sacrifices, and they should be celebrated every day in a school curriculum, and my hope is that the DVD will be used in every classroom from kindergarten to college.”

For the first time in its 73 year history, the Peabodys were announced live on television. CBS This Morning broke the news, naming the winners for the best work in TV, radio, and Internet storytelling, Gates, who chairs the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, shared his elation with the rest of the jury – poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, psychologist Steven Pinker and historian Simon Schama. Each sent their congratulations. Gates, who wrote that he was “ecstatic,” celebrated by taking in a Knicks game.

Other winners include the comparable PBS series “Latino Americans” and Michele Norris’ Race Card Project. Read the entire list of winners here.

As our profile begins to grow as a book award, from time to time we like to recognize some of the beautiful writing others have done on our behalf. Barbara Hoffert, past president of the National Book Critics Circle, authored an elegant write-up about this year’s winners for the Library Journal, aptly titled, “Celebrate the Past, Look to the Future.”

Since their founding in 1935 by Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf to honor books that confront racism and celebrate diversity, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have called out major writers to us, among them Nadine Gordimer, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka, and Derek Walcott—generally before they became Nobel Laureates….

From Israel to the Caribbean, Chechnya to the boxing rings of Jim Crow America—the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have come far from Edith Anisfield Wolf’s Cleveland. But in spirit they are right at home.

Continue reading…

Historian Simon Schama is careful not to call his new PBS series the “definitive” look at Jewish history, but by others’ estimation, it is close.

The Columbia University professor and Anisfield-Wolf juror leads viewers through more than 3,000 years of Jewish history in the five-hour documentary, “The Story of the Jews.” For Schama, who is Jewish, the subject matter is not only personal, but pertinent.

Condensing thousands of years of Jewish history was no easy feat, but Schama went to great lengths to show the beauty and resilience of Jewish culture. “It’s not just a history of death and smoke and disaster,” Schama says. 

The documentary is based on Schama’s newly released book of the same name. Volume one, “The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD” hit bookshelves this month and the second volume, covering 1492 to the present, will be released this fall. 

Episodes one and two premiere March 25 at 8 p.m., and episodes three through five debut on April 1. Watch the three-minute trailer below and tell us if you’ll be tuning in:

Novelists Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – both Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners — displayed a warm, comfortable familiarity on stage for their recent appearance at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

Fresh off Adichie’s National Book Critics Circle win for “Americanah,” her novel about “love, race and hair,” the conversation between the two literary lionesses veered from the amusing to the insightful. Watch the duo discuss Adichie’s fascination with race and class, the absurdity of romance novels, and Beyonce.

For the first time, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards will sponsor a movie at the Cleveland International Film Festival: the documentary, “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth.” It will screen three times this month.

Directed by long-time Alice Walker collaborator Pratibha Parmar, the film weaves interviews, readings and archival footage to explore the themes of Walker’s literary work and advocacy. At age 70, Walker is best known for writing The Color Purple, 1982’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It generated enormous controversy, and an influential film, which the documentary explores. Also central is Walker’s lifelong activism – stretching from voter registration drives in the 1960s to championing women’s rights in the present-day. Collaborators and critics and Walker herself speak to the merits of her political life. Watch the trailer below:

“Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” will screen on three successive days: March 26 at 4:15 p.m., March 27 at 9:30 a.m. in Tower City, and March 28, at 7:00 p.m. at the Shaker Square Cinema. Festival attendees can take advantage of the Cleveland Foundation’s discount code in honor of its centennial (CLE100) and save $2 on the purchase of every ticket to every film throughout the festival. Purchase tickets here.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” took the top prize for fiction at the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Awards .

Karen Long, Anisfield-Wolf manager and judge for the NBCC, praised Adichie’s latest: “Americanah”—it should be stressed—doesn’t reprimand. The writing glints; minor characters flair and spark.”

In a recent HuffPost Live interview, Adichie asserted that “Americanah” was the book she wanted to write for her own personal satisfaction:

“I felt almost liberated,” she remarked. “This is the novel where I’m completely having fun and I’m free. I’m not burdened by a sense of duty of responsibility. I was just having fun. With Half of a Yellow Sun, I felt this weight of responsibility. I knew many people would read the novel not as fiction, but as history….With Americanah, there was no burden.”

On the eve of the NBCC awards, Adichie stopped by the Bruce Lehrer Show to discuss the themes of race and identity woven throughout Americanah. Listen to the interview in its entirety below:

Andrew Solomon dedicated a chapter of his Anisfield-Wolf winning Far from the Tree on families whose children have committed serious crimes. He interviewed parents of gang leaders, killers and sex offenders, examining the place of the family during and after the child’s stint in prison. In the only interview published with the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the two shooters in 1999’s Columbine massacre, Solomon showed the complexity of their lives: “I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born,” Sue Klebold says of her son. “But I believe it would not have been better for me.”

Because of this book, Peter Lanza reached out to Solomon to tell his side.  Lanza is the father of Adam Lanza, the killer of 26 elementary school children, his mother and himself in Newtown, Conn. This led to Solomon interviewing the father for seven sessions, which resulted in a New Yorker article that made national news.  The senior Lanza discusses his son, the massacre and its aftermath.  He believes that Adam’s autism masked an underlying emotional disorder, one that went undetected by the numerous psychologists and psychiatrists who examined Adam.

For Anisfield-Wolf fans in Ohio, there are still tickets available to his March 18 appearance in Cleveland for the Cuyahoga County Library’s Writers Center Stage series.

Few writers have made the kind of spectacular, multimedia splash onto the literary scene the way James McBride has.

McBride, 56, first attracted attention in 1996, for his memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. It sat atop the New York Times bestsellers list for two years, selling more than two million copies and winning an Anisfield-Wolf award for nonfiction. His first novel, 2002’s The Miracle of St. Anna, enjoyed a movie adaptation from director Spike Lee, for which McBride adapted the screenplay.

But Song Yet Sung received a quieter reception in 2008. “Only eight people read it, and I have 11 brothers and sisters so that’s saying something,” he quipped at his recent appearance at the Hudson Library & Historical Society in Ohio.

It’s safe to say McBride has rebounded nicely with The Good Lord Bird. A picaresque story built around abolitionist John Brown, the story is told through the eyes of runaway slave Henry Shackleford, a boy passing as a girl. It won the 2013 National Book Award in November; McBride was so surprised he carried his dinner napkin up to the lectern, where he had to improvise an acceptance speech.

“In jazz, lots of people play the same songs,” McBride told the Daily Beast. “But it’s the way you play it is what distinguishes you from the next man or woman who plays it.”

Indeed, music informs McBride’s writing, and vice versa. An accomplished tenor saxophonist, McBride has traveled with jazz legend Jimmy Scott and composed songs for Anita Baker. For his last two books, McBride has married the literary with the musical on tour with what is now the Good Lord Bird band. The quintet performed funky, jazz-infused renditions of enduring gospel hymns, often packing auditoriums and driving audience members to their feet. Others sway in their seats.

Watch this clip of the band’s performance at the New York Public Library.

McBride, who earned a conservatory degree at Oberlin College in 1979, noted the connection he felt with John Brown, who worked for a time at Oberlin, and whose father was a trustee.

“History depends on who’s telling it — and why,” he said. The novel “seemed a way to thrust Brown into the reality of now.”

Fresh off a feature on Beyonce’s secret album, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stopped by HuffPost Live to talk about how her latest work, Americanah, fits in her literary career and how she found comfort in breaking the rules.

Watch as Adichie, a 2007 Anisfield-Wolf award winner, discusses embracing her fashion sense as a “serious writer,” the importance of race and class in feminism, and more.


A play about the realities of black students at Harvard University debuts Friday at the Black Arts Festival on the Harvard campus. Hosted by various multicultural campus organizations, the “I, Too, Am Harvard” performance focuses on the daily microaggressions black students face at the predominately white university. (The most recent university data puts the black student population at 5.2 percent of the 21,000-plus student body.)

“As far back as I could remember, I’ve always been pretty cognizant of race,” one student remarked in the 5-minute promo video. “But this past semester was uncomfortable because it was the first time in a long time that I felt the burden of being black in the classroom and being black walking around Harvard’s campus…This year, I just felt like ‘the other.'”

The corresponding #ITooAmHarvard campaign has launched on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr to further the conversation.

Students at Harvard aren’t the only ones using social media to spread their message of isolation and frustration. In the fall of 2013, the Black Student Union at the University of Michigan flooded Twitter with the #BBUM hashtag (which stands for “being black at University of Michigan”). Three months later, they organized a “Speak Out” protest that drew more than 1,000 attendees on campus. Earlier this year, UCLA junior Sy Stokes’ spoken word video went viral with the assertion that his school has more NCAA championships than black male freshmen.

What do you make of these movements? Is social media a strong medium for drawing attention to these matters?

During January’s State of the Union address, President Obama included one sentence midway through his remarks that didn’t receive much attention during the post-speech analysis: “And I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.” 
Today the White House is expanding on that sentence and launching its new initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper,” aimed at providing more services for young African-American and Hispanic men to address and the social, economic and judicial disparities. 
White House officials identified several focus areas for the initiative: solving inequalities within schools and the criminal justice system, increasing mentoring opportunities in minority communities, and strengthening families. Statistics are indeed sobering, with young men of color at elevated risk of school suspension, unemployment and entanglement with the criminal justice system. 
“When we let this many boys and young men fall behind – we are crippling our ability to reach our full potential as a nation,” said Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the president.
To finance this effort, more than $200 million has been pledged by numerous foundations and businesses, including McDonalds and the National Basketball Association. Little federal funding is being requested from Congress. 
“I have no desire to be one of those Presidents who are just on the list—you see their pictures lined up on the wall,” then Senator Obama said back in 2007. “I really want to be a President who makes a difference.” 
Read the full announcement here

At 38, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior correspondent for The Atlantic’s online property, has become one of the nation’s foremost writers on race and culture. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Coates (whose first name is pronounced Tah-Nuh-Hah-See) found himself on stage at the Cleveland Public Library before a large, diverse crowd that included students from the all-male Ginn Academy, a Cleveland public high school. The boys created a crimson line in the audience in their signature red blazers.

Despite the formal setting, Coates was quick to share his humble beginnings. Born in West Baltimore, he came of age in “the era where black boys died,” he said. Drugs and violence decimated entire communities, but Coates said his saving grace was his parents’ strict guidance. His father, Paul Coates, was a former Black Panther who encouraged his seven children to immerse themselves in African-American history. His father ran an independent publishing house, Black Classic Press, out of their basement, while his mother, Cheryl, worked as the breadwinner for many years.

In conversation on stage with Plain Dealer Book Editor Joanna Connors, Coates described a young Ta-Nehisi as bright but unable to focus in school or earn passing grades. But in a junior-level English class — which he was repeating his senior year — he came across a passage in Macbeth that worked as revelation: words, put in the right order, could be beautiful. He found the poetry of Shakespeare reminded him of his favorite lyricist, Rakim. Admitted to Howard University, he reveled in Zora Neale Hurston’s words. “She wrote about black people as I knew black people,” he said.

A series of writing gigs at The Village Voice and Time Magazine led him to The Atlantic. Coates rules his corner of the site like an unabashed totalitarian, seeing his role as a blogger as parallel to a dinner party host. He deletes comments he sees as adding nothing to the conversation and engages those that give him something to chew on. He is not afraid to be schooled, and readily admits he is nothing if not “insanely curious.”

At the tail end of 2012, Coates devoured all 600-plus pages of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and began 2013 with a pointed critique of American politics, concluding that “America does not really want a black middle class.”

“America says to its citizens, ‘Play by the rules, and you will enjoy the right to compete,'” Coates wrote. “The black migrants did play by the rules, but they did not enjoy the right to compete. Black people have been repeatedly been victimized by the half-assed social contract.”

The intersection of injustice and policy fuels many a blog post. Over the past few weeks, Coates has dedicated the majority of his space to understanding the outcome of the jury verdict given Michael Dunn, the 47-year-old white man who shot into a car outside a Florida convenience store. Inside the vehicle were four unarmed teenage black boys; Dunn killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis.

Speaking on Davis and Trayvon Martin, Coates said, “They were robbed of the right to experience the world, to allow the world to change them. They are frozen in time in their boyhood.”

As the father of a 13-year-old son, Coates said these incidents haunt him. Still, he doesn’t believe he is as strict a parent as his own father. He explored their dynamic in his debut book, 2009’s The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, and appeared to still be coming to terms with the current state of their relationship.

“I work hard to make my son accountable for his own dreams,” Coates said. “He talks about all these goals where he wants to play soccer for a German club or go work at Google. I’m telling him, yeah, that’s great, but are you practicing? Did you do your math homework? Being smart and talented is useless without hard work.”

Philosophy Professor David Livingstone Smith kicked off the University of New England’s 2014 diversity lecture series with a talk on why “race” is a destructive concept.

The 2012 Anisfield-Wolf nonfiction award winner for “Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others” stated his mission at the top: “I wish to liberate you. I do not think I will succeed, but I hope I will raise questions about certain beliefs you take for granted.”

Smith presented his audience with a slide of four individuals with light skin and typical European facial features. He then asked the audience if they could determine which two were, in fact, African-American. It proved puzzling for those assembled. (See the slide here.)

“Virtually every genocide that I know enough about has been a racialized genocide,” Smith told his listeners on the Maine campus. “The notion of race gets us into a lot of trouble.”

Smith, who has taught philosophy at the university since 2000, is also the co-founder of The Human Nature Project, which explores evolutionary biology and human nature. He is the author of seven books, including Less Than Human, a centerpiece text in several college classes, including the Anisfield-Wolf course at Case Western Reserve University.

Watch his entire talk below on the “race delusion” and share your thoughts:

Anti-racism activist Tim Wise joked that he was on his third visit to the University of Akron campus in the past 15 years and was pleased to see the audience increase each time.

Wise, 45, opened the evening by taking note of his privilege as a middle-class, college-educated, heterosexual white man. “I’m here because I fit the aesthetic for what’s necessary for white people to talk about racism in America,” he boomed. “People of color get up and say it all the time, but they get ignored. The real measure of post-racial America is when a black person can stand here and receive the same reception I do.”

Acknowledging his privilege is the cornerstone of Wise’s career. Born in Nashville, Tennessee, he received his B.A. from Tulane University, where he led an anti-apartheid student group. In the early 1990s, he moved south to become a coordinator for the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, whose mission was to extinguish the political future of white supremacist, David Duke. Wise moved on to community organizing in New Orleans’ public housing, and to work as a policy analyst for a children’s advocacy group.

His 2005 memoir, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, still sells briskly. It also still fuels debate on the soundness of a white man’s prominence in the anti-racism movement, endorsements by Angela Davis and Cornel West notwithstanding.  And White’s public speaking habit of shifting into “white” voice to contrast with his “black” voice can be cringe-inducing.

Still, if there were critics tucked into the Akron crowd of 500 at E.J. Thomas Hall, they stayed quiet. Several African-Americans nodded vigorously as Wise laid out his points. “You can’t solve social problems with silence,” he argued. “I invite white folks to have the difficult conversations.”

Structural inequity should bother everyone, Wise said, and as the country’s demographics shift toward majority-minority, equality is more important than ever. “What binds us as Americans?” Wise asked the crowd. “It’s the myth of meritocracy — that anyone can make it if you try hard enough.”

Wise argued that this simplistic dogma ignores reality. “Here’s one fact for you: 500 white people in this country have the same accumulated wealth as 41 million black people,” Wise said. The crowd fell silent. “If you think that’s because those 500 people just somehow worked harder…no amount of education will help you.”

Wise swiveled his focus to a 1963 Gallup poll, when two-thirds of white Americans believed that blacks had equal opportunity for fair housing, education and employment, even as the civil rights movement was bubbling to a fever pitch.

Wise didn’t hesitate in calling such respondents out. “They were delusional,” he said, voice rising. “But there wasn’t any penalty for being ignorant of black and brown issues. It’s not on the test. Whatever white folks think is important, black people have to learn that. That will damn sure be on the test. White folks write the test. That’s the luxury of being the norm.”

Filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley knew he wanted to make a film on Rita Dove. So the director of documentaries on former NAACP chairman Julian Bond and revolutionary Che Guevara decided to finance the project out of his own pockets.

“To have someone like Rita Dove expressing herself in generational terms by talking about her father and grandfather in her poetry was, to me, like a triple jackpot,” the Virginia-based filmmaker said. “I got the writer I was looking for. I got the story I was looking for, and I had it all right here at home.” 

The result is “Rita Dove: An American Poet” built from family photos, home videos and interviews with its subject  Montes-Bradley explores the former poet laureate’s formative years and asks how a girl from Akron, Ohio, became one of the most lauded poets of our time. 

The film premiered in late January to a sold-out crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Dove, 61, has been a professor at the University of Virginia since 1989. Boyd Tinsley, violinist with the Dave Matthews Band, gave remarks post-screening, followed by a few selected poems from Dove herself. Later, Dove sat for a brief Q&A with the director of University of Virginia’s creative writing program. 

“What I love about the film is that it manages to maintain some mystery,” Dove remarked. “It resists the stamp of ‘this is Rita Dove.’ And his attention to the influence of music in my life — I am just extremely grateful for.”

Indeed, music is her center. The accomplished musician, whose talents extend to the viola da gamba (related to the cello), finds that both music and poetry “scratch the same itch.” Dove’s connection to music lead to the little-known story of African-European violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower, a protege of Ludwig van Beethoven. He inspired her 2009 book, “Sonata Mulattica.” 

“I am obsessed with music,” Dove mused. “And poetry is a perfect vehicle for it because words are music. I’m obsessed with trying to capture what sensations music gives us.”  

Watch footage following the premiere of the documentary, captured by Dove’s husband of 35 years, writer Fred Viebahn.  

When 13-year-old Idris Brewster, subject of the thought-provoking documentary “American Promise,” is invited to a classmate’s bat mitzvah, he says he hasn’t much interest. None of the girls ever want to dance with him, and he has a good idea why.

“I bet if I was white, I’d be better off,” he says plainly.

His parents, filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, are sitting off camera. They let the moment land.

Such incidents occur often in the two-hour film, which follows Idris and his best friend Seun Summers for 13 years at The Dalton School, a prestigious college preparatory institution in Manhattan. The documentary premiered on PBS in February and is available to viewers on the PBS website until March 6, 2014. Then it goes on sale.

Since it made the rounds at last year’s film festivals (winning a jury prize at Sundance), American Promise has sparked a new round of conversation about black male educational achievement. The numbers are sobering. Black children are more likely to have ineffective teachers and fewer educational resources, which may partly explain why black males are also twice as likely to drop out.

Brewster and Stephenson said their motives were simple. “We were confident that [attending Dalton] would set them on a course for academic success and we wanted to capture it all on film,” they write in their filmmaker’s statement. “This personal experience pushed us to expose the impact of the unique social and emotional needs of black boys on their academic performance.”

Serving a dual role as parents and filmmakers, Idris’ parents demand nothing but excellence from him and their younger son, Miles. They have no trouble expressing their exasperation when Idris doesn’t live up to expectations. After a particularly rough semester, Idris’ parents develop a spreadsheet to better manage Idris’ time. “Every hour of the day is accounted for,” Joe says.

Life at Dalton, which sends 30 percent of its graduates to Ivy League colleges, challenges all of its students, but those problems are magnified for African-American males. Dalton administrators talk on camera about how often black boys falter at the school, but suggest few solutions. The pattern is evident with Idris and Seun. They start out in kindergarten with a thirst for knowledge, but by sixth grade things are souring.

Parents of other black boys at Dalton express discomfort with the changes they see in their sons. And they wonder whether the sacrifice is worth it. Tuition runs $25,000 and some parents spend an addition $30,000 per year on tutors. They ask how their sons can compete.

The pressure is palpable as the boys as grow into young men. Seun is diagnosed with dyslexia and his parents hire a tutor to help him keep up. But the demands increase even as Seun—very bright and capable, according to his teachers—falls further behind. He transfers to a public school where the student body is predominately African-American. He begins to feel more comfortable, and this seems reflected in his work.

Idris remains at Dalton, where he is pushed (by his parents and teachers) beyond his perceived limitations. As he matures, his struggles with identity become more apparent. He learns the art of “code switching” — changing language, tone and posture as his company changes.

Brewster and Stephenson put together a companion book, Promises Kept, which expands on the film and offers parents and educators with resources to help close the achievement gap.

“Essentially, how well students do is how well we do as a nation,” Stephenson said. “The two are interlinked and intertwined. If we really want to compete at a level that makes sense to maintain, not only our status but our community and our values in this country, we have to take care of all of our children.”

Looking out over the multiracial crowd of more than 600 assembled at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall, journalist Michele Norris paused in her remarks to make a quick observation.
“Within my lifetime, a theater with this composition would be unheard of, if not illegal,” she said, quickly adding, “And I’m not that old.”
The former host of NPR’s All Things Considered was brought to campus to discuss the growing acclaim of her latest venture, The Race Card Project. Norris, 52, revealed that the project—six-word submissions on race and identity—grew out of increasingly difficult conversations she had with her family on race and being black in America.
Born and raised in Minnesota, Norris was unaware of the collective “code of silence” her older relatives took about their upbringing in the segregated South. It wasn’t until then-Senator Barack Obama’s election prospects began to find firm footing that Norris’ family began to suffer from what she dubbed “historical indigestion.” Long-kept family secrets were now bubbling to the surface.
An uncle revealed that her father had been shot by a white policeman in the 1940s, a secret he never shared with his wife and children. Later, she was able to piece together the full story: as a young man in Alabama, he was on his way to a Constitution study meeting. New laws dictated that black voters needed to know the document intimately to pass the state’s new literacy tests. Norris’ father, Belvin, got into a scuffle with the policeman who did not want him to enter the building where the meeting was held. The gun went off and struck Belvin in the thigh.
Norris reflected on her discovery and her gratitude that her father sought to protect her from harsh realities of the world: “I was raised by someone who had every right to be mad at the world, and he chose not to. I benefited from that.”
Her probe into her family history culminated in her 2010 work, The Grace of Silence. On a whim, she headed to Kinko’s to print 200 postcards to hand out at speaking engagements, asking recipients to share their thoughts on race. “I wanted a window into the conversation you know is out here,” she said. “I wanted to learn about the history with a small ‘h’ — the kind available to you at the dinner table.”
Of that first batch of postcards, Norris received more than 60 responses. From there the project grew, with technology leading the way. Today people can send in their “race card” submissions through the website and Twitter account. To date, more than 38,000 six-word submissions have been archived with the help of college researchers. Thousands more remain to be cataloged.
Perhaps answering the question the audience most wanted to ask, Norris ended her remarks with her own “six words”: Still more work to be done.