American Promise

January 28, 2014

Rebecca Harkless is a second year AmeriCorps member serving in the YWCA Central Alabama’s Social Justice Department. In her service, Rebecca co-facilitates Heritage Panel trainings in area high schools and middle schools. She has also been on staff for Anytown Alabama.

One rainy, cold Tuesday morning I filled my gas tank and headed to a quaint theater in midtown Atlanta to see a documentary film entitled “American Promise.” When I think of America’s promise I immediately reflect upon the famous words from the Declaration of Independence which tell us in this country, "… all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The movie followed two middle-class African-American boys from kindergarten to high school graduation, detailing their struggles and triumphs while attending one of the nation’s top private schools. And as each year of the boys’ lives was revealed on screen, the American Promise became apparent as it slowly slipped from the grasp of the boys and the two sets of parents seeking to provide a good education for their sons.
Like the boys in the documentary, I was raised in a middle-class family. And, although I didn’t attend one of the nation’s top private schools, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend one of the top public schools in the state. I never questioned why my parents made a sacrifice and sent my brother and me there. The school for which I was originally zoned had a graduation rate of less than 50 percent; my parents wanted better for us. Until I viewed “American Promise,” I had never considered the things that I lost as a result of attending a school with an overwhelming majority of white students.
I lost the desire to be excellent, because my excellence as an African-American girl was not expected, nurtured or even seen as normal. I lost the desire to showcase my talent, because regardless of my excellent dance skills, only one African-American girl would make the dance team. I lost the drive to lead because the students selected to lead at my school were always white. I lost the opportunity to talk with pride about my race and my culture. I distinctly recall the day that my 10th grade English teacher called me outside of the classroom to ask if I wanted to leave while my white classmates discussed “To Kill a Mockingbird” because she thought I might be uncomfortable.
By moving into a different school zone, my parents were trying to open a new world of educational opportunity for me, but I realized that those opportunities weren’t really for me. Don’t get me wrong, a few of the African-American students at my school accomplished those things mentioned above, but they were the exception. During my four years of high school I can count the number of exceptions on my hands.
America promises us that all people are created equal. This promise should include not only equal access to a quality education for all students, but also equal access to an educational environment that is welcoming, culturally competent and supportive of the unique talents and skills of each of its students. This documentary made me look at educational disparities from another angle. I challenge you to do the same.

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