Promises to Black Boys—Kept and Broken

Black males are twice as likely to be held back in elementary school, three times as likely to be suspended and half as likely to graduate college as their white peers. These unsettling facts have led many who work in education to the conclusion that the system is failing black boys.

A new film addressing these issues opened this month, introducing audiences to two young men who shared their lives with a film crew for over 13 years. American Promise documents the stories of Idris and Seun, two African-American boys from Brooklyn whose middle-class families sought out options beyond the public education system they were concerned would not serve their sons.

In 1999, the boys entered kindergarten at one of the most prestigious private schools in the country; the film that unfolds from there raises important questions about how educators—particularly in elite settings—approach, perceive and teach African-American males. Directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson (Idris’ parents), the film captures the hopes, joys and challenges of the families as they observe whether the largely white educational environment they selected is able to keep the promises it made to their sons.

Teaching Tolerance is proud to support the message of American Promise with four professional development modules. Designed to educate and inspire viewers to support opportunities for all children, each of the four modules uses selections from the film to facilitate discussions about equitable teaching, particularly when engaging African-American male students:

  • Identity: Explores the influence of identity on classroom instruction, particularly as it relates to race, gender and class. How do perceptions of black masculinity and manhood shape how we teach African-American male students? How do preconceived notions of class intersect with race in classrooms?
  • Assimilation: Focuses on the processes of student assimilation, which may consciously or unconsciously occur inside the classroom. In what ways can attempts to assimilate African-American males into dominant culture hinder their development?
  • Achievement: Addresses how our education system nurtures and measures achievement. Does our system include diverse ways of assessing student achievement?
  • System: Interrogates the idea of education as a system. What are the pros and cons of a broad systematic approach to education? How is the education system succeeding and failing to educate African-American males?

Is your school keeping the promise of equitable, high-quality education for all? Could you be doing more? Raise these important questions with your colleagues—find a screening of American Promise near you.

To learn more about the American Promise campaign and other resources that can complement and further this dialogue, email

van der Valk is a writer and associate editor for Teaching Tolerance. 


I am a mother of 3 beautiful

Submitted by Shai on 8 November 2013 - 4:59pm.

I am a mother of 3 beautiful black boys. I worry at times too about my sons' education. That's why I am involved in their schooling to make sure that they get the education that deserve and need to make it in this world. Nothing is perfect but with active involvement of parents our young black boys can and will grow into wonderful black men.

I would love to show my boys this film.

Would love to see a screening

Submitted by J.D. on 7 November 2013 - 3:19am.

Would love to see a screening of this film and thankfully it's coming to the Atlanta area so thanks for sharing this. Highly appreciated.

Thanks for your sharing !

Submitted by Daisy on 5 November 2013 - 11:15pm.

Thanks for your sharing !