In ‘America to Me,’ racial inequities force a community to reconsider its progressive image
Walking into Oak Park and River Forest High School every day, I was greeted by the same words: Hey young man, you got your I.D. on? Take that hat off. It was part of the routine and a mannerism easy to make fun of, as if the school’s top priorities were ensuring they could see our lanyards and the tops of our heads. Four years removed from high school, it’s still a catchphrase friends and I laugh about.
With the release of the Starz docu-series America to Me, however, what was once a personal eccentricity of my high school is now public knowledge. America to Me follows a rotating cast of students, teachers, and administrators at OPRF in an effort to examine the significant racial inequities at my former high school. While white students at OPRF perform significantly higher that the state average on standardized tests, black students perform slightly under the state average. “The racial disparities that concerned us in 2003 are essentially unchanged,” administrator Amy Hill says in the first episode.
The series, which is now halfway through its 10 episode run, comes from Hoop Dreams director and Oak Park native Steve James. America to Me operates much like James’s all-time great documentary, weaving systemic inequities into an intimate, biographical story about growing up. There are a lot of discussions in America to Me about how the school is failing its black students, but there are also scenes about classwork, and friends, and the awkwardness of dating. America to Me is an exploration of systemic injustice, but it’s also a series about high school.
The title of the series, however, suggests its higher priority. It’s an excerpt from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again”: America never was America to me. The implication for the series is two-fold. First, it suggests that even in a community that purports to be progressive, the school system still rests on a structure that fundamentally devalues people of color. Second, it implies a specific perspective: America to Me is about a dialogue, from the underserved communities in Oak Park to the people upholding the system that limits their potential.
People, that is, who look like myself. America was America to me in Oak Park. I can’t honestly talk about the series abstractly: I recognize the places, the events, and even many of the subjects. It can be easy to talk about one’s appreciation for works like this as a signal that you care about, or understand, systemic injustices. But watching this sort of documentary when it’s about your own hometown is a different experience altogether.
James is a great documentarian because he knows that people are inherently interesting, and trusts them to tell their own stories. America to Me takes a lot of time to establish its characters, and James lets their experiences speak for themselves. There are a fair amount of talking-head interviews, but most of the series follows the subjects in action as they go about their days. “We talked a lot about trying to look at this systemically,” James said in a recent interview with Oak Park resident and Chicago Public Square founder Charlie Meyerson. “But my body of work forever has been about telling individual stories.”
James may be used to telling individual stories, but America to Me is a juggling act: the series has introduced us to ten main students so far, in addition to their families and school staff. All but two of the students are black, and they represent a wide range of experiences at the school. Grant, the lone freshman, is adorably unconfident, struggling to find his classes and talk to girls. Grant is biracial and identifies as such: in the first episode, he says, “I’m not black, I’m biracial…I just feel like I wouldn’t really want to be one race.” Grant doesn’t discuss race much on screen, although his parents discuss the opposition their own parents had to their relationship. Thus far Grant is not concerned with the racial inequities of OPRF, but he has provided a lot of the most tender moments of the series, including a precious dance with an unknown girl during Homecoming.
Charles, a junior, is a member of the esteemed OPRF Spoken Word team. Spoken Word is led by Peter Kahn, whose two-week poetry lessons in our English classes every year were dreaded by many, including myself. Kahn is like a poetry teacher imagined straight out of The Simpsons, conveying the coolness of poetry in an overly blasé, gravelly voice, and I always found his shtick kind of annoying. My opposition to Spoken Word speaks to the racial chasm on which OPRF operates, because in America to Me Kahn’s leadership of Spoken Word is shown to provide an important community for students of color at OPRF. Kahn is more inviting than pretentious, helping students like Charles find their voice in a school where it isn’t valued otherwise.
Charles is also involved in one of the most interesting confrontations in the series, when he and another student, a senior named Jada, talk about race with teacher Aaron Podolner. Podolner is a prime example of James’s ability to allow his subjects to exist as multidimensional characters. Throughout the series we see well-intentioned teachers making some inexcusable mistakes with their black students, but we also see those same teachers have a positive impact in later moments.
Podolner is very transparent about his passion for reducing the racial achievement gap at OPRF, and he’s co-spearheading a teacher organization to address the issue in the school with fellow teacher Jessica Stovall (more on her soon). In a sense, this is good: he cares. But the way he goes about that effort can come off as patronizing. Podolner remarks that he wants to give all of his black students extra attention in the classroom, and seems to equate “talking about race” with making references to his affinity for rap music or weave.
Jada calls him out for the lack of seriousness with which he discusses race and he seems receptive to feedback, organizing a sit-down with her and Charles. But he’s not truly listening to what they have to say. Podolner’s intentions are honorable, but his execution has the opposite of his intended effect, making Jada feel uncomfortable in the classroom.
At least Podolner is making an effort to connect with his students: for junior Ke’Shawn, teachers fighting for him is a rare occurrence. Ke’Shawn is perhaps the most interesting student on the show so far. He’s struggling in his classes, but not for lack of intelligence or charisma: Ke’Shawn is witty and an absolute ham. He’s also hyper-aware of his image in the school. Early on, Ke’Shawn says that when teachers see him they act like “they already knew who I was.” His mom, who was kicked out of OPRF, makes a strikingly similar assertion in another scene, saying that “they already decided who you were.”
Like his mom, Ke’Shawn gets in trouble at school and eventually earns an out-of-school suspension, for what he describes as “walking while black.” A lesser documentarian might use this moment as an opportunity to throw a bar graph on screen about the relationship between school suspensions and rates of jail for black men. James, though, trusts his subjects to tell the story. Ke’Shawn shows up at OPRF to try to take an exam for a class he enjoys despite the suspension, and it’s clear that preventing Ke’Shawn from going to class for three days only hurts him academically.
Jessica Stovall is one of Ke’Shawn’s teachers, and the only one we see that tries to keep him on track. Like Podolner, Stovall is dedicated to reducing racial inequities at the school. Unlike Podolner, her pedagogy reflects this in a serious way. She engages students in discussions about the difference between equality and equity, leads classroom discussions about police shootings, and greets students at the door of her classroom by telling them what she appreciates about them.
Stovall is the teacher who James devotes the most time to, and for good reason. She is trying to drive forward proposals to reduce racial inequities in the school, and following her efforts leads us into the bureaucracy of the school board. Despite the decades-long achievement gap at OPRF, there’s an utter lack of urgency in implementing any new policies. Superintendent Steven Isoye, who declined to be interviewed for the series, comes off particularly tone-deaf. In discussions about helping students who have fallen behind the superintendent cautions against going after “low-hanging fruit,” and in response to a push for new policies he delivers the classic cliché that the school isn’t ready now, but the conversations themselves “move the needle.”
The institution is so resistant to change that one of the show’s most poignant voices, Assistant Principal Dr. Chala Holland, reveals early on that she is soon leaving OPRF. “This school is grounded on white cultural norms,” she says pointedly. “This school has stark racial disparities. We are failing our kids every day.”
Stovall works tirelessly to address these failures, but only meets resistance at the school board. It’s frustrating, and at times its unclear what change she can create despite her persistence. Even when things are not moving at the administrative level, however, Stovall still finds a way to make an impact on her students. One moment between Stovall and Ke’Shawn at the end of episode five highlights that impact, and as the culmination of a number of threads in America to Me, it’s the best scene of the series so far.
Not all students get to interact with someone like Stovall, however, and the school’s failure of its students of color manifests in the experience of Terrence, a junior. Terrence, according to his mom, has been diagnosed with cognitive delay and ADHD. Those learning restrictions, along with a painstakingly quiet personality, make it difficult for Terrence’s teachers to connect with him.
For a white student, this might mean additional resources or leaving the class altogether. Terrence’s teacher Paul Noble puts it bluntly: there is a “white flight” out of the college prep classes, but a quiet student of color like Terrence will often be pushed toward the special education track. Noble is another fascinating teacher. There are moments where he appears to put his black students on the spot to speak about their experiences as representative of their race. But what he lacks with these faux pas he makes up for with a genuine empathy and little condescension.
Terrence’s mom is also housing her younger sister, sophomore Tiara, in Oak Park so she can go to school there. Tiara’s best friend is white, and she says they don’t really talk about race. The community where Tiara finds herself with other students of color at OPRF is the cheerleading team. During my time at OPRF the cheerleading team was always majority black, and the drill team was always majority white. “The cheerleaders have a bad reputation in the school,” Tiara says. “They were, like, ‘loud, ghetto, ignorant.’”
It’s true: the perception was always that cheerleading was not as legitimate as drill, and this was reinforced by the school. During a scene at a football game, cheerleading coach Deanna Paloian discuss the placement of the two squads along the field: drill is placed right in front of the student section, and cheer is placed much farther down. Linda Novotny, the drill coach, says she always assumed that “they’re comfortable down there, we’re comfortable down here,” and that she had “no idea who actually sits down there, so knowing that there’s more black students down there is news to me.” The football field is not that big. (Again, James allows for a full picture of his subjects: following this gaffe Novotny looks much better in later scenes; she’s supportive of Terrence and stands up to Principal Rouse.)
Kendale, a senior, and Chanti, a junior, also deal with having to exist between different racial groups. Kendale is on both the wrestling team and the marching band, extracurriculars with almost polar opposite racial compositions, and at times he struggles to commit himself to both. In one scene, Kendale calmly speaks about violence his family has experienced to a nearly all-white class. The white students seem shocked or disinterested, although Kendale isn’t fazed: he and his friends have an admirable self-awareness of the dyanmics in the school, and of the documentary itself. In one scene fellow wrestler Gabe, who James says will soon become another main subject of America to Me, tells Kendale that OPRF has “an achievement gap as wide as this man’s body.”
Chanti is the only other biracial student on the show aside from Grant; her father is black and her mother is asian. Unlike Grant, she speaks candidly about occupying both of those worlds, and about her identity as non-gender binary. Her parents, though, very much attempted to cultivate the opposite mindset. “When we initially raised Chanti…we raised [her] almost colorblind. We tried.” Chanti is decidedly not colorblind, and like Charles, has found a home on the spoken word team.
The first two white students are introduced in episode five: Caroline, a freshman, and Brendan, a sophomore. It’s only been one episode, so between keeping up with all the students previously introduced and adding these two, we haven’t learned a ton about them yet. Caroline is a driven student, and her family has had some financial struggles. Brendan is a talented baseball player who doesn’t do as well in school.
In the interview with Meyerson, James says he struggled to find white families that would participate in the documentary because none of them wanted to be “the poster child for white privilege.” But Dr. Holland encouraged him to include white students in the narrative, because you can’t really understand the disparities at OPRF without doing so. “Equity is everyone,” Dr. Holland says in episode five.
The reticence of white families to participate in America to Me is representative of Oak Park: a theoretical devotion to an “inclusive community” without the ability to take ownership of the inherent power in one’s own whiteness. It sounds a lot like my own time growing up there.
In a sense, my experience at OPRF was a lot like the experience of the students in America to Me: awkward Homecoming trips, quarreling with family, finding a home in after-school activities. As with all of his films, James has the ability to make the specific feel universal.
The point of the series, though, is that in crucial ways my experience was fundamentally different because the school was built with someone like me in mind. “Everything is made for white kids, because this school was made for white kids, because this country was made for white kids,” Charles says early in the first episode. This was true of both tangible and intangible resources. Noble remarks that students are only really pushed if they’re in Honors, and that’s the track I was always in (a path which stemmed from earlier privileges, something the documentary doesn’t really address). Honors classes come with more challenging material, more teacher attention, and more resources. But I also had the benefit of, say, walking the halls without a hall pass with no repercussions. “I feel like white people have just been taught that they are entitled to take control,” Chanti says in episode three.
She’s right: I walked around school with an unearned sense of entitlement. But as a high school student, I was never able to connect that sense of entitlement with the racialized system on which it was founded. I knew in some abstract way that students of color had it worse at OPRF. I wasn’t blind; I could see the composition of my classrooms, and I knew how little interaction I had with students of color on a day-to-day basis.
But somehow I didn’t recognize the structural inequities at my own school, or at least that it was an issue that the school, or students, could have some agency in addressing. I knew about the disparities, I think, in the same way that people know Flint still doesn’t have clean water: something bad is happening, and it is frustrating. But I probably wouldn’t do something about it unless my own drinking water made me sick.
How are the revelations of America to Me supposed to make me feel? This was a system I benefitted from, and I did nothing to change that. Should I feel guilty that I couldn’t recognize the disparities? Angry at the administration for dragging its feet? Ashamed that my school is being put on display like this? Hopeful because of the passion that teachers like Stovall are bringing to create change?
Mostly, I think, I feel a sense of ownership. James largely gets out of the way in America to Me in order for it to become a vehicle for students of color to tell their own stories. But I also think that, to a certain extent, America to Me was intended for people like me. Students of color from OPRF would likely not be shocked at anything in America to Me; it’s a straightforward depiction of their lived experience. But it’s an important slap in the face for people who would stick the term ‘liberal’ on a town without thinking about what it really means to be progressive, people who fetishize their proximity to a part of Chicago that has nothing to do with them except for its exclusion from their community. America to Me was made for me just as much as America was made for me, and the documentary is a labor of empathy to tell us that America was, in fact, made for us, but that it shouldn't be.
James said he had trouble getting funding for the series because it didn’t depict the recognizable drama that a film set on the west side of Chicago would have. But this is what makes Oak Park a perfect setting for this show. Works like James’ previous documentary about violence in Chicago, The Interrupters, are necessary pieces of cinematic journalism. But they also allow for a self-satisfying othering: It’s so terrible what America has done to communities like that. Good thing we live in Oak Park.
James explicitly rejects this complex. “If things are going to change in America around race, white people have to do more than just be allies,” he told Meyerson. “Or [more than] live in a place like Oak Park, and send your kids to the public school, and feel like ‘I’m a good liberal.’ You are a good person, but that’s not going to change the world.”
America to Me is not a voyeuristic journey into inner-city violence, and it’s not an expose of the Klan. It’s about a town that sees itself above it all. And by focusing on a community that thinks it’s moved past racial inequity, James shows how deeply rooted those inequities are. OPRF prides itself on superficial diversity, but resists race-specific proposals at school board meetings. It’s a town that devotes more urgency to removing those hats and putting on those IDs than it does to reducing gaps in its standardized test scores.
America to Me makes these issues painfully transparent. And yet as a student I didn’t recognize them. It is an incredible privilege, then, to have this documentary, to be shown how these inequities affected my life specifically. The series, however, is not called Oak Park to Me. James said he specifically intended it to serve as a representation of where the whole country is at this moment in time. America to Me has helped me recognize inequities in my home town, but the hope, and what I believe James has successfully created, is a product that encourages others to reflect on their own towns as well.
This opportunity for self-reflection has already had a positive impact on at least one subject: Aaron Podolner. Podolner shared his written thoughts with me on his interactions during the episodes. Podolner wrote about how he “didn’t always do a good job listening” in his conversations with Jada, and reflected on mistakes he made during a conversation with Stovall.
“This is a perfect example of me not doing a good job listening,” he said of the scene with Stovall. “Jess shares a story of the challenges of being that kid of color who teachers reached out to but still felt uncomfortable working with white peers that weren't supportive. My response is dismissive, and I can see now how that sort attitude on the part of a white male would make them less likely to share their thoughts and feelings.”
America to Me created the opportunity for Podolner to contemplate his actions. It’s an admirable and rare amount of self-reflection, and a good start. But as America to Me shows, even when attitudes are in the right place, things have to change in terms of leadership and policy. Stovall is shown to be a powerful agent of change in the documentary, but she’s currently on another sabbatical from OPRF (at Stanford University, earning a Ph.D. in Race, Inequality and Language). America to Me follows some of the most inspirational people at OPRF, but it makes it clear that if the film has any lasting legacy, it needs to be institutional reform. In episode three, Stovall’s own mother (who is white; Stovall’s father is black) says, “I just think if everybody just looks at people as people we’ll all get along.” America to Me shows this is not enough.
This is all, to a certain extent, self-congratulatory bullshit. I can’t really write any of this without inadvertently praising my own wokeness. I benefitted from this system, and now I have the means to write about how indignant I am about it, too?
But institutional change doesn’t happen without people recognizing that it needs to happen. In episode five, reading teacher and wrestling coach Paul Collins describes how he spent his whole life in Oak Park unaware of racial inequities. “It took me until I was coaching and teaching to where I finally started to realize how uniformed I was,” Collins says. And if we weren’t let into that classroom with him, we’d stay uninformed, too.
For Langston Hughes to say “America to me” only makes sense when you come to recognize the multitudes of the American experience. As Dr. Holland says, equity is about everyone. I hope that in writing this, I’m not just stroking my own ego, but helping myself and others recognize the change isn’t just what’s happening in our nation’s capital, on the biggest stage. These issues are happening in your own community.
America to Me is airing on Starz. To all my Oak Park people: please get Starz. You can watch all the past episodes after they’ve aired, and you can just cancel your subscription when the series is over. I promise it’s worth it.