Watching America to Me: How does it feel to be a problem?

Episode 2: Stranger in a room

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. How does it feel to be a problem?" (W.E.B. Du Bois) 

Watching this second episode took me back to my own days at Oak Park and River Forest Forest High School. I thought of my readings on African American literature in Michael Dorame's English course, where I was first introduced to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and concepts like W.E.B. DuBois's double-consciousness.

I recall a chalkboard where Mr. Dorame drew a triangle to illustrate the three major ways that slaves subverted the condition of their involuntary servitude.  

They openly rebelled against their masters (i.e., Frederick Douglass), they ran away and/or  they resisted through subtle, day-to-day acts of sabotage, such as slowing work, playing sick or dumb, breaking tools and committing arson — the latter category a kind of war of attrition, but one waged by the property itself.  

Fundamentally, these concepts describe sophisticated survival techniques that blacks have developed and honed over centuries to endure not just years of slavery, but more than four centuries of white supremacy and the other side of that coin — the wholesale practice of deeming an entire population of people unworthy of basic humanity.  

In scene after scene of this real-life miniature epic, I was struck by the enduring, gravitational force that ideas like Ellison's concept of invisibility and W.E.B. DuBois's idea of double-consciouses have upon the material reality of the very real lives played out in this documentary.

Danielle Robinson, the mother of OPRF student Ke'Shawn Kumsa, tells us how the systematic dehumanization of African Americans plays out in day-to-day real life — in this instance as a blunt, automatic denial of credibility. 

Interestingly enough, the second episode starts in Jessica Stovall's literature class, with white and black students discussing the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. The officer shot the 17-year-old, who police suspected had been involved in a string of robberies and who was armed with a knife, 16 times. 

Van Dyke encountered a mentally unstable teenager and saw a threat that was to be mitigated by any means, including force. If McDonald were white, would Van Dyke have felt as threatened? There's no need to answer this question; that it must be posed and seriously grappled with is evidence of what scholars call a racial empathy gap. 

"I am invisible," the African American protagonist in Ellison's 1952 novel explains, "because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it as as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me." 

"They already had decided who you were, so whenever they saw me they were looking for a problem," Robinson recalls of her own days attending OPRF more than two decades ago as a young, black woman from Chicago.  

"It is a peculiar sensation," wrote DuBois in his 1903 The Souls of Black Folk, "this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." 

In this second episode, the viewer gets acquainted with the burden of balancing these different consciousnesses. For blacks, code-switching — going back and forth between this black/white binary — is a very real and rather mundane thing. 

Notice how Kendale McCoy, an African American student who plays drums in the marching band and also wrestles (and whose effort to lose weight in order to land a starting position on OPRF's top-ranked wrestling team is the second episode's biggest narrative hook) describes his experience among his closest white friends in band.  

"I can't talk about race, rap with my white friends as much, because they don't understand it," he says. "Some of them don't know who Malcolm X or Biggie Smalls is." 

There is an inherent knowingness among these African American subjects, the sense that they're the only ones in on the absurdist joke that is OPRF's long, lapsed history of dealing with the problem of race — which too often translates into whites problematizing actual black bodies.  

"This got to be a joke," Robinson says, looking on Room 422, called "motivational mentoring" on the placard. "That has got to be a joke. If you know this room, you know that it wasn't the motivational center."  

When she was in high school, Room 422 was where the "OC" kids were housed. In yet another instance of how the students, particularly students of color, are much more familiar than the adults with the absurdist outcomes of many of the high school's best efforts to deal with its "problematic" population, Robinson explains that OC was short for "out of control," not the institutional name administrators had for the acronym. 

"They pumped candy in you all day and we used to shoot pool and watch 'Jerry Springer,'" she says. "It was kind of like jail. It was almost prepping you." 

For some viewers, I suspect, Robinson's testimony presents a quandary. Can this be real? And, besides, is this "problematic" black woman — the mother of a "problematic" black boy— credible? 

When Robinson tells her experience of being kicked out of OPRF, it is only her side of the story. James and his crew could have vetted and poked and prodded at her account. They could have interviewed other people party to Robinson's experience. 

After all, Robinson's testimony, if credible, is a scathing indictment of a self-evidently proud, liberal, progressive institution. 

But the filmmakers decide to take her at her word, forcing the viewer to do the same — an exercise that is historically rare when it comes to African American testimonials and that cuts against a centuries-old tradition of whites not trusting black people's own accounts of their own suffering. 

I learned in classes like Mr. Dorame's, for instance, that a staple of African American slave narratives is the preface, often written by white suffragists and sympathizers (we'd call them allies today), to vouchsafe the author's credibility.

"Mr. Douglass," writes William Lloyd Garrison in his preface to Frederick Douglass's 1845 Life of an American Slave, "has very properly chosen to write his own Narrative, in his own style, and according to the best of his ability, rather than to employ some one else." 

It should tell you something about the structural weaknesses of liberalism when it comes to dealing with race that these prefaces had to be written at all. Texts like Douglass's would have presumably been read by an audience not of white slaveholders and the staunchest racists but by the moderates and progressives of that era — and even they needed to be convinced to take a black man at his word. 

In one sense, this film in which James, a white male, is the lead director, serves to vouchsafe Robinson's credibility. In another sense, however, no such explicit support exists for her on the screen. 

She is alone in a hallway in her old high school as she tells her side of the story. We must choose to believe her full-stop, hedge (giving her the benefit of the doubt while leaving open the possibility that some parts, or all, of her account could be a lie) or don't believe her at all.

"As a junior, I had a 13-pound cyst removed from my body," Robinson recalls. "After my surgery, I still had staples in my stomach, so I went to my dean and asked for an elevator pass and his exact words to me was, 'I will give you nothing. I hope your staples come out.'" 

Do we believe that such cruelty — reminiscent of the treatment Douglass received at the hands of "Old Master Thomas Auld" — actually existed at OPRF? Is Robinson making this up? Is she inventing a conspiracy? 

She says that it was as if the dean knew that she would subvert his order and get on the elevator, anyway. Lo and behold, she adds, when she got off on the fourth floor "there was a security guard standing at the top of the stairs and he was like, 'Got you, Ms. Robinson.'" 

Robinson says that she told the security guard, "I wish I died on that table, so maybe y'all can stop seeing me as the worst." She says that the security guard untruthfully said that she had shown her "privates," when she was trying to show the stitches on her stomach in order, ironically enough, to provide proof of her pain and suffering. 

This scene is perhaps the most complex in the second episode. You have a black woman describing how she was denied proof of legitimacy (the elevator pass), subverted a school rule prohibiting the use of the elevators without a pass and, despite showing evidence of her suffering, was expelled as a result of the incident. 

She shares her story, some decades later, once again standing alone on the fourth floor, again with no great (white) authority having granted proof of legitimacy. Her tears, like her stitches back then, are the best proof she has at hand to convince us of her pain, of her basic humanity. Again, she's only asking to be believed.  


Reader Comments

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PJ Atlas  

Posted: September 10th, 2018 12:53 PM

I watched episode 4 last evening and was sorry they didn't get on film what caused the suspension of one of the profiled students. It would have added a better understanding of what goes on at OPRF.

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: September 8th, 2018 4:48 PM

I would not waste my vision on this one sided, inaccurate , offensive documentary.

Mike Hanline  

Posted: September 8th, 2018 3:58 PM

Rob and Alex act like they couldn't care less about this documentary, yet they can't stop posting negative comments on something they refuse to even watch. I believe that's the definition of trolling.

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: September 8th, 2018 7:17 AM

Weak article. As usual, painting picture of one side. Read Alex Garcia's comment. Blame and demands continue. There should be another point of view available to everyone.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: September 5th, 2018 7:56 AM

"Playing the victim card blinds you to your own flaws and so you can never improve. Self pity is the easiest way to create unilateral misery". - Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

John Duffy  

Posted: September 4th, 2018 8:08 PM

We are blessed to have you writing on ATM. Your review of Episode 1 was brilliant, insightful and richly interpretive. You deeply and widely expanded my understanding through your unique and rich frame of reference as a former student and community member. Looking forward to your reviews of all the remaining episodes.

Steve James  

Posted: September 4th, 2018 9:01 AM

Thank you Michael for this incisive and thoughtful reflection on this episode, as well as last week's. I look forward each week to reading your pieces. They add another layer of meaning and understanding to the episodes.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: September 3rd, 2018 9:58 PM

Very well written Mr. Romain. Probably the best piece I've ever read from you.

Kate Nolan  

Posted: September 3rd, 2018 6:28 PM

Really incisive review. Thank you.

Laurie Myers  

Posted: September 3rd, 2018 8:25 AM

Thank you Michael.

Glynne T. Gervais from Oak Park  

Posted: September 3rd, 2018 8:24 AM

Excellent article The incident with the denied use of the elevator rang true.

Judy Humowiecki  

Posted: September 2nd, 2018 11:10 PM

I agree with your analysis and thought this was a powerful episode. Can't wait to see the rest and have the conversations begin.

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