At East Brooklyn Community High School, as at many city schools, Black History Month brought an assembly to celebrate the many achievements of black Americans.
But the small transfer high school in Brownsville also took a less traditional approach to the month. It convened students to watch and discuss a documentary about the United States government’s war on drugs, which has landed millions of black Americans in prison.
“A lot of schools are afraid to do something political for Black History Month,” said science teacher Amy Fitch. “This is a political film, but I think our students can handle it. Politics are part of life, and our students are affected by politics all the time.”
The film, “The House I Live In,” looks at the drug war from the perspective of inmates, law enforcement officers, journalists, professors, and members of local communities, with particular emphasis on the drug war’s disproportionate effect on black Americans. It won the Grand Jury documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival last month.
Several East Brooklyn Community High students saw the film last semester as part of their “Talking About Race” elective course and worked with their teacher, Deborah Schaeffer, to organize a screening for the whole school. It was the first time the three-year-old school had set aside an afternoon for all 200 students to see and discuss a film together.
“When I first saw the film, it showed me things I didn’t know,” said Mike Muir, one of Schaeffer’s students. “There are scenes that are going to get attention. Kids are going to take something away from it.”
Fifteen minutes after the school day ended last Monday, several students and teachers remained deep in conversation about what they had seen — and whether it was worth seeing in school.
One senior said she was not sure there was a point in showing the film. “It’s just the fact that — what is this going to change?” Ranitta said. “You keep showing what we’re doing wrong, showing us what black people did. It’s Black History Month. I want to hear the good that we did.”
But her view appeared to be in the minority. “There are real issues that need to be talked about,” Muir countered.
“You’re always talking about how [school] is not relevant to my life. This … relates to our lives,” said Jenna, also a senior.
“I want to hear something that connects to my life” when Black History Month rolls around, she added. “This does, even if you’ve never done drugs, even if you’ve never been locked up. This is why the police are in my hood, why my hood looks the way it does, why we don’t have healthy food.”
“Instead of sending us to jail, they should give us rehab so we can do something,” said another student, Isaiah, reflecting on a law enforcement official in the film who said that when funding gets tight, rehabilitation programs are always the first to go.
“We’re not saying drugs are right,” Jenna said. “But if you’re not helping us to rehabilitate ourselves, you’re not teaching us to live in society. … That’s not changing anything, that’s not forcing anything to change.
English teacher Tessa Corcoran-Sayers said the discussion in her group centered on a statistic cited in the film: Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to end up in jail themselves.
“Students who have family members in jail wanted to talk about what that meant and who was saying it,” Corcoran-Sayers said. They were wondering, she said, “If my dad’s incarcerated, what does that mean for me?”
The real measure of the activity’s success, Muir said, is whether the conversations “get out of this school.”
“Who’s going to go home and give it to someone else, tell their mom what they learned, go over and tell their friends what they learned?” he wondered aloud.