Sy Stokes and Black Male UCLA Bruins Take A Stand

College admissions have always been a tenuous process. When that process involves race and ethnicity, people become divided, temperatures rise and questions are raised.

In the case of UCLA (University of California – Los Angeles), Sy Stokes has brought national attention to the dearth of black males on campus. He brings up the statistic that black males make up only 3.3 percent of the male population at UCLA, of whom 65 percent are athletes. Stokes also addresses the fact that UCLA has made cuts to financial aid in recent years, but that hasn’t stopped the university from spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on flights and hotel suites.

While some may take issue with the video and say, “well why don’t more black males just work harder and get better grades,” the matter isn’t that simple. Poor and failing schools, a shortage of resources, and in some cases a lack of quality teachers, too often occurs in black and brown neighborhoods. If these students don’t have access to supplemental help through the form of strong support systems or tutoring, many will fall through the cracks. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the issue of financial aid.

The lack of diversity at UCLA reminds me of my college experience to a certain extent. My campus wasn’t particularly diverse, but it has improved in recent years. I remember a number of times being mistaken for an athlete (this is the main reason why I never brought any football or basketball t-shirts from the bookstore). Because there were so few black men on campus, many people naturally assumed you were only there because you were a member of a team. I’m sure the guys at UCLA must get this all the time and are probably tired of it, I know I was. Credit to them for taking a stand and making their presence known.

Looking Back at "To Sir, With Love 2"

When I think back to some of the more inspiring and intriguing movies that I’ve seen these last 10-15 years, they’ve all left me wondering to some degree. It could be about the characters, plot development, scene structure, or any other particular overarching themes. “To Sir, With Love 2” left me thinking about not only the importance of teaching, but the type of person depicted to lead a classroom.

“To Sir, With Love 2” was a former Movie of the Month of mine back in July 2003. It stars one of the legendary names in Hollywood cinema, one Sidney Poitier. Poitier was also the star of the original “To Sir, With Love,” which took place in an inner-city London school in the mid-1960s. While the first “To Sir, With Love” was released in 1967, the sequel would not come out until 1996. I can’t recall another series of movies where the sequel came out nearly 30 years following the original. 

Unlike Joe Clark in “Lean on Me,” or the motorcycle riding take-no-prisoners Rick Latimer in the 1987 movie “The Principle,” Poitier’s character is far more reserved and tactful. It seems surprising at first that a man who just retired from 30 years of teaching in England, would welcome the duty of educating the toughest students in a nondescript Chicago public school. However, Poitier’s character, Mark Thackeray, does just that.
Thackeray challenges his students to not only think about what makes them who they are, but also consider that they ultimately determine other people’s perceptions about themselves. Now that’s not to say there aren’t some real problems his students are facing, but Thackeray refuses to allow them to use outside influences as an excuse. The entire movie is actually on Youtube and I’ve included some of the more poignant clips below.


Projecting Beyond The Wall

There was an interesting article a couple weeks back by the NY Times talking about the powerful impact that film was having on a group of female students. The twist? All of the students were inmates.

The article profiles one former inmate, 20-year-old Amirah Harris, and the impact that Tribecca Teaches had on her. Tribecca Teaches is a film program run by the Tribecca Film Institute that teaches students in New York City and Los Angeles the craft of filmmaking. The NY Times article speaks with one of the teachers in the program who taught at Rikers Island (a prison facility) and noted the positive impact it had on the women in her class. She also notes that she didn’t fear for her safety at all during the time she was teaching.

I remember hearing of a similar story on NPR radio host Michele Martin’s “Tell Me More” program, where a woman in Indiana who is a public school teacher, volunteers her time teaching inmates Shakespeare. She said that the inmates brought their own experiences into their analysis of the work, raising questions and positions that she as a teacher had never even considered before. She too stated that she had no fear for her own safety in the classroom, and that many of the inmates were just happy that someone was willing to take time out of their day to work with them.

In both these cases we see the power that art can have on a population deemed ‘undesirable’ by society. If art – whether it be film, Shakespeare, or poetry – can have these dramatic effects on prisoners, maybe we ought to rethink about arts being the first thing cut when school budgets get tight. Just a thought.