The Promise that is Nadia
To speak about African American English is to also speak about the children and the communities who speak this language. The Academy Award winning 1993 feature film, I Am A Promise, documents one year in the life of African American children attending Stanton Elementary School, an elementary school in urban Philadelphia.
The film opens with the following information:
“Stanton Elementary School is located in North Philadelphia, a troubled inner city neighborhood. Stanton is designated a Chapter One School which receives federal funds to help educate disadvantaged poor children who test below national norms in reading and math. All of the students are African American boys and girls between the ages of four and ten. At Stanton over 90% of the children come from single-parent homes and live in poverty.”
In this film, one cannot help but be moved by Nadia, a precocious ten year-old who has a gift for writing. We learn that although Nadia is the daughter of two parents who at the time are addicted to drugs, she is a straight-A student in the academically-gifted track at Stanton Elementary School. At the age of eight, a homeless Nadia takes it upon herself to seek out a healthier environment with a neighbor who she becomes a positive grandfather figure to her. The clip below from I Am a Promise introduces us to Nadia and her grandfather.
In the film, Nadia highlights the year 2011 as the year that she will be 31 years old and married. We at Word. wanted to know what happened 20 years later to the little girl who held such great promise? As Rickford and Rickford note in Spoken Soul (p. 163), “African American students, particularly the majority, who come from working-class and underclass backgrounds, have been failing in schools nationwide. Or rather, schools nationwide have been failing African American students.” What happened to Nadia, a child who grew up in an environment like so many African American children, where kids are forced to deal with abject poverty, neglect, hunger, and crime, all while pursuing an education, and a life of hope and promise?
We found her. And what she tells us is that her ‘grandfather’ is responsible for her success in life. While others doubted her ability to overcome her circumstances, Nadia’s grandfather believed in her. His unwavering support helped her stay focused and motivated because she never wanted to disappoint him. After high school, Nadia went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and later started her own beauty salon. She is currently writing her memoir.
In this powerful film, the analyses of the educational system and the ways in which it fails young, talented African American comes from the highly dedicated principal, Deanna Burney.
The historical plight of many African Americans due to economic and racial segregation and inequality had been well documented as the cause of the achievement gap that exists between African Americans and White Americans. And while this distance has been improving, the gap continue to exist. So perhaps Nadia serves as an inspiration for young African Americans who must find the resilience to succeed in spite of limited resouces and historical odds stacked against them. Nadia reminds us:
If you see someone in any of those situations, just pretty much do whatever you can to help them because when you like that, you need it…I’m no different. It’s just that I see different and I want different. You know what I mean? So you can put that in a child that lives in an abandoned house on a corner that barely got shoes to go to school. You can make them want something for themselves. Just show them that someone else wants it for them.
The take away lessons for us all from Nadia’s life is that all children need to feel supported and nurtured throughout their education. They need to feel as though what they do matters, not only for themselves, but for those around them. Such a simple, yet crucial element to academic success is not always available in working class communities where often times parents themselves have historically grown up in depressed situations where they have not had opportunities to advance educationally, socially and economically. Or, parents must work multiple shifts at work just to put food on the table. Then, it is critical that the educational system plays a role in fostering a community in which students can learn, in addition to finding positive self-reinforcement.
Special thanks to Renee Blake’s Spring 2011 Graduate Class on African American Language (NYU Department of Social and Cultural Analysis), especially Devon Moss, Lashaya Howie, Sereetta Adams and Lucy Odigie.