Follow me back in time for a minute. Go ahead: Feel the soft, worn quilt of yesteryears spread out before you.
Now, linger around the time when you were about twelve years old.
It’s been a while. I understand. But think back. Did you feel trapped and angry because of circumstances that were outside your control? Did you spend your days and nights worried about how long before a stray bullet zapped you, or praying your mom would love you enough to “stop using”?
I understand if your early years were more carefree — youth is supposed to be. Maybe, you were testing nature: catching bugs, and climbing higher than even Peter Pan could in the neighbourhood trees. A real tomboy, you alternated between athletic games and girly pursuits. If so, you were lucky to enjoy those modest and memorable moments!
In the award-winning 2005 documentary, The Boys of Baraka, filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing explore three years in the life of a group of adolescent boys facing the limits of their impoverished Baltimore neighbourhood. These youths thrill at the chance to spend two years attending the Baraka School in rural Laikipia, Kenya, East Africa, hoping the experimental all-boys school will help them lose their “at-risk” label and escape their violent, drug dealer infested surroundings.
Their families also embrace the program, for as one mother quips, it’s an opportunity to make her sons “kings” instead of “killers.” But the film shows that the families of these boys also need help and increased opportunities.
The hopelessness of Baltimore city living is reinforced by Baraka School recruiter Mavis Jackson’s juxtapositioning of orange jumpsuits, brown boxes, and higher education. It seems over-the-top to some extent, but is more than effective visually, speaking in the nonverbal which her audience intuitively grasps. Brown boxes have carried away enough of their friends and family members, and prior to the boxes, orange jumpsuits have clothed some of those backs.
In the general neighbourhood and in their individual homes, the boys live in hopelessness. But they are not without hope. In fact they dream of overcoming their situation. So when providence rains down opportunity, they embrace it, dancing in it like a fresh and soothing rain. And with this new hope you can see each boy’s internal struggles frothing up potently on film. At times it’s frustrating to watch, but hope glues you to your seat, wondering: what will become of these boys? — some of whom expect to coast through the program, despite being briefed on the requirements and expectations.
Intermittently, you see angry, fearful, frustrated, lazy, hopeless and helpless pretenders; Yet, they are brave boys who’ve taken hold of a golden opportunity to inhabit the fabled motherland and improve their odds for a successful future.
The noble aims of those running the now defunct Baraka School are apparent and welcome, but in the DVD featurette, Bill Cosby aptly points out that the boys needed neither the enchantment nor the exclusivity of a remote African school; What they needed could’ve been provided in Baltimore.
“Put a body on them!” he says, explaining that the children need, as he says he did, people who pay attention to their individual needs and prepare them to succeed with appropriate supports.
Cosby also makes it clear that the Boys of Baraka could’ve been made with boys from Philadelphia or various other impoverished neighbourhoods in America. That is to say the story isn’t exclusive to Baltimore, and he explains that life in North Philadelphia, where he grew up, was equally rough.
In fact, this documentary is universally relevant, for there are similarly impoverished neighbourhoods worldwide; However, conflict with one’s environment transcends poverty, presenting itself according to the backstory of the individuals experiencing it.
For example, I saw aspects of my sister in many of the Baraka boys, but particularly Montrey, who is frustrated with his environment and unable to reconcile his desires with reality. Montrey, like my teenage sister, and like a young Bill Cosby, needs a body on him.
My sister’s issue doesn’t stem from financial lack; it is from a lack of emotional discipline — something she must decide to learn, as Montrey did. Like him, she struggles to control her emotions when aggravated, and feels entitled to respond, not proportionately, not with restraint, but in a way that proves she shouldn’t be messed with. Naturally that’s led to suspensions from high school. She wasn’t always that way, and I’m learning how it developed; but watching Montrey struggle to take responsibility for his actions, I was reminded that even when frustrated, I must stick with her, hoping eventually she’ll find and pursue growth instead of conveniently feeding her fear with anger. In time and with support, (and possibly after many mistakes) she’ll know that change is possible and sometimes necessary, though difficult.
Youth like her and the Baraka boys need guidance and love, and to have both patiently administered. Hopefully, it can help them understand hidden realities, kick-starting for them intensely fulfilling lives.
Montrey, for example, didn’t see himself as a Math teacher at the start of the film, where startling statistics inform us that “in Baltimore, Maryland 76% of African-American boys do not graduate from high school”; but three years into his story, he was tip-toeing around his promise and exploring the possibilities of being — of all things — a Math teacher.
Young people like Montrey need to know, as Cosby put it, “you can earn your way back, whether it’s academically or whether you’re gonna get a job.” And towards that end, open, consistent communication is key.
“When they say they’re not going to live longer than 25, you’ve got to debate that with them. You’ve gotta do whatever to make your point. Now, they probably won’t hear you because they don’t want to hear you; but at least give it to them,” Cosby insists.
In my limited experience, all youth benefit from the passionate commitment of elders who wish to teach them survival, namely that though you are born into difficult circumstances, and though you have character traits that need refinement, you are not a lost cause, unless you choose to be. It is a philosophy that’s also encapsulated in the “American dream”: If you work hard, yes, you too can achieve greatness.
Looking to see some progress, after watching the film, I found the Maryland Report Card, which provides statistics on education in the state of Maryland. It indicates that 74 per cent of African-American males graduated from high school (grade 12) in 2008 compared to 93 per cent of Asian males, while Baltimore city itself sits at a paltry 53 per cent, the highest graduation rate in the last seven years.
These stats indicate that much work is still needed to help break a cycle of lack in Baltimore city. And focusing on education alone won’t net the required improvements. Though prime, education is only one aspect of a successful formula to equalize abundance and engender hope.