I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.
- James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (1955)
In the midst of the Great Depression in 1931, historian James Truslow Adams defined the American dream as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.” For decades it appeared that many in the United States had access to that dream through federal economic development programs like the G.I. Bill (1944), which offered thousands of returning veterans grants for school and college, low-interest mortgage and small-business loans, job training opportunities and unemployment payments. In fact, studies have shown that from 1940 onwards, “a child born into the average American household had a 92 percent chance of making more money than his or her parents.”
Yet this upward economic growth did not touch all communities nor benefit all racial groups. And while James Baldwin’s declaration of individual complexity rings true, many communities continue to face deep inequities, particularly African-American youth coming of age in rural areas.
Consider these statistics about the modern-day economics of rural communities:
• Today rural areas provide most of our food and 90 percent of our renewable water sources.
• Persistent poverty rates for children and minorities in rural communities continue to rise nearly three times as fast as the rates for rural whites.
• Rural areas house 70 percent of prisons built between 1970 and 2000.
In this lesson students will learn how race intersects with economic mobility, opportunity and generational poverty by viewing and reflecting upon individual stories from the cinéma vérité documentary film Raising Bertie. Filmed over six years, Raising Bertie captures the lives of three young African-American men coming of age in rural Bertie County, North Carolina. In exploring their stories and the stories of members their families and communities, students have numerous opportunities to develop empathy and garner a more personal understanding of how race and macroeconomic conditions affect individual lives.
One 50- minute class period with homework assignment and optional research extensions.
- Explore the idea of the American dream and be able to explain its relevance today.
- Define economic mobility, generational poverty, race and their interrelationship.
- Through collaborative group work, identify the five indicators of economic health based upon policy summaries developed specifically for Raising Bertie by the Urban Institute.
- Complete an individual writing exercise outlining recommendations for economic growth based upon balancing community assets with community challenges.
Display method (varies by school) for showing the entire class online video clips and website resources. Computers with access to the Internet for student research.
1. The American Dream in Bertie
Introduce the idea of the American dream and ask students to brainstorm words and phrases that come to mind when hearing this term. Compile their ideas on the board. Discuss as a large class, or in small group, whether the American dream is still possible today. What opportunities are available for all? What are the obstacles?
View and Discuss Clips 1 and 2:
- What do you hear from Bud, Dada and Junior about their dreams?
- What do you notice about their lives in Bertie County?
- What factors involved in reaching their dreams are within their control?
- What barriers exist that may make achieving those dreams difficult?
Collect student questions and reactions to this detail about Bertie County:
There are 27 prisons within a 100-mile radius of Bertie County.
Discussion: What does the presence of multiple prisons reveal about a community? What are the economic and social implications of having so many prisons in one county?
To look more deeply at the economic and social implications of prisons in a community, direct students to read the following study: Impacts of Prisons in Rural Communities: Economic and Social Factors
2. What Do We Mean When We Say…?
Introduce these terms: Rural, Poor, Generational Poverty, Inequality and Race.
Ask students to define and brainstorm the words they associate with each term.
Transition students and have them read these two passages aloud. Ask students to note words or phrases that stand out from either selection to share with the class.
Passage 1, from The White House Rural Council:
Small towns and rural communities are home to millions of Americans, are a vibrant part of our nation’s economy and include some of the most beautiful landmarks in the country. Rural America provides the vast majority of food, energy and environmental benefits for the rest of the country. Additionally, rural communities are the source of nearly 90 percent of renewable water resources and home to important service sector and manufacturing hubs. Despite this critical role in our nation’s economy, too many Americans in rural areas are not sharing in our nation’s economic growth.
Passage 2, from Vivian Saunders, director of the Hive House:
My name is Vivian Saunders, I am from Martin County, North Carolina and I am a long time and proud resident of Bertie County. I am married to Darrell Saunders and I have two sons that I raised and who attended Bertie County School System. I have one grandson.
I first realized I was poor when I got a hole in my shoe while attending kindergarten and instead of Momma buying me a new pair of shoes, she took a used, black-eyed pea plastic bag and held it while she pushed my foot in the shoe. I asked Momma why she didn’t go buy me a new pair. She said, “Baby, times are tight and sometimes a body got to make do with what they have.” In other words, no money for shoes and an old plastic pea bag made the shoe do what it was supposed to do—keep my feet warm and dry.
I grew up as a daughter of a tenant farmer. My parents are George and Vivian Biggs. My Mommy has passed on, but Ma Biggs was just as much a part of the Hive as I will ever be. She is my inspiration for the things I do. I can’t ever remember as a child a time when we didn’t have someone’s kids living with us or Momma helping someone with a new baby or taking some food out of our garden to someone. No one in her opinion deserved to suffer and no child should ever be hungry. Mommy is gone, but she was my hero.
I have three years of college technical training, but I only hold a formal degree in life and the love of children and families. While I have never experienced open racism, I am very sure decisions were made behind my back because of the color of my skin and because of the population I serve. Time and prayer can only fix some things.
- What do you notice from reading these two passages together?
- What words or phrases stand out?
- What are the strengths and challenges of living in a rural area that you perceive from reading these passages?
- For those in rural areas: How do these messages match your own experiences or not?
- What do you want people in urban areas to know about rural life?
- Discuss why you think there is a disparity between the experience of people of color and the experience of white people in rural areas.
Have students revisit the definitions of the terms discussed at the beginning of this lesson and invite them to make any changes needed to reflect deeper understanding. If helpful, share these definitions for the terms.
In, relating to or characteristic of the countryside rather than the town.
Lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society.
Defined as a family having lived in poverty for at least two generations. It is important to understand the difference between generational poverty and situational poverty. A person/family can experience situational poverty when income and support decrease due to a specific change—job loss, divorce, death and so on. While there can be a domino effect caused by this one significant change, families experiencing situational poverty tend to remain hopeful, knowing that this is a temporary setback. This typically is not so with generational poverty.
Difference in size, degree, circumstances and so on; lack of equality.
A social construct used to divide people into populations or groups based on physical appearance, such as skin color, eye color and hair color.
3. Complicating Our Understanding of Economic Mobility
Watch video from the Pew Charitable Trusts (3:02): Economic Mobility and the American Dream.
Organize students into small groups and distribute the policy summaries developed by the Urban Institute (Appendix I). Instruct them to expand upon these five topics in a manner specific to rural life, using what they saw in Raising Bertie. The topics selected are consistent strong indicators of economic health and opportunity.
- Technology and Broadband
Have students read each summary independently or in groups and discuss these prompts:
- What was new information for you?
- What information was surprising or challenged previously held beliefs about rural communities?
- For those in rural areas: In what ways did the reports accurately reflect, or not, your community?
- If you were to summarize the information and data the Urban Institute provided, what would your overall conclusions be?
View and Discuss Clips 3 and 4. After viewing the video segments and reading the summaries:
- What questions still remain about economic opportunities in rural communities and enduring obstacles to them?
- What are the opportunities that living in a rural community provides?
Using the video segments, policy summaries and independent research, have students select one policy topic they examined and prepare a written recommendation as if they were to present it to a Bertie County City Council meeting or to the local chamber of commerce. In this recommendation, students will balance economic strengths and assets with challenges and propose one possible solution from either a microeconomic or a macroeconomic perspective.
Ask students to read the Langston Hughes poem "Harlem" and discuss the prompts provided.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
- What is a dream deferred? How does it relate to the American dream?
- What reactions and/or connections do they have to the poem in their lives today?
- If they were to write one more line to the poem, what would the line say?
For students interested in further exploring economic mobility and absolute and relative mobility, direct students to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project.
To look more deeply into the economic benefits and consequences of building prisons in rural communities, invite student to explore these online resources:
- The article “Prison Building Will Continue Booming in Rural America” in Salon by John M. Eason, March 15, 2017.
- The Prison Proliferation Project combines housing, economic, political and demographic data at the state, county and national level from 1970 to 2010.
For further discussions on the American dream, invite students to explore these articles:
- Leonhardt, David. “The American Dream, Quantified at Last,” The New York Times, December 8, 2016.
- Meacham, Jon. “Keeping the Dream Alive,” Time, June 21, 2012.
The film’s official POV site includes a discussion guide with additional activity ideas and resources, instructions for borrowing the DVD from the POV Lending Library and other resources.
You can find links to additional resources on the film's website.
This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions that challenge students to think critically about documentaries.