Amistad Commission of NJ-Mission Jamestown 400 Aborted, Betrayed!
On July 2nd, 1839, a wayward slave ship by the name of The Amistad, captained incredibly by blood soaked Africans who amazingly overtook their violent racist captors, found itself upon the shores of Connecticut. The stewards of the affluent young northern American state knew not to do with an unprecedented challenge of Africans who liberated themselves from violent white captors who now found themselves in their privileged liberal laps, who wanted nothing more than to be left alone and to be able to go home. They ultimately put the humanity of those Africans on trial only to be confronted in the course of that trial with the limitations and hypocrisy of their own humanity and their government’s continued commitment to the colossal abuse of humanity that was Slavery. In the end, out of guilt, shame, and yes, and an adherence to the principles of democracy, they had to free those Africans and assist them on their way back to what is now Sierra Leone...‘Back to Africa’!
New Jersey, the last northern state to abolish slavery, the state that voted against Abraham Lincoln in both of his elections, the state that gave us the degradation of Racial Profiling, the state whose public schools continue to prove to be among the nation’s most segregated, the Toxic Bowl state, the Soprano state of legendary Gangsterism and corruption, came into the 21st century blowing the minds of many when they mandated the creation of the Amistad Commission, named after the successful unsung slave uprising described above, to infuse the curricula of “all New Jersey public schools” with African-American history!
What a tool to educate ourselves out of our schools’ segregated legacy many of us marveled! What a tool to move the next generation a leap away from our racist past that continues to scar and corrode and divide us on both sides of the metaphorical and not so metaphorical racial railroad tracks.
Recent years has found the Commission breaking a little more ground each year on the front of Professional Development through its engaging Summer Institute, where some of the sharpest challenges of our history and its racist mistakes were taken on with some of the best scholars and support resources on the various subjects. This year’s Summer Institute, its distinguished Executive Director Prof. Stephanie James Harris informed us in October at the NJ NAACP Annual State Conference in Princeton that the focus of this year’s Summer Institute would be the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, where American representative government laid its first seeds and where, schizophrenically, it would also ultimately commit itself to the colossal crime against humanity-The TransAtlantic Slave Trade and its sweeping range of genocidal horrors! Jamestown was, and is, going to be the amazing convergence of the best scholars of American history on this seminal, but schizophrenic historical moment. The whole world was gearing itself up to see how Americans would address this incredible milestone and all of its glaring contradictions, especially with one of the most polarizing presidents ever now sitting in the White House.
Over 100 of New Jersey’s exceptionally committed teachers anxiously checked in with Dr. Harris for their participation in Jamestown 400, an opportunity to transform their already proud commitment to their students and communities, an opportunity to receive 47 Continuing Education Units to further bolster their abilities and their districts relationship to the Amistad’s endearing, but challenging mandate.
Tragically, we would learn, after weeks of waiting for the final financial sign off on the mission, that the NJ Department of Education (DOE), led by Acting Commissioner Lamont Repollet, had a legal problem with the excursion. Their take on the excursion? That it was a violation of the law to take teachers out of state for such an excursion, especially with federal funds (Title 2a). Dr. Harris, the Amistad Commission, and the teachers who made plans to go, and Amistad supporters, were stunned and appalled. She detailed for us, as she detailed for the DOE, how Professional Development was well within the parameters of the usage for those very available funds. More disheartening was that the decision to disallow the trip came down literally just days before the participants scheduled departure, which would have been today, August 19th.
Some of us who have worked with the Summer Institute began to question and challenge the decision. We began writing and calling the governor’s office demanding that he release the funding, or at the very least, determine another means to fund this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Finally, a core group of us decided to pay the governor’s office a visit last Thursday. We were greeted by one Rev. Derrick Green, a key policy advisor for Governor Murphy, over our grave concerns. For eight hours we wrestled with the importance of the moment, the value of the excursion, the legitimacy of the mission and how somehow, State leadership needs to come up with a way to allow the trip to happen!
To be sure, some of us even indicated that not only should the trip be allowed to proceed, but that it was of such a magnitude that the Governor himself, and these two top African-American officials (Green and Repollet) of his, ought to actually lead the delegation! In the last of those now wasteful eight hours, they finally engaged the US Department of Education on the issue of the trips legality for Professional Development. An official responded that the trip appears to fall within acceptable parameters, but indicated that the call alone would not be enough to fully address the question, that it should be formally vetted between the parties’ legal reps.
We were enthused by the response. We left that office anticipating that within the next day, at the very least, that vetting would take place, as would the exploration of other ways to fund the trip to make it happen.
We were wrong.
Only well until today did one of those committed teachers actually get someone from the Governor’s office on the phone to inquire about the status of their trip and the inquiry that came from Thursday’s meeting,...only to learn that the Governor’s office was still committed to the original position we had been challenging now for days. More painfully telling, they indicated no awareness at all of any meeting led by Green and all of its perceived, or should we say ‘deceived’ possibilities.
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I cannot begin to tell how betrayed we all feel...By the apparent promise of a young professional giant of a man over 6 foot tall approaching 300 pounds in Commissioner Repollet, but who proved to have only a mouse sized heart, away on vacation; By a polished member of the clergy in Rev. Green, tall in polish and apparent dignity, but who proved to be short on principle and transparency...Yes, by their sickening disengenuineness, we felt hurt and betrayed...Yet in the end, we all paused and thought that, we did not vote for Repollet or Green. We voted for Phil Murphy! We were writing and calling in...Not to their offices, but to his office. In the end, we dare insist that this betrayal, this embarrassment and heartbreak should fall, not just in their now irrelevant laps, but into Governor Murphy’s lap for him to address!
One of my proudest moments in my recent life was as an Amistad Ambassador, a community advocate and educator who supports and promotes the mission of the Amistad Commission in the community, I was the teaching our monthly Black history class at the Irvington Library, a program inspired by the Amistad Mandate which was born out elected leadership in Irvington, not only to the delight of our children and parents, but to the eyes and ears of Dr. Harris and to the NY Times last year!
The NY Times, like so many enlightened publications, are devoting serious space time and commitment to appreciating what is taking place in Jamestown this week. The world and its eyes and hearts are waiting to see which America would emerge from this incredible milestone, a promising America willing to take on the genocidal corrosive psychosis of its history for the good of humanity, or the psychotic America, committed to Democracy out one side of its mouth, but to racism and violent persecution out of the other side. Most of its plans made for the week clearly indicate that the former is indeed the intent and prayerfully is indeed possible, and that is why it is attracting so many from all over the country. That is why Dr. Harris planned the trip. That is why so many teachers, who could be doing other things with their time by the way, showed up and signed up to participate!
we are sad to report that these same educators from Phil Murphy’s New Jersey will not be among that great possibility, because his stewards, like those of 1839 Connecticut, simply did not and do not “know what to do with it”!
We are teachers! Not criminals!
The ball is in your court. You only have a few seconds left to make this right. What are you going to do?
*Zayid Muhammad is a longtime activist, performance poet and actor.