By Sundjata Sekou
On Dec. 9, the New York Post reported that Connecticut had become the first state to require that schools offer Black and Latino studies. If we bypass the headline and read the law, it states that “The State Education Resource Center shall develop a black and Latino studies course. Such course shall be one credit and offered at the high school level.”
In other words, this is an elective and won’t be mandatory. It also means that Black and Brown children searching for “knowledge of self” will fill these classes. While white students who love hip-hop and Black culture will bypass this class en masse! If Connecticut wants to make this meaningful, the state should make it a graduation requirement that is enforced and evaluated as part of its exit-testing requirements.
While it is beneficial for all students to learn about Black and Latino history, such mandates anywhere in the nation would face resistance, backlash or indifference. The resistance could come from white families who may think that a mandatory graduation requirement that focuses on race, racism, systemic racism and anti-Blackness is a course in hating white people. But white families who are inclined to think in this manner should pay attention to a paper authored by Christine E. Sleeter and published by the National Education Association (NEA). Titled “The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies,” it found that “both students of color and white students have been found to benefit academically as well as socially from ethnic studies.” The paper also stated that “ethnic studies plays an important role in building a truly inclusive multicultural democracy and system of education.” (You can read the paper at eric.ed.gov/?id=ED521869.)
A Black and Latino graduation requirement may also face backlash from other ethnic, religious or marginalized groups who feel that their history and achievements in America should also be highlighted. While I agree that other groups’ stories should be told, there should be a dual track, where a graduation requirement for Black and Latino studies is firmly established while creating a pathway for other groups to be studied.
But when it comes to the indifference toward the teaching of Black history, New Jersey is a leader because of the lack of implementation of its own Amistad law.
The Amistad bill was signed into law on Aug. 27, 2002. It states, in part:
b. All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the period of the African slave trade and slavery in America and of the vestiges of slavery in this country; and it is in fact vital to educate our citizens on these events, the legacy of slavery, the sad history of racism in this country, and on the principles of human rights and dignity in a civilized society;
c. It is the policy of the state of New Jersey that the history of the African slave trade, slavery in America, the depth of their impact in our society, and the triumphs of African-Americans and their significant contributions to the development of this country is the proper concern of all people, particularly students enrolled in the schools of the state of New Jersey.
Nearly 20 years have elapsed since the Amistad law was passed, but if administrators, teachers, students, and parents were surveyed about it, the results would show that people are only vaguely aware of it.
NJEA, in partnership with the Department of Education, created a task force in 2018 to address the lack of implementation and to also look at model schools. In addition, the State Board of Education approved the proposal of former New Jersey Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet to mandate that school districts be held accountable for meeting the Amistad mandate by making it as part of the oversight monitoring of New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum (NJQSAC).
Moreover, at the 2019 NJEA Convention, NJEA, Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Department of Education announced the formation of the Amistad Journey, a program designed to allow educators to travel to some of the historic sites of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
With a nearly 20-year-old law, adding the Amistad curriculum as a requirement to the NJQSAC, NJEA forming a task force and announcing the Amistad Journey, why isn’t the Amistad law fully implemented from Exit 0 to Exit 172?
Dr. Stephanie James Harris, the executive director of the New Jersey Amistad Commission, shared the following thoughts and recommendations with me:
• The original Amistad bill created underutilization and underfunding of the Amistad Commission. A bill was passed in October 2020 that strengthens the original Amistad bill. This bill intends to make the Amistad Commission in, but not of, the New Jersey Department of Education. It also requires the commission to elect a chairperson and appoint an executive director. It also requires public schools to include instruction on accomplishments and contributions of African Americans to American society.
• College teacher-preparation programs should ensure that prospective teachers take courses on African American/Black history. Currently, a New Jersey educator can teach African American/Black history and not take courses or answer questions on a Praxis about the subject. This is equivalent to teaching biology and never taking a course or answering biology questions on the Praxis.
• African American/Black history should be infused across curricula. The Amistad Curriculum should be infused into language arts, math and science. If taught as a separate course, African American/Black history should interpret, ask probing questions, reveal universal truths, and provide project-based learning opportunities about the African American experience.
• New Jersey school superintendents should show more fortitude and willingness to install the Amistad Curriculum in their districts.
• New Jersey school districts shouldn’t just have the Amistad Curriculum a part of their history curriculum. The Amistad Curriculum needs to be taught in all classes.
The preceding recommendation and thoughts are juxtaposed with the feeling that too many people think that the teaching of Black history is divisive. But according to the NEA paper referenced above, “rather than being divisive, ethnic studies helps students to bridge differences that already exist in experiences and perspectives.”
While Black history is generally not being taught in New Jersey schools, or is reserved for February, the irony is that June 19, 2021, will be the first time that Juneteenth is honored as a state holiday in the state. Juneteenth commemorates Union soldiers bringing news of the Emancipation Proclamation to Texas and declaring that all Africans enslaved in America must be freed. But without the study of history and the constant disregard for the Amistad Curriculum, students will not know why Juneteenth needs to be celebrated and why we must keep fighting for freedom, justice and equality for Black people!
Sundjata Sekou is a third-grade math and science teacher at Mount Vernon Avenue Elementary School in Irvington. He can be reached at email@example.com or 908-247-7136.
The NJEA Amistad Stakeholder Group
In his column, Irvington teacher Sundjata Sekou notes that NJEA, Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Department of Education announced the Amistad Journey, a program designed to enable educators to travel to some of the historic sites of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Amistad Journey, which NJEA has donated $75,000 to fund, came from among 12 recommendations of the NJEA Amistad Stakeholder Group.
In September of 2018, NJEA President Marie Blistan met with the Leadership for Excellence in Education (LEE) Group to discuss the implementation of Amistad Law. The LEE group is composed of statewide public education stakeholder organizations, including the NJDOE. Eventually, representatives sent from each organization in the LEE Group formed the NJEA Amistad Stakeholder Group. It defined its purpose as “to ensure that students receive an intentional, authentic, and inclusive learning experience, which will develop students’ academic strengths and cultural sensibilities about the inclusive nature of history and acknowledge the contributions of Africans and African Americans to U.S. history through the New Jersey Amistad Curriculum.”
To that end, the NJEA Amistad Stakeholder Group developed, and committed to acting on, the following recommendations to ensure implementation of the Amistad mandate:
a. Develop relationships with organizations that hold educational and advocacy conferences, including, but not limited to the NJEA, NJSBA, NJPTA, NAACP, the New Jersey Black Issues Convention, and The Latino Institute.
b. Develop workshops through the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division.
c. Reinstate and expand upon an Amistad Recognition Award, through the NJDOE.
d. Use educator publications, such as the NJEA Review and Educational Viewpoints, to promote Amistad education.
e. Develop relationships with college and university educator preparation programs.
f. Ensure that the goals of the Amistad mandate are embedded in the courses of study in educator preparation programs.
g. Explore existing college-based educator programs for models of successful ventures and lessons learned from less successful ventures.
h. Seek insights of and participation of those preparing to enter the teaching profession.
i. Explore the development of middle and high school pilot programs.
j. Review and revise, as needed, the Amistad Commission’s
web-based interactive curriculum.
k. Create and implement the Amistad Journey through a collaboration of the NJDOE and NJEA.
l. Reconvene the Amistad Task Force in June 2021 to review implementation.