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What Is the Amistad Legislation and Why Does It Matter?

Investigative News

By Janean L. Watkins
On September 28, 2010

When faced with the challenges of Chicago's public educational system, many people think that it may be beneficial to revamp curriculum to include the tenets of black studies. The solution to the problem of the exclusion of many significant experiences of African-American people does not have to be a difficult one. An introduction to the ‘history of oneself' just might be a great way to help students ‘own' their educational experience and engage them in active learning.

The Middle Passage, chattel slavery, Jim Crow and the overall physical and psychological terrorism related to the vestiges of oppression of black people throughout American history are items from our historical past that are in dire need of recapitulation. James E. Watson, Executive Editor of The New York Amsterdam News, one of the nation's oldest black published newspapers stated, "I am disturbed about how many students don't know this history. Many teachers are ill-equipped to talk about slavery." This is the sentiment of many of the nation's leading proponents of the Amistad Commissions, which have been established in eight states in the past five years.

In July of 2005, the Illinois General Assembly enacted HB0383 Amistad Commission. The purpose of the bill is to address the problem that public schools in Illinois direly need a curriculum that is rooted in the teachings about the legacy of slavery in America, African American contributions to the U.S. and the hardships that African Americans have endured in the past 409 years. The proposed enforcing arm that would ensure that progress is made towards these curriculum changes was named The Illinois Amistad Commission.

The commission was established four years ago, yet Illinois residents, students, educators and administrators have little to no knowledge of its existence. On January 25, 2005, Rep. Monique Davis (D-IL) introduced HB0383, "An act to establish an Amistad Commission in Illinois," and six months later the ‘Amistad Commission' became a public act.

The Illinois Amistad Commission consists of 15 members, including three ex officio members: the State Superintendent of Education, the Director of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the Director of Historic Sites and Preservation and 12 public members. Public members are residents of Illinois and chosen with regard to diversity and demographics, as well as their experience serving actively in organizations that educate the public on the history of the African slave trade, the contributions of African-Americans to our society and civil rights issues.

The establishment of the commission is evidence that the measure and its education goals are publicly supported. Why is it that many educators, administrators and parents don't know that it exists? Former DCFS Caseworker, Joulaika Buchan has a theory that begs to answer this question. "The curriculum is already set and people don't want to go with change. If you change things, you're telling current supporters of curriculum that they're doing something wrong."

This resistance to change may be true. But others believe that change in regards to our public thinking about the importance of race is happening. Change in our valuing knowledge of race-based experiences, legislators believe, will take time. Research and general knowledge shows that the point of the Commission is to ‘fine-tooth-comb' the public educational system and historical societies to understand where change is needed.

The next step is to educate people in preparation for delivering accurate and comprehensive information about European, African and American race-based history. Educating our children is an important collective responsibility. If we do not do it properly, we risk defeating the purpose of creating a think tank of this magnitude.

Rep. Monique Davis, a sponsor of the Amistad bill, has led the way in progressive education legislation. She has spearheaded investigations into the merit of charter schools, and is currently sponsoring HB 3361, which would increase the number of charter schools in Illinois. But her work with the Amistad Commission has come to a standstill. When asked to speak about questions in regards to her recent efforts in support of the Amistad Commission, she was ‘unavailable for comment,' so what is happening with the Commission that she fought so hard for?

In an interview with Lee Walker, a member of the Amistad Commission, and Founder of the New Coalition for Economic & Social Change, he noted that the Commission was enacted in 2005, but didn't officially convene until 2007. When asked if the Commission had considered creating a scholarship fund to support teachers who are interested in rweturning to school to take Black Studies courses, his response was, "We have to take this one step at a time. It would best serve educators to review their current curriculums to see where there are gaps in educating students about the African Slave Trade."

A foreseeable problem with this strategy is that if teachers are not knowledgeable about the topic, how will they close the gaps in student learning on the topic, or student achievement in general? One purpose of the Amistad Commission is to learn what information is out there about the history of the slave trade and understand if it is included in textbooks used by Illinois public elementary and high schools. The Commission is also responsible for providing access to training to educators to prepare them to deliver this African-American history curriculum to students.

This past year Sen. Donne E. Trotter (D-IL) proposed legislation [SB 2961] that would appropriate 30,000,000 dollars to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Some of this funding would be used to fund the work of the Amistad Commission. The bill was ‘Referred to Rules' on March 19, 2008 and thus far this bill has not been introduced in the Illinois House by Monique Davis. Walker reports that no money has been appropriated to the Amistad Commission, despite the fact that 40,000 dollars funding mandate was written into the legislation. When asked how the members of the Amistad Commission proposed to make the education curriculum changes required of them with no resources, Walker stated, "We are in collaboration with the Illinois Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Commission (ITSTC)."

Dr. Conrad Worrill, Director of the NEIU Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies is a member of the ITSTC. Dr. Worrill and others worked extensively to research and document invaluable information about African-American history that should currently be available to Illinois students. But there are more excuses from others for why this information is still unavailable.

Walker said: "The Amistad Commission will eventually provide Illinois textbook makers and educators with researched information given to us by the ITSTC in regards to the true history of the slave trade and its effects. They were given 400,000 dollars by the Illinois legislature last year for their research. It is understood that the monies given to them will help us as well. Last year, we did get 150,000 dollars, but that money will go to hiring an Executive Director [for the Amistad Commission]."

Whether the Illinois Amistad Commission will actually reach its goals is a different question. More than one person has stated that the issue is less academic than some may think. It is apparent that legislative rigmarole has tied the hands of concerned citizens who are interested in developing this curriculum. We know that new governmental mandates designed to enhance education are not always enforced. In 2006, the budget deficit crisis created a rift in funding for many educational initiatives. Illinois ranked number 35 in Morgan Quitno's annual reference book, Education State Rankings, 2006-2007. This is an indication that education is not a priority for the Illinois legislature.

Textbook publishers such as Houghton Mifflin, Thompson and others would have to adhere to the curriculum changes recommended by both the ITSTC and the Amistad Commissions. The Commissions are working side by side with the Illinois State Board of Education, whose members have expressed "sincerity" in wanting to see these changes. They want to ensure that textbook makers provide appropriate information as prescribed by the two Commissions. Walker also does not know how long it will take to complete the first phase of the Commission's charge. Walker expressed fears that Governor Blagojevich's successor might not consider backing the existing legislation on this issue. Now, with the Illinois budget deficit, and a complacent constituency, will Pat Quinn push the already way-laid legislation into further regression?

The Commission members realize that there aren't any extra appropriations being directed towards support of their efforts. Walker explains, "Scholars aren't attaching money to success when it comes to school. We must stay practical and utilize the resources that we have right now to the best of our ability. We can't say that the state of Illinois by 2015 will have ‘x' amount of data in textbooks. At the rate things are going, we won't see that happen for quite some time."

People who are aware of the Commissions find their goals misguided and doubt that the Commission will achieve any meaningful results. In regards to the commission, one citizen who requested anonymity said: "How about a commission on healthcare reform? Or, [how about we have] one on industry-retention, to reduce high paying manufacturing job loss? No. Instead, we are going to re-pay some [of] our political cronies with do-nothing jobs to create a report no one is going to read and which will not lead to any meaningful legislation."

It is obvious that this information is pertinent for the historical enlightenment of all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity. However, it will take the power of concerned educators, parents and constituents to actually see progress and tangible results in achieving the educational inclusion goals of the Illinois Amistad Commission. The legislation itself is not the most important need when all is said and done. It is our shared commitment to, and responsibility for, the education of our children.

Write to your Congressmen, State Representatives and State Senators to push for the completion of this important work. The knowledge gained by students could change the dynamics of student achievement and self-responsibility. Knowledge is an important, but often forgotten, piece of the ‘school reform' puzzle. It's high time that citizens took the reigns in replacing the missing piece.

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