SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Prompted by recent controversies within the school district, a community healing event featuring the free showing of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” and an open panel discussion were held Saturday, May 6, at Bow Tie Cinemas in South Orange in an effort to encourage open dialogue and address the concerns of local residents.
The panelists included Essex County Freeholder President Britnee Timberlake, South Orange Village Trustee Deborah Davis Ford, founding executive director of Emerge NJ Karen Hilton, South Orange-Maplewood Black Parents Workshop founder Walter Fields and South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race Executive Director Nancy Gagnier.
The event was created in direct response to two recent incidents within the South Orange-Maplewood School District involving how black history is taught in the classroom. At Jefferson Elementary School, students created mock slave posters, which were hung in the hallway. At South Mountain Elementary School, students created a video showing a mock slave auction, an activity that was not part of the curriculum.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is based on the unfinished manuscript “Remember This House” by celebrated black author James Baldwin. Baldwin’s manuscript reflected on the lives of three civil rights leaders with whom he was close: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The manuscript also examined civil rights and race relations in the United States.
After seeing the documentary, many attendees who came forward to provide commentary on both the film and local events were visibly emotional from the images displayed on the screen, and many noted in their responses that some of the same issues portrayed in the film are present in the South Orange-Maplewood community.
“What I admired most about the film is that he spoke with moral clarity. When we talk about America, we are also talking about what is happening right here in South Orange and Maplewood,” Fields said when the panel opened for discussion. “I think that this film speaks to a larger issue that we have on a day-to-day basis, and it is a timely reminder for all of us.”
Panelists Hilton and Gagnier expressed in their opening statements to the audience that although they moved to the community for the diversity, they have since realized that there is much work to be done for race relations to be truly inclusive in South Orange and Maplewood.
In Davis Ford’s initial comments, she told attendees that seeing the film made her realize there were still aspects of bias about which she did not know.
“I was naïve in the sense of not seeing the microagressions,” she said. “The history of our country is so complicated, and the purpose of this film is to have a community discussion and have a healing conversation.”
Following the two incidents in the school district, Davis Ford addressed them at the March 13 Board of Trustees meeting and also spoke at the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting with an open letter.
Her message at the trustees meeting was included in a packet of information provided to all event attendees and expressed her shock and dismay that such offensive lessons could take place in what she considers a “progressive and inclusive community,” and ended with a query as to why “African-American history is not taught in a comprehensive manner as required by the NJ State Amistad Bill that became law in 2002.”
Many of the audience members who came forward to speak offered similar opinions, wondering how the mock slave poster project, which they called an offensive and misguided attempt to address slavery, was allowed to take place in the schools.
“I was stunned when it happened — hurt, embarrassed and stunned,” Davis Ford said. “I wanted to believe that South Orange and Maplewood were more respectful of African-Americans in the community.”
The controversial school project attracted the attention of many outside the district as well, including Hillside Councilwoman Diane Murray, who attended the documentary screening and came forward to offer some thoughts to the panelists.
“Too much of what we see on television and films and in magazines is a negative portrayal of black people, and not at all a representation of how I see myself. How do we get this change and why was this project OK? she asked. “If we had a (similar) project about concentration camps, would the teachers and administration have been OK with that and let the students take part in it?”
Fields, whose SOMA Black Parents Workshop looks at inequities within the SOMSD and addresses them with appropriate legal action when necessary, advised the audience to challenge entities that allow discrimination.
“When a child goes to school, he is trusting and believing that what he is being taught is the truth. The challenge as an African-American in South Orange and Maplewood is that we have to assert our humanity,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon us to dismantle the institutions that prop up white supremacy, whether it’s the public school district, block associations or the police department.”
As Fields alluded to, the school district is not the only place where community members feel there is a need for greater education and awareness of racially sensitive issues.
Maplewood resident Joel Herbert, who serves on the Community Coalition on Race Board of Trustees, recounted a recent incident in which he said he was detained in his neighborhood by Maplewood police because he did not have identification on him proving his residency.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. I was stopped for merely ‘walking while black,’” he said. “If you don’t have your freedom papers on you, in the form of a driver’s license or some other government-issued ID, then you will disappear, not much has changed since slavery. Since that day, I have not left my house without my freedom papers.”
Ending on a positive note, the panelists affirmed what they are doing in the community to make sure that such incidents are eradicated in the future.
“I advocated for body cams, and I am working with the Essex County Sheriff and Prosecutor’s Office for racial bias sensitivity trainings,” Timberlake said. “I have to be an optimist, I’m a legislator. That is how I am able to address the disenfranchisement in our communities.”
Hilton urged audience members to vote in local elections whenever possible, and keep themselves informed about local issues.
“We have key elections coming up, and the statistics of voters in South Orange is just dismal,” she said at the event, just a few days prior to the South Orange Board of Trustees election, in which she was a candidate. “If you care about what happens in your government or on your school board, go vote. It matters.”