Commentary: Morristown students travel to Washington to discover African American history

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Editor’s note: Melanin Minds, a social justice group at Morristown High School, and students from teacher Tanya Cepeda’s African American History classes, made an overnight trip this month to Washington DC. Forty-nine people visited the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, the Lincoln and Martin Luther King memorials, and the Capitol building, and toured Howard University. Here are some impressions from students.

By Alia Masud, Vivita Ramadhar, Julia Hoey and Maya Dummett

As we stepped foot into the elevator at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, the tour guide instructed us to look through the glass walls and observe the dates going far back into history.

We traveled back into time while descending into the bowels of the museum. Each date represented a time that held much information that has not yet been shared with us as students of American schools.

Once, African empires were thriving, their intelligence and resources were the source of their prosperity. Trade with different nations brought affluence, their military apparatus asserting dominance. The African diaspora was effective and in control.

Suddenly, ships of greed and avarice charged the shores of West Africa. Herds of African peoples were traded by the monopolistic planter aristocracy working with the kings of the great West African nations.

Twenty million sold, enchained and stifled, embarked on a voyage that led to bondage. Only 12 million survived the unspeakable inferno that was the Middle Passage.

Each plantation marked a different story: Sugar plantations in the Caribbean, rice in the Carolinas, and cotton in the Deep South.

And yet, individuals cultivated their own narratives, unique to their own circumstances.

Each state forbid an education, civil rights, aspirations, and freedom. Through the monetization of African lives, individuals were flogged and brutalized daily, stripped of their humanity and happiness. Their only solace was religion and family bonds.

This sentiment is clearly manifested in the feeling you have upon discovering Nat Turner’s Bible.

Taking it in, Morristown student Maya Dummett felt cheated: “There was so much history and intricacies behind the African-American experience that I had never learned about up until now. I kept thinking…I went 15 years without knowing a thing about my own culture and history.”

In spite of the suffering, African Americans rebelled against the institution that enslaved them. This mighty force of the will of a people propelling them towards freedom led them to the future. It informed the leaders of the post-Reconstruction era and ensured civil liberties would be secured by African Americans.

This force of will sought to mend the injustices African Americans faced, while further establishing the notion of African American pride. The creation of political organizations as renowned as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Blank Panther Party acted as the embodiment of African American pride and perseverance in the face of adversity.

Arts movements such as the Harlem Renaissance and Public Enemy blended music, the written word, and activism to produce lyrical machines for African American social awareness and social justice.

Through the journey in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, our understanding of the importance of the contributions of African American people within American culture grew tremendously.

The Morristown High School curriculum should continue to strive to represent a diverse population of Americans, with a special focus on all that African Americans contributed to the founding and economic prosperity of this country.

Alia Masud, Vivita Ramadhar, Julia Hoey and Maya Dummett are students at Morristown High School.

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