CCSU event shares insights into the contributions of black Americans through history and education – Hartford Courant
NEW BRITAIN – As Rodney Powell walked to the podium to accept an award, he shared a story about an interaction between a black student named Lakeisha and a white teacher.
Powell, who received the Paul Cuffee-John J. Johnson Award for his work as past president and COO of Yankee Gas Services and as past president of corporate citizenship for Eversource Energy, told a crowd of teachers, school social workers and parents that the interaction took place after an excursion to the Mystic Aquarium held by a third class,
The teacher asked the students what they learned on the trip, and Lakeisha raised his hand and said that she learned a lot about aquarium life, but she’s still scared of whales, Powell said.
The teacher asked why she was afraid of whales, and Lakeisha replied it was because of the Bible lesson in which Jonah was swallowed by the whale that her Black Sunday School teacher taught her, Powell said. As a scientist and teacher, the teacher challenged Lakeisha, telling her whales didn’t have the biological construct to devour a person whole, Powell said.
Recalling what her Sunday school teacher had taught her, Lakeisha told the teacher that she would ask Jonah herself when she got to heaven. However, the teacher challenged her again and asked her what if Jonah didn’t go to heaven and went to hell instead?
After glaring at her teacher and remembering what her Sunday school teacher said, Lakeisha told her teacher that after her death she could ask Jonah instead, Powell said.
Powell recently told the story at the Teaching African American/Black Studies Resources to Inform and Inspire symposium at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.
“I say that to say that we are not just a product of what we are taught, but of who teaches us. I want to emphasize that my experience is … an all-Black experience,” he said. “I went to a black kindergarten[school]an elementary school, a black high school, a black college, and now a university.”
Powell and other experts spoke to provide teachers, especially color teachers, with additional resources and to answer questions students had after their first year in the state’s new African American/Black and Puerto Rican/Latino major.
The symposium was moderated by Benjamin Foster, faculty member of the CCSU African American Studies Program and organizer of the Institute for Cross-Cultural Awareness and Transformative Education.
Guest speakers spoke on the subject of economics and religion as these were the two subjects the students said the teachers had the most questions about.
For example, Elizabeth Norms, founding editor of CT Explorers Magazine of Connecticut History, introduced her children’s publication about Venture Smith, who tells his story of how he overcame slavery and became a successful farmer, fisherman, and trader by the American Revolution era it became adapted for school-age children being taught in the classroom.
She highlighted how Smith worked for wages and borrowed capital to invest in his business ventures—every investor’s money to earn interest—and that it was a sophisticated operation, especially at the time.
“Remember, this is a time when there are no banks and there really is no single currency. More often things were bought through barter book credits or bills of exchange,” she said. “While scholars are uncertain as to Smith’s ability to read and write, he was clearly astute when it came to money. That’s not to say he wasn’t betrayed by unethical people. He talks about it, but he operated in an economy that was much less formal than we know it today…”
CCSU political science professor Walton Brown said that in order to talk about African Americans and their role in the American economy, the focus should not be solely on enslaved workers.
“From the beginning of African American tenure in the country, they’ve been entrepreneurs and business people,” Brown said. “African American women and men have been and continue to be owners and mentors, producers, bankers, manufacturers investing in every sector of the American economy.
“Students should be able to assess the role of African-American entrepreneurs in the United States economy and analyze the composition of African-American businesses to determine the innovations, creativity, and contributions that African-American businesses have made,” he said.
However, Brown also acknowledged that the business success and fortunes of African Americans, compared to other entrepreneurs from other ethnic and immigrant groups, have been and continue to be affected by the ups and downs of the historical pattern of racial exclusion and racial hierarchy.
Highlights of the religious seminars included teaching how the religious experience of Black people is central to the story of the early success of African American business.
Rev. Felton O. Best, also a CCSU Professor, spoke about the importance of the Black Church through its contributions to helping professions such as social work.
“As the social work profession became more sophisticated, the Black Church was initially seen as an element unwelcome in the helping professions,” Best said. “This trend changed as a result of former President George Bush Jr.’s post-religious original policies, which prompted social service professionals to ask local black churches and African American communities to get involved in program development and community-based intervention.”
Best said federal and state governments have recognized a failure in trying to effectively address the social problem facing African American communities, despite billions of dollars spent on prevention and intervention programs.
“Social Services are turning to the Black Church, not just because they think they have the answers. Instead, they perceive that no other option is available,” he said. “In recent years, the Black Church has been viewed as a viable institution, attracting both viable candidates and others to receive grants and administer federal programs in support of African American communities.”
Eastern Connecticut State University history professor Stacey Close noted the powerful influence African heritage had on the Black Church.
“African heritage has and continues to have a major impact on the Black Church. If you talk about what happened historically in relation to the Christian Church, while a number of Africans transported across the Atlantic by the horrible and dehumanizing trade converted, they also Africanized Christianity and changed it forever,” said he. ”
Deidre Montague can be reached at [email protected].