CHEYENNE – The Cheyenne community came together to listen and reflect at the 10th annual Africa Maafa Remembrance Day conference on Saturday.
It was hosted by James Peebles and Rita Watson, who are founding leaders of the Sankofa African Heritage Awareness organization and longtime Cheyenne residents. They use the annual event as an opportunity to educate attendees on African heritage and black history in America.
“It’s not about teaching hate,” Watson said. “It’s about teaching the truth.”
This year, the conference focused on a complex and difficult topic many have been trying to address in the United States. Professors, researchers and former school officials were invited to discuss debunking racial myths and divisive assertions that not only hinder social development, but are also used to continue to oppress people of color in the United States.
The speakers broke down issues such as systemic racism, critical biblical race theory and the legacy of medical abuse toward black communities.
But the subject most covered throughout the entire conference was education, and in some cases the lack of. Every speaker reiterated that without proper access to information and a thorough background in American history, racism and inequality would continue to live on.
Fredrick Douglass Dixon, director of the University of Wyoming Black Studies Center, even told members of the crowd that he hoped they had strong stomachs, because it isn’t any easy conversation to have. He is a second generation historian and has dedicated his career to dissecting how the United States has transformed and implemented white supremacy into its foundation.
“In the system of oppression,” he said, “an educator is either a revolutionary or an oppressor.”
He presented on the difference between “the study of blacks” and black studies in educational institutions, and how a lack of education has contributed to the deliberate marginalization of black Americans.
Dixon said complete open and honest history is not being taught. He pulled literature and historical documentation that is not included in many school curriculums, such as former President Abraham Lincoln and his belief that people of color would never be equal, and Thomas Jefferson’s conception of multiple children with a slave named Sally Hemmings.
He said he believes not including these historical facts has allowed generations to forget the past and for white Americans to continue to profit off of a racist foundation. By going further in-depth, breaking down misconceptions and upholding the written record of history, he said there is a better chance to address injustice.
“They can hold you accountable for these things that you talk about with your friends and family at the table,” he said.
Education was the largest topic of discussion, but not just at a national level. Concerns in Laramie County School District 1 were brought up by both Paulette Gadlin, a teacher in the district, and former Board of Trustees member Nate Breen.
Gadlin said there has been a practice of book burning and making written materials unavailable throughout history in order to control a narrative. An extreme example she used was the Nazi regime during World War II. But she said recent events in Campbell County and pushback against the Wit and Wisdom program in Cheyenne were also forms of local censorship and a metaphorical book burning.
She said taking books out of libraries or schools, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “I Have a Dream,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and even “The Diary of Anne Frank,” were harmful to the proper education of students. She grew up reading books like these, some of which are included in the new LCSD1 reading comprehension program, and the teaching environment allowed her to learn and understand history.
“We’re trying to remove many books that I feel like educators have very passionately chosen for our children,” she said. “Burning a book is an act of censorship that strikes to the heart of an academic community.”
Breen shared the same sentiments as his fellow speakers, and said community members needed to start at the local level in Wyoming to make changes.
He said he is concerned with a continued false perception of transparency in school boards and the recently drafted bill for the Wyoming Legislature on educational standards. He said the origin story of the United States is not addressed properly, and recent efforts to fight against critical race theory being taught in schools is adding to the issue.
He encouraged residents to get involved and said setting education standards in Wyoming that uphold the truth is the first step.
“We need to acknowledge in our school curriculum the legacies of slavery and the legacy of segregation,” he said.
Peebles, the founder of the hosting organization, said these kinds of conversations have a lasting impact on the Cheyenne community when they are had. He started the conference in order to mobilize the community to connect on issues like racial disparity.
He invited others to share their experiences, research and perspectives at the conference, including health and diversity content specialist A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez, South High student Hekekiah Johnson and the Rev. Tim Solon.
And over the past decade, Peebles said he has seen a dramatic increase in interest on these kinds of topics.
“I like how appreciative the Cheyenne community has been,” he said, “and how the community has accepted us as the Sankofa organization, just as a pillar of foundation for racial growth.”