The Park District of Oak Park will no longer offer a summer cooking camp for children based on the foods found during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The day camp was pulled following intense public criticism that it glorified this country’s painful history of forcibly removing African people from their homelands, stripping them of the most basic human rights and enslaving them.
The camp was included in the park district’s 2023 summer camp guide, where it was described in language not dissimilar to what is used in cruise ship brochures.
“Your camper will cook and investigate the history and flavors of the transatlantic slave trade,” the description stated. “Each day, your camper will discover a new port from the route and understand the significance of slavery on every meal we eat.”
In a statement, the park district apologized for the offensive language used in the description, which, along with the camp’s title, was approved by the park district’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee. That committee is made up of park district staff and includes Black, Latinx and white members, according to park district Executive Director Jan Arnold.
“The camp was designed to educate participants about culture and history of African countries from which enslaved people came to the United States, using food as well as art, science, and math as teaching tools, with its curriculum based on learnings from the ‘1619 Project,’” Arnold told Wednesday Journal.
The “1619 Project” is an ongoing storytelling initiative helmed by Nikole Hannah-Jones and launched in the New York Times Magazine in 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.
Inspiration for the camp also came from food historian, cookbook author and journalist Jessica B. Harris, who chronicled the way in which African cuisine has impacted U.S. cooking due to the Transatlantic Slave Trade in her cookbook “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America.”
The camp would have focused on different African countries, beginning with Senegal, Arnold said, while educating campers on the origins of certain foods, such as okra, which was brought to the U.S. by enslaved Africans.
“The instructor is serious, respectful, while illustrating survival as well as connecting history to present day,” Arnold said.
The park district did not create the camp. Its curriculum was developed for an African American community south of Dallas by a team of Black women to provide educational summer programs for children whose schools failed to teach them the “genocide of slavery,” according to Arnold. The instructor taught the camp in that community for seven years before coming to Oak Park and pitching it to the park district.
“We acknowledge that we should have done a better job of sharing how the class was created and providing more content on the program specifics,” said Arnold. “The title, while it worked in another state, was not a good choice for Oak Park.”
Upset and disappointment at the park district spread across the community through social media. Others took to news outlets to express their unhappiness. NBC5 Chicago reported on the camp in a television segment featuring local organizer and teacher Anthony Clark. Juanta Griffin, multi-cultural learning coordinator for the Oak Park Public Library, was also interviewed by NBC5. Oak Park Village Trustee Cory Wesley penned an op-ed published in Wednesday Journal.
“I felt it was egregious,” Wesley said of the camp and its description. “I felt like it was reducing the pain and suffering and experiences of Black folks to something that was a shadow of the impact [enslavement] has had on us culturally, for hundreds of years.”
The camp guide was released at the end of January, right before the beginning of Black History Month, a time dedicated to honoring the tribulations and triumphs of Black Americans. While Wesley doesn’t believe the timing was intentional, he thinks it made the situation all the more upsetting.
“The proximity to Black History Month just makes it worse, but there would never have been a good time for this to happen,” he said.
In his op-ed and subsequent interview with Wednesday Journal, Wesley spoke of his desire for a productive path forward in Oak Park, a path that forgoes the emphasis on intentions and instead focuses on the harm done to the Black community.
“When you’re dealing with the pain and trauma of an entire race of folks who are still marginalized in a country that is still unwelcoming to them in large degree, you have to be very thoughtful about how you approach that history.”