I am a professor of History and Black Studies and Director of the African American Cultural Center at University of Illinois Chicago. It is with some consternation that I have followed the uproar about the planned and recently cancelled 2023 summer camp offering, a cooking class titled, “The Atlantic Slave Trade.”

I will admit that I was confused when I first heard of the topic of this one-week course. But as a historian I was intrigued.

I was, at the same time, completely baffled and ultimately saddened by the backlash. From what I can gather, it seems to me that the camp was nothing more than a misfire, a poorly worded attempt to explore the history of contemporary Black culinary practices.

To be sure, a class exploring the “flavors of the transatlantic slave trade” sounds appallingly insensitive. But I am giving its creator the benefit of the doubt. There is a whole area of Black cultural history focused on the African and Caribbean roots of Black American foodways, and this work is exciting and important.

Popular and award-winning cookbooks by such renowned chefs as Marcus Samuelsson, Toni Tipton-Martin, and Michael W. Twitty have done an amazing service by joyfully providing historical perspective on everyday cultural traditions that shape what Black folks eat. Their cookbooks encourage us to both embrace the complexity and celebrate the brilliance and creativity of Black ancestors who struggled under unimaginable circumstances.

The response to the poorly thought-out camp title and description demonstrates how reactive a topic slavery remains, how little American care to know about it, and how clumsily we handle it as a society.

The irony is that, rather than “disrespecting our [African American] experience, history, and very existence,” I imagine that this course was an attempt to do the exact opposite. This camp presented Oak Park with an interesting educational opportunity and space for difficult conversation.

It is a shame the park board cancelled the course in the face of blustery outrage rather than engaging the historical issues at its core.

Cynthia Blair
Oak Park

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