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Zeleza Talks from the Amistad to Obama

How do the events of the Amistad connect to the election of Barack Obama nearly 170 years later?

Dr. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza was on hand for the sixth Annual Amistad Lecture to make that connection.

“My argument is quite simple,” said Zeleza, a distinguished professor of history and African studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “The saga of the Amistad and the election of Obama are connected – from civil rights to national independence.”

The lecture, which was organized by the Amistad Committee, covered the history of the Amistad to the election of Barack Obama, as well as the African struggle for empowerment.

“This is an important tradition [the Amistad Committee has] established to remember the Amistad. It’s important that we keep alive the memory of those important events and link them to events today,” said Dr. Carl Lovitt, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at CCSU, during the opening remarks.

Dr. Moises Salinas, chief diversity officer at CCSU, also expressed the importance of the lecture by saying it provokes critical thinking, empathy and multicultural ways.

“It makes for a better community at CCSU and makes us become better human beings,” said Salinas. Zeleza, who is also the president of the national African Studies Association, discussed how the road to President Obama’s victory in office was paved by civil struggles.

“The country entered an unprecedented contest,” said Zeleza of the most recent presidential race. “The Obama presidency brings the question of U.S. and African relations into particular relief,” said Zeleza.

Zeleza discussed four possible reasons that made Obama a viable candidate.

“It was a vote against Bush, it was a vote against Bill and Hillary Clinton, it was a vote for Obama himself and it was a reflection of fundamental transformation for us, particularly connected to the youth,” said Zeleza.

Zeleza also broke the Obama phenomenon down into the ways which different constituencies voted for different Obamas. These included the black man racial aspect, the son of the migrant, the biracial identity and the transnational experiences.

Dr. Walton Brown-Foster, professor of political science at CCSU, discussed the Obama election and how to measure its results after Zeleza’s lecture.

“It’s too early to measure results,” said Brown-Foster. “The success and the meaning will be contingent on the collective positive action of the collective communities.”

Brown-Foster noted the impression on her young son’s peer group, who questioned why a black man can’t be president

“This is truly a generational measure. The historic significance isn’t missed, but the exceptional nature of it and the lack of impression that my son’s peer group has is one perhaps measure of success.”

“I feel like [Brown-Foster] put into words what we’re all thinking,” said Casey Casserino, a junior at CCSU. “To not measure Obama’s success early and to not get our hopes up,” Casserino said.

The lecture was preceded by a slideshow of Amistad sites in nearby Farmington, Conn. presented by Dr. Katherine Harris, adjunct professor of history at CCSU. The presentation showed churches where captives were taken and the home of the Porters, one of the strongest abolitionist families in the area, among other sites.

“This area we sit in is apart of Amistad history,” said Harris. “We have come a mighty long way from the days of the Amistad and a lot still needs to be done,” said Zeleza closing his remarks. “The struggle indeed continues.”