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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Today in New Haven

Some cities become associated with certain words. I think of Atlanta and its many streets named "peachtree." Peach trees were not indigenous to Atlanta; indeed, the name may have come from a Creek Indian reference to a pine, or pitch, tree.

If anything, New Haven's word is "amistad," Spanish for "friendship." Drive around in New Haven, you will find the Amistad School, Amistad Street, an Amistad building, and a monument to Mende slaves on a Spanish ship named La Amistad, who overthrew their captors.

And yet, much like Atlanta and the peach tree, the origin of "amistad" in New Haven has little to do with friendship. As New Haveners know, the derivation comes from that Spanish schooner La Amistad, which was taken over by its West African captives in 1839. The mutineers managed to sail it to Long Island, where they were soon imprisoned in Connecticut, where slavery was still legal. The Africans wound up in a New Haven jail, finding advocates among New Haven’s abolitionists who were willing to take their case to the Supreme Court. In 1841, the Africans were finally set free.

Despite the depraved activities of La Amistad, the name is worn with pride in New Haven. And why not? Ultimately, the West Africans were freed. And New Haven helped. So, we reclaim that ship named friendship. We christen a public school after it, to show that our city--one of great diversity--is also one of friendship. Yet associating New Haven with this happy metaphor alone obscures the cargo that we as a community bear: despite its culture and its heritage, New Haven is a city where 40 percent of children live in poverty, most of them children of color. Despite celebrated progress, New Haven has twice the number of violent crimes per capita than comparable cities.

Last week, a murder took place at research facility in New Haven named the Amistad Street Building. My heart breaks for the young woman, Annie Le, for her family, and for others close to her. Their grief must be unthinkable. Yet, in a different way, my heart also breaks for New Haven, which has tried through the years to rebrand itself by unearthing its past, dusting it off, and reexamining it under the light of hope.

I am not sure how this can be done. I am not sure how our New Haven will live through such evil visited upon us. And while Annie's case is known, what it brings to my mind--given the name of the building that binds so much of New Haven together--are the other victims of violence in New Haven, those known only to their loved ones. There have been a half-dozen people murdered in New Haven so far this year. There are countless others who suffer the injustice of want, in a community of plenty. May we remember Annie. May we remember them all. May we be worthy of our name.

1 comment:

  1. Although without the Amistad connection, we've been talking about this all week around our dinner table. Every out of time death is a tragedy in our "Amistad-centric" city. What makes this tragedy seem so much bigger than the others? As his parents babbled with tongue-tied half-answers, our 17-year old son has yet to receive an answer that satisfies him. Thank you for this reflection