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White author rooted in Philadelphia’s Black history

Amy Jane Cohen: We must have the tough conversations

By Elizabeth Wellington, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Published: April 27, 2024, 5:52am

For the past two months, author Amy Jane Cohen has been lecturing about Philadelphia’s Black history to predominately white audiences at libraries, bookstores and private clubs in the city and the suburbs.

“Black people have been (in Philadelphia) much longer than most people and have had a continuous and important presence,” Cohen, a former high school African American history teacher, recently told the Northeast Philadelphia History Network. “Black people have been the ones to push forward our country’s ability to live up to its ideals about equality for all.”

The crowd listened. Some nodded.

Then Cohen — who is white — took the audience back to 1957, when Northeast High School moved from Eighth and Lehigh to Cottman and Algon, then a predominately white neighborhood. Racist real estate practices and federal policies prevented Black home ownership, so virtually no Black teens could attend the state-of-the-art school. Audience members pushed back. How could Cohen suggest that by advocating for the new school and grandfathering their children into it, their parents and grandparents were participating in systemic racism?

“I knew it was a risk talking about Northeast High School,” Cohen said later. “But I don’t regret it. I think I opened some eyes.”

Temple University Press released Cohen’s new book, “Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape,” in February, and she has spent the last two months lecturing about the city’s Black history. She’s having the hard conversations that Black America begged white people to have with their brethren about the Black experience after George Floyd’s murder. She’s working as an ally.

“If you spend as much time looking at local and national Black history as I have, you understand that systemic racism is real,” Cohen said. “It still impacts us today.”

The 205-page text is written for a general audience, but it is ideal for Philadelphia high schoolers, who are required to take a year of African American history. Cohen’s website features a teacher’s guide. Temple University Press published thousands of copies with the hope of getting “the book into Philadelphia public schools as well as other schools in the greater Philadelphia area,” said Aaron M. Javsicas, Temple Press’ editor in chief. Philadelphia recently revised its Black history curriculum to include more local Black history, said Ismael Jimenez, director of social studies for the Philadelphia School District, and the district is in talks with Cohen about how to best use her book.

Cohen is far from the first white scholar to write about Black history. Yet in a city like Philadelphia that boasts a long pedigree of Black scholars — from W.E.B. Du Bois to Marc Lamont Hill — why is she emerging as the contemporary face of Philadelphia Black history?

“That is certainly something we talked about,” Javsicas said. “One of the things I love about Amy’s book is that it makes it clear that Philadelphia history is African American history. They are not two separate things.”

Cohen, 59, knows people are curious: Why is this middle-aged white woman so focused on Black history in Philadelphia?

She received an undergraduate degree in history from Brown and a master’s degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania. She taught history at Abington Junior High before landing a gig teaching at Masterman in 2001. In 2005, Philadelphia made African American history a graduation requirement, and Cohen, who was already teaching a course in Philadelphia history that included units on the Underground Railroad and the Great Migration, volunteered to teach it.

“There were no Black teachers in my department,” she said. “There was an audible sigh of relief when I volunteered.”

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Cohen said that as a Jewish woman, she didn’t have to unlearn a white supremacist narrative. She understood that America was a country that stole land from American Indians and enslaved Black people. Still, she said, there was a huge learning curve. She read Gary Nash’s “Forging Freedom,” Du Bois’ “The Philadelphia Negro,” and the early works of 18th-century Free African Society founders and religious leaders Richard Allen and Absalom Jones.

“I learned very early on about Black people’s ongoing history of resistance,” Cohen said. “If one only has a superficial knowledge of Black history, you get the impression the Civil Rights Era was the first big organized attempt at resistance. I have been able to appreciate the full-fledged, self-actualized people Black Philadelphians are and have always been.”

George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in 2012. One year later — after eight years of teaching African American history — Cohen retired and started writing more about Black history. Black Lives Matter became a movement. Donald Trump became president. George Floyd was killed. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ groundbreaking New York Times “1619 Project” suggested that American history should be taught through the lens of systemic racism. States like Florida and Texas have stopped teaching African American history curricula, calling it unpatriotic.

“It’s a tragedy,” Cohen said. “But nothing will get better if we don’t have the difficult conversations.”

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