Lecturers discuss confronting racism at Amos Fortune talk

  • Dan Weeks and Sindiso Mnisi Weeks speak at the Amos Fortune Forum on Friday. STAFF PHOTO BY ASHLEY SAARI—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 8/8/2022 1:25:02 PM
Modified: 8/8/2022 1:21:45 PM

The story of Amos Fortune is well-known in Jaffrey. A freed slave, he settled in Jaffrey at the age of 71, where he set up a tannery business, became an owner of a 25-acre tract of land, adopted a daughter, became a member of the First Church in Jaffrey and by the time of his death at age 91, left gifts to the town, which have since become the Amos Fortune Fund.

It’s a pretty story. It has even been made into a children’s book. But is it the whole story?

That was the question asked by Dan Weeks and his wife Sindiso Mnisi Weeks during their talk Friday at the Amos Fortune Forum – a lecture series named for Fortune held every summer in the Jaffrey Meeting House.

The Weekses did not focus the entirety of their talk, titled “Amos Fortune: Beyond Abolition to Ubuntu,” on Fortune, instead using it as an example of the often-sterilized conversations around racism that continue to happen even today.

“Ubuntu” is a Nguni Bantu word describing  essential qualities that make up humanity. As a philosophy, it is the belief that all humans are connected through a universal bond.

Fortune was a full member of the First Church, but segregation rules meant he worshiped from the balcony. Fortune bought his freedom, but only after the heirs of his last owner refused to honor a deal Fortune made with him, in which he was meant to be freed after four years.

Dan Weeks said New England states often put themselves forth as firmly having been in the abolitionist camp, but the fact was slavery was legal in New Hampshire, and people did own slaves.

And in New Hampshire, gaps still exist in home-ownership, education and pay between whites and non-whites, particularly Black people. Education spending for Black students is about 74 cents to a dollar spent on white students. Black students are about half as likely to score proficient on in math and English. They are more likely to be suspended and expelled than their white counterparts.

A Black person is three times more likely to be arrested than a white person, and five times as likely to serve jail time, for offenses they commit at about the same rates as white people.

“I never learned any of these truths,” Weeks said.

Mnisi Weeks, who was born in South Africa in the sunset of apartheid, said she herself has benefited from the system that has left others who look like her oppressed – “the exception that proves the rule,” she noted. Her education allowed her to leave her small South African township and gain prosperity, but land and wealth disparities still exist in South Africa in staggering percentages.

Mnisi Weeks said she has felt the effects of racism since moving to New Hampshire to marry her husband. She has been called racist slurs and been told to “go back to where she came from.”

Weeks said even he is not free of bias. When he told his parents he was dating a girl named Sindiso Mnisi, he was quick to offer her credentials, including her doctorate. He said he realizes now this was him attempting to prove that she “was one of the ‘good’ ones.”

Weeks said changing those internalized attitudes is an exercise in mindfulness – that every day, or every week, he has to ask himself some hard questions. He encouraged others in the audience to do the same, and find what changes they can make, even in small ways. He said in his own business now makes strides to have more-equitable hiring practices, but donating to charities or researching and purchasing from minority-owned businesses are just small ways to start closing the wealth gap.

And, the couple said, don’t take things at face value. The story of Amos Fortune as a prosperous Jaffrey citizen, and the story of him as a slave and a Black man living in the 1800s, are both part of who he was.

“They’re both real, in a sense,” Weeks said. But, he added, look at both sides of the coin – not only the one that preserves one’s comfort.

The next Amos Fortune Forum is Aug. 12, a talk by Florence Reed titled “Growing a Just and Sustainable World with Regenerative Agroecology.” The Amos Fortune Forum is held every Friday in the summer months at the Jaffrey Meeting House at 8 p.m., and is free to attend.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 603-924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.


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