DuSable guide is on fire for his heritage

The "FREEDOM, & RESISTANCE & THE JOURNEY TOWARD EQUALITY" exhibition at DuSable museum begins with slavery and ends with Obama's presidency. (Yingxu Jane Hao/MEDILL)

by Yingxu Jane Hao

Amani Edward Conley began his journey with black history as a seventh grader and has never looked back. He now works as the manager of the education department for the DuSable Museum of African American History — co-founded in 1961 by teacher and art historian Margaret Burroughs. Conley started at DuSable as a docent and he still enjoys the role as a volunteer guide.

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When Conley attended Myra Bradwell grammar school on the Southeast side of Chicago at the age of 12, Hattie Mae Eiland, a teacher who Conley says was “really, really serious” about teaching black history instilled in him the desire to learn about black history and culture.

In 1990, when Conley went to Kenwood Academy High School, black history could hardly be found in the classroom, so hip-hop music became Conley’s source of black history. Conscious hip hop thrived in the 1980s and 1990s, when many groups, like Public Enemy, dropped historical information in their songs, such as Can’t Truss It.

During that period, Conley revisited his love of mythology and folktale. He discovered many connections between different cultural practices and those in Africa, which brought him back to the study of African history and African-American history in the U.S.

When he went to college, to his surprise, many of the facts about black history that he was aware of were unknown to his peers. In some way, “the anger of the fact that African-Americans are often underrepresented and misrepresented in society” turned out to give him a mission.

“The fire inside of me, the person who needs to see things changed for the better knew that I needed to start learning this history so I can start telling the history,” said Conley.

Today, as head of the education department at one of the first and biggest black history museums in the nation, Conley teaches, develops curriculum and works on community outreach to make the education programs more accessible to the public.

“There’s a serious lack of African-American history in schools – grammar schools and high schools,” said Conley. “There is cooperation between schools and the museum. But a lot of teachers and institutions are not aware of resources that are available through museums.”

DuSable offers programs to bring the public to the museum and get involved in the discussion of black history. Lectures, workshops, presentations and movie screenings work together to help visitors and community members have open discourse to understand the broader reach of African-American history.

Conley also trains future docents. Lillian Hudson, a retired teacher at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy, is one of his current students.

“All my adult life, the DuSable museum has been my museum,” said Hudson, who once worked at Burroughs’ house with her artifacts. The experience made Hudson aware of the importance of Burroughs’ collection.

So when she was invited by the museum to take the docent classes, Hudson immediately agreed. “I’m able to give these facts and learning to the people, and that just makes me very happy to be a part,” she said.

Hudson thought highly of a tour that Conley conducted weeks ago.

“He’s very exciting. I have taken some of his tips to use as my own, like crowd control and how to give different information,” said Hudson. “I think he’s an extremely good teacher. He gives facts with humor. He keeps it interesting, according to the age group.”

Conley said such feedback from visitors is what keeps him going with his work at the museum.

“When an elder tells me I did a good job, that is a very, very fulfilling thing. It’s someone who’s struggled through these times,” said Conley.

“I got letters and emails from adults and educators, saying ‘Thank you so much! The children loved you and we loved you,’” said Conley with sparkling eyes and a big grin. “The children letting me know that they’ve learned something and they’ve enjoyed what they have learned, this is the greatest encouragement I’ve ever had.”

Photo at top: The “FREEDOM, RESISTANCE & THE JOURNEY TOWARD EQUALITY” exhibition at DuSable museum begins with slavery and ends with Obama’s presidency. (Yingxu Jane Hao/MEDILL)