One of the most vital tools in the struggle for Black liberation is knowledge of the past. “History teaches possibilities,” says Jamon Jordan, lifelong activist and one of Detroit’s preeminent historians. Jamon has made it his life’s work to teach in a way that affirms the culture, depth, and resistance to oppression inherent within the Black experience. He comes from a tradition of African-centered learning that challenges the Eurocentric narrative embedded in not only education, but all aspects of society. “I had grown up in a house of reading, scholarship. A large part of that is black history and books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” Jamon recalled. “I grew up reading those kinds of things, so it’s hard for me to say when I began being involved in Black history and Black studies because I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t.”
A native of Highland Park and Detroit, Jamon became engaged in the intersection of activism and education as a student at Highland Park High School. Jamon cites an encounter he and other students had with a teacher there as his initiation into activism. Recognizing that the teacher wasn’t providing students much of an education, he and a contingent of students intentionally disrupted the class in protest. “We’ve been deprived of education,” Jordan recalled. “That’s been the legacy of Black people since slavery that we were denied an education, and right now we’re in a school and still being denied an education even though we’re sitting in a classroom.” While he felt justified in calling out the teacher for her inadequacies in instruction, Jamon also realized that he wanted to be more proactive as a student.
After graduating, Jamon continued to grow into his activism at Western Michigan University where he challenged rampant racism on campus by joining organizations and starting a newspaper called The Black Scroll. “When I graduated and went to Western Michigan University I was already deeply into talking, presenting about Black history,” Jamon reflected. “I began joining organizations that were involved in African American culture and African American resistance to white supremacy.” One particular instance of racism at WMU has left a lasting impression on him. “We protested a number of events including a white professor who told a Black female student to go sit in the corner and stop asking stupid-ass questions. And then he polled the class, ‘Don’t you all think she asks stupid-ass questions?’ And so, of course, she was friends with many of us. She came to our organization meeting and told us what happened in class.” Jamon and the other students reported the professor to the dean then typed and distributed a transcript of the encounter to students in all of his classes. They staged a sit-in during a midterm where they were photographed by police to identify them later for expulsion. However, by building a broad base of support and bringing faculty and community members into the organization, the students were able to graduate. Reflecting on that formative moment, Jamon explained: “We all kinda held on to some part of what we were doing in college, and I became a teacher teaching social studies, much of which ended up being African American history and culture. My activism life was infused into my teaching in class.”
After college, Jamon chose to work in education because he “saw teaching as activism.” Following a brief stint in Kalamazoo, Jamon’s first teaching job upon returning to the Detroit was perhaps his most challenging, placing him on the frontlines in the struggle to educate Black youth who were cast aside by society. The job was at Ben Carson Academy, a charter school inside the Wayne County juvenile detention facility. Describing the position as “probably one of the most powerful teaching experiences I’ve had in my 20 years of teaching,” Jamon explained that “these were students who in most cases, were missing years of education. In fact, I would argue that a large part of the reason they were locked up was because they were missing years of education.” Despite their lack of academic preparedness, Jamon was able to meet them where they were at and developed a style of teaching for the students that was tailored to their reality. Using current events, presentations, and interactive engagement with topics that were relevant to their lives, Jamon was able to teach in a way that resonated with the students. The position turned out to be short-lived, however. When the privately-owned school lost their contract with the county, everyone lost their job. Jamon briefly worked for another charter school in Inkster, but it too was on its way out because it hadn’t been profitable, a troubling reality of privatized education.
Recognizing he was on shaky ground, Jamon sent his resume to Nsoroma Institute, a renowned African-centered school led by Malik Yakini. Jamon had been aware of Nsoroma since he was in High School, having read about it in the Michigan Citizen, a community-focused periodical published out of Highland Park. Having already considered himself African-centered in how he approached education, Jamon saw Nsoroma as a natural fit. “I go into Nsoroma and meet with Baba Malik. Malik Yakini is the director of the school, one of the founders of the school,” Jamon recalled. “I meet with him and we talk for hours, maybe about three hours, about Black history, about Black nationalism, about faith, about all kinds of issues.” There wasn’t an opening at the time but two weeks later Jamon was back at the school to follow up and ended up teaching a class for an instructor who thought Jamon was already working at the school. When Malik heard about the situation he decided to make Jamon a teacher’s assistant, a position that quickly turned into full-time instructor.
African-centered education at Nsoroma was not just about the academic success of the individual student, but collective uplift of the entire Black community. “We want to teach them to be–if they want to be lawyers and doctors and engineers, that’s fine, but they’re gonna be lawyers, doctors, and engineers committed to doing something for the African-American community,” Jamon explained. “That’s what they’re gonna be doing, committed to bringing progress and fighting against racism.” Nsoroma created a cultural counterweight to the Eurocentric norms of education in the U.S., something Jamon recognizes as an imperative. “We want to ground them in African culture, number one, to let them know that there is a culture before black people showed up in America. That’s first. No group of people start out in slavery. So there’s this longer arc of history that black people are a part of that you ought to know something about.”
In all, Jamon taught for ten years at the renowned independent African-centered school, rising to the position of African Cultural Studies instructor for the entire school before it was closed in 2013. That same year, he founded the Black Scroll Network (BSN), an organization that offers educational tours and programs to connect the public with the centrality of African American history in Detroit. Jamon was already giving educational tours to his students over the years but reached a broader audience with BSN. In his scholarship and activism with BSN, Jamon emphasizes the connection between housing and education in understanding the present socio-economic and political conditions in Detroit. Black folks are central to the history of the city, yet the true nature of that legacy is often omitted from public memory in the gentrification of Detroit. “What I do with my tours, with my lectures, with my presentation with the students,” Jamon explained, “is orient them to another history that has been hidden from them, partly about the world, partly about the United States, but largely about the city of Detroit.”
Jamon considers himself an elder activist in the game, there to give guidance and historical context to a new generation of resistance, particularly in housing and education, which are uniquely linked in the city of Detroit. “What I do when activist groups contact me to work with them, or the youth that are a part of them, is to try to infuse this history to make them more likely to use what they learn from me in their activism struggle.” He recognizes that an intergenerational exchange is a two-way street in his vision for the future. “My history helps, but there are some other things that are a part of people’s reality today that they are also using as tools, and I see them using much more of those tools to bring black people forward and to make progress in this city but throughout the country and really throughout the world.”
- Furay, Steve. “Detroit was Important to Malcolm X’s Past.” Michigan Citizen, May 2014, p. 2. ProQuest. Web. 22 Mar. 2020.
Jamon Jordan, interviewed by Peter Blackmer, July 18, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.