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Scholar Uses Journalistic Skills to Tell Untold Stories

By Carrie Stetler, Rutgers Focus

As a journalist working in Hartford, Connecticut, Ann-Marie Adams was painfully aware that the city’s daily newspapers ignored Hartford’s thriving Caribbean-American community.

“Talk about invisibility,’’ says Adams, whose parents are from Jamaica. “But what struck me was that I didn’t cover the community either, and that’s my heritage. That’s when I took pains to know the Caribbean-American story. It’s an immigrant story that’s mostly untold.’’

Adams, a post-doctoral fellow and

Ann-Marie Adams

Ann-Marie Adams

lecturer in the Rutgers history department, founded The Hartford Guardian, the city’s first hyper-local news website, in 2004 with personal funding and contributions from the city, foundations, and individual donors. 

Back then, journalists were skeptical that news sites run with public and private grants would work, but Adams and others proved them wrong. The Guardian now gets more than 400,000 hits daily and continues to provide in-depth coverage of the city, with an emphasis on Hartford’s under served neighborhoods, like “little Jamaica.’’

The Guardian wears its mission on its sleeve: civil rights, “responsible social policy’’ and stories that help residents access community services, according to the site’s “about’’ page.

“You’re there to advocate for your readers by serving as a watchdog in city hall and the community. That’s the job of a journalist,’’ says Adams, who will appear at a June 1 New York Times panel on Caribbean-American identity and the media.

Caribbean immigrants are hit hard by limited access to aid and information, she says.

“Not only are they marginalized from mainstream America; they are also marginalized within the black community,’’ says Adams. “Just watching them trying to navigate the system was disturbing. I could see how complicated it was for my relatives with children in the school system. They took it for granted that in America, kids would go to school and get a good education. They trusted the system to treat their children well, but found that was not always the case.’’

Adams says the election of President Obama has focused new attention on black immigrants and what it means to be African-American, a term that in some circles often refers only to descendants of American slaves.

Throughout her career, Adams has fused journalism and academic research.“I started the Hartford Guardian because I saw that as a tool for civic engagement. It’s a bridge from academia to the public,’’ she says. “With digital technology, I can connect my scholarship with underserved communities.’’

Adams is revising her dissertation for her first book, about a 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court case in which judges ruled that the state unintentionally segregated schools. The book, “Silent Cries: The Story of Sheff vs. O’Neill,” argues that Connecticut was complicit in segregation efforts by continuing to enforce regulations like an early 20th-century law that prohibited city students from crossing over municipal lines to attend suburban schools. Many other states have county school systems.

Similar laws resulted in the arrest last year of a Connecticut woman charged with “stealing’’ educational services after sending her 6-year-old son to school. Such regulations, which exacerbate Connecticut’s widening student achievement gap, are descended from so-called “black laws’’ of the 19th century, when blacks were prohibited from crossing municipal and state lines, according to Adams.

As part of her research, Adams uses her skills as a reporter to shed light on the history of Caribbean immigrants. Although they have been in the U.S. since the 17th century, their experiences have often been subsumed by the broader story of blacks in America.

“I was interviewing older people about the 1940s and 1950s and asked them what it was like in terms of racial solidarity. They said, ‘oh, we were all black back then,’’’ she says.

But the election of President Obama focused new attention on black immigrants and what it means to be “African American,’’ a term that in some circles often refers only to descendants of American slaves, Adams says.

Many Americans of Caribbean descent are now more vocal about their heritage, and it’s more common for celebrities like Nikki Minaj, who emigrated from Trinidad as a child, and Rihanna, who moved to the U.S. from Barbados, to show pride in their Caribbean roots.

“Black immigrants have realized that their own heritage has been folded into the larger African-American story, and their contributions to American society are obscured,’’ says Adams. “Now, they refuse to be silenced.”

This article was first published in Rutgers Focus magazine.


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