Asa Hilliard Spoke Truth to Power

Janice E. Hale,
Professor of Early Childhood Education,
Founding Director of the
Institute for the Study of the African American Child,
Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan

Keywords: African American history and culture, learning styles, African American children, African centered-culture



            I cannot remember when I first met Dr. Asa G. Hilliard but I believe that it was associated with our involvement with the National Black Child Development Institute in the early 1970’s.  As a young doctoral student, I was enamored with Asa, as I was with every speaker I heard at every event they sponsored.  Dr. John Dill noted that I always carried my trademark white tape recorder so that I could preserve every word that fell from each speaker’s lips.  Those conferences were filled with the fiery speeches of Dr. Na’im Akbar and Dr. Wade Nobles, the quiet analyses of Dr. Robert Hill, Dr. Leon Chestang, Dr. John Dill and many more.

            Once I became a professor of education, I served as a speaker on numerous forums with Asa Hilliard.  I began my work of exploring the hypothesis that African American children have an African-centered culture that has given rise to distinctive learning styles.  My exploration of this path culminated in the publication of my first book, Black Children: Their roots, culture and learning styles (1982), for which Asa Hilliard wrote a brilliant Foreword.   He also wrote a blurb for the cover of my second book, Unbank the Fire: Visions for the education of African American children (Hale, 1994)

            One incident serves as an excellent framework for my perspective on Asa Hilliard as a mentor. In 1987, a report was issued by the New York State Board of Regents, “Increasing the High School Completion Rates:  A Framework for State and Local Action,” on strategies for ameliorating the school dropout rate for African American and Latino children.  The New York report cited certain passages from the 1982 edition of Black Children.  Recommendations for action by local school districts were delineated based upon the scholarship contained therein.   

            The first notice I had of the controversy was several telephone calls from a newspaper reporter for an Albany, New York newspaper.  His approach was so obtuse and seductive, that it took several conversations for me to realize that he was attacking my scholarship.  He was attempting to engage me in trashing Dr. Irving Hamer, an African American who was Deputy Commissioner of Education for the New York State Department of Education.  He was the author of the report.  It occurred to me that Dr. Hamer was attempting to elevate my work into the realm of public policy.  The articles from this Albany reporter soon escalated to front page articles in the New York Times and eventually front page articles in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the flagship newspaper in the city in which I resided.  The evoking of my scholarship was particularly newsworthy in Cleveland because I was involved in a tenure fight at Cleveland State University which I eventually won. 

            I was astounded when the reporters from the New York Times ran to keepers of the flame of the African American establishment to draw comfort in their distress.  They ran to Dr. Edmund Gordon at Yale and Teachers College and to Dr. Dorothy Strickland who had recently left Teachers College to join the faculty of Rutgers University.  The reporters seemed to be in need of reassurance from the old guard African American intelligentsia that they had nothing to fear from this rogue scholarship that was challenging the status quo of teaching African American children. 

            The New York State Board of Regents (1987) framed the controversy in the following passage:

            One section of the report provoked important and sustained controversy…the matter of learning styles and  appropriate teaching strategies evoked the ire and opposition of some educational organizations and some educational leadership persons. The criticisms had a particular sting because the media, in reporting the controversy lost the context for the learning styles treatment, contributed to misunderstanding about the topic, and created polar positions from which proponents and opposition could or would not compromise (p. 5).

            Asa Hilliard (1992) described this as a bitter debate and suggested that the controversy stemmed from the thesis that unique behavioral styles could be identified that affected the learning of African American children.  He reported that my work (Hale, 1982) and his work (Hilliard, 1976) were cited, however, those who disagreed with our conclusions had not actually read the documents and failed to take into account the context of the passages.  As a result of the controversy, the New York State Board of Regents convened what they called:

            a carefully configured panel” of scholars and practitioners to advise the Board of Regents concerning the current status of knowledge on learning styles and group tendencies in learning behavior (p.5)

            It is interesting to note that when the panel was “carefully configured,” Dr. Edmund Gordon was named as the chair of the Panel on Learning Styles even though his statement to theNew York Timeswas that this scholarship was inauthentic and had no relevance for African American children. A review of the panel revealed that it was composed of nine academics and possibly one practitioner -- Executive Director of the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York City.  Asa Hilliard was invited to make a presentation at that meeting.  Even though my scholarship was in the eye of the storm, I was “carefully configured out” and not invited to make a presentation or attend the meeting.

            My recollection is that Dr. Hamer lost his job in the midst of the controversy – an indication of the bitterness of the attacks.  He is listed as a staff person to the Board of Regents panel and his title when the report was issued in 1987 was Former Deputy Commissioner of Education, New York State Department of Education. 

            I highlight this event, where the scholarship associated with the existence of African American cultural styles came to the attention of the media, to underscore the ferocity of the attacks that ensued.  Hilliard (1992) said it best when he commented that:

            the very idea of an African American culture seemed to threaten some European American and some African American commentators, who strove to deny African Americans any culture other than a “culture of poverty” (p. 371).

            Hilliard (1992) defined these attacks as emotional reactions by students of political and economic problems who were also not students of history and cultures.  He took the position that their position could only be taken by those who had not systematically studied African American history and culture.  He made the point that the incentives are not there for educators to follow every pathway for elucidation as there are for those who seek business profits such as Madison Avenue marketers.

            Asa Hilliard was called into service as the standard bearer in defining and defending what has become culturally appropriate pedagogy.  When the chips were down, when the media flurry descended, Asa Hilliard stood firm.  I guess I had taken for granted the brilliant Foreword he had written for Black Children.  However, he stepped out as a bona fide mentor when he stepped into the foxhole with me and stood strong against the onslaught.  Asa gave generously of his time and advice.  He was a friend and a confidante, who followed his vision with tenacity and integrity.  As such he was a role model for all of us.


Hale, Janice E. (1982). Black children: Their roots, culture and learning styles. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press.

Hale, Janice E. (1994). Unbank the fire: Visions for the education of African American children. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hilliard, Asa G., III. (1976). Alternatives to I.Q. testing: An approach to identifying gifted minority children. Final Report to the California State Board of Education. .

Hilliard, Asa G., III. (1989). Teachers and cultural styles in a pluralistic society. National Education Association, 7(6), 65-69.

Hilliard, Asa G., III. (1992). Behavioral style, culture and teaching and learning in Journal of Negro Education, 61(3), 370-376.

Report of the New York State Board of Regents’ Panel on Learning Styles (1987). No. of Pages 176; Document: Document (ED); Accession No. ED348407.