Dr. Asa G. Hilliard, III: Reflections On His Inspiration

Hakim M. Rashid, Associate Professor
of Human Development and Psychoeducational Studies
at Howard University, Washington, D.C.,
hakimrashid@gmail.com

Keywords: African American children, teacher educators, childhood education programs

 

            Dr. Asa G. Hilliard III was many things to many people. He was a teacher, a psychologist, a historian, a mentor, and of course had multiple roles in his family. For me he was a worldview coach, someone who helped shape my view of the world for an over three decade period of time.  Asa was a source of information and inspiration, someone whose positive outlook on life was matched only by the sheer amount of information he was capable of providing.  I heard him give numerous lectures at conferences such as the National Black Child Development Institute, and the American Educational Research Association. An occasional hotel lobby encounter might yield a 10-15 minute conversation, one replete with nuggets of wisdom and knowledge I could use later. There were phone calls over the years to ask for advice or explore an idea. Although I knew that I was only one of the thousands of people influenced by Asa, and although I did not see our relationship as in any way “special”, I did feel blessed to be among those he so profoundly affected.

            I enjoy teaching and Asa has been with me in virtually every class that I’ve ever taught. Courses in Black child development, educational psychology, parenting, and a variety of other courses have included Asa’s perspectives to greater or lesser degrees. The knowledge and perspective gained from Asa have made all of my courses African centered without any explicit description as such.  All of my students are taught the relationship between culture, worldview, theory, research and practice regardless of the subject matter.  From Asa and via Asa, I learned about the origins of African civilization and culture. From Asa and via Asa, I learned about the gross limitations of intelligence testing.  From Asa and via Asa, I learned about highly successful all Black schools. Asa helped shape my view of the world, and thus helped shape the worldview of all of my students.

            It is this African-centered worldview that is essential to the development of the African American community as we move further into the 21st century.  Global economic power is shifting eastward into Asia and Africa. It is becoming increasingly important that African Americans position themselves to engage in trade relations, intellectual exchanges, and political dialogue with the rest of the world without the psychological and cultural baggage of Eurocentric thinking.  Thus the perspectives and positions of Dr. Asa G. Hilliard III will be increasingly valuable parts of the African American knowledge base over the coming years. Our children and grandchildren cannot negotiate trade deals in Nigeria, Dubai, or China with the misguided notion that civilization began with the Greeks and Romans. They cannot engage in a serious global dialogue on education with the belief that the Stanford-Binet is a truly valid measure of intelligence. And they certainly cannot make meaningful contributions to future global political dialogues without a thorough understanding of not only the strengths of democracy, but its weaknesses and limitations as well.

            It will be incumbent upon those of us who knew, respected and loved Dr. Asa G. Hilliard, III to make sure that future generations of Africans clearly understand his message. Just as Frantz Fanon continues to exert a tremendous influence 50 years after his death, we must do what we can to make sure that Dr. Asa G. Hilliard III continues to speak to our students and practitioners in 2050 and beyond. Below I share a few of the many topics on which Asa influenced my thinking and instructional practices.

My First Stolen Legacy

            I first met Dr. Asa Hilliard at a National Black Child Development Institute conference in 1975.  I was beginning my first teaching position and I mentioned to Asa that I would be teaching a course on History and Philosophy of Education the next semester.  Asa smiled, and immediately went into his ever present leather attaché.  He pulled out a book with a homemade red cover keeping together a set of photocopies. It was George James’ Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy.  “You can’t teach History and Philosophy of Education without this”, Asa said with a broad smile. Stolen Legacy had been banned from many university libraries because of James’ powerful challenge to one of the pillars of European superiority--that civilization and philosophy had originated with the ancient Greeks.

            After leaving the conference, I started reading Stolen Legacy and couldn’t put it down. The myths of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle were shattered forever, and I couldn’t wait to expose my students to this liberating knowledge. Ancient Kemet (the Greeks called it Egypt) had instituted an “affirmative action program” that allowed certain Greeks to avail themselves of Egyptian knowledge. Many of them were persecuted by their own people for introducing such radical doctrines in their homelands.  Since Stolen Legacy was not in print at the time, I did for my students what Asa had done for me, photocopied it and passed it on.  Although I was teaching at a historically Black university, I had one Caucasian student who adamantly disagreed with James’ position.  I challenged her to prove him wrong in her term paper. She concluded in her paper that not only was James right, but that he hadn’t gone back far enough in his discussion of Kemetic influences on the Greeks. I later told Asa this story and he laughed out loud!

Visiting Asa’s Personal Library

            In 1982, I received a travel grant from a professional organization that allowed me to visit and interview a couple of scholars from across the country. One of these scholars was Dr. Asa G. Hilliard. After meeting with him in his office at Georgia State University, he invited my wife and me to his home that evening.  The highlight of the evening was the opportunity to visit Asa’s personal library located in the lower level of his home.  To say that I was thoroughly amazed at his collection would be a gross understatement. Out of print books, recently published books, books on history, culture, politics, education, psychology; it was like being a kid in a candy store of knowledge. I went from shelf to shelf reading excerpts from books I had never heard of, feverishly scribbling titles I would later try to find.

The Limits of Early Childhood Intervention

            During my visit with Asa we had the opportunity to discuss research on the long term benefits of high quality early childhood education programs. While Asa saw these studies as clearly beneficial, and the scientific foundation for the continued funding of Head Start, he cautioned against viewing them as a panacea for African American education. At the time I was working at the High/Scope Foundation and they had recently published their findings on the effects of the Perry Preschool Project through age 14. I mentioned to Asa that we were working on case studies of the project participants in an effort to qualitatively examine why some children were successful and some were not. He felt that in the long run this kind of qualitative perspective would be important in that it dug below the statistical data that would capture the attention of the mainstream media.

Cheikh Anta Diop and the Nubian Pharoahs

            It was via Asa that I learned about the magnificent work of Cheikh Anta Diop, the brilliant Senegalese scholar who so powerfully challenged Eurocentric views of African history and culture. The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality (1974)and The Cultural Unity of Black Africa (1989) were powerful works that only reinforced my perspective and world view. I heard Asa talk about, reinforced by Diop’s work, the Nubian Pharaohs, those pharaohs whose ethnicity even the Eurocentrists acknowledge as Black African.  During the 1992-93 academic year, I served as a Visiting Professor at the University of Khartoum in Sudan.  One day after class, I visited the Sudanese National Museum.  As I walked into the building, an imposing sculpture came into view.  It was Pharaoh Taharka, one of those early Nubian Pharaohs mentioned by Asa.  I stood there staring at this clearly African man, his broad nose and thick lips forming a stern face under his pharaonic headpiece.  I met many Nubians, including some of my students, who were adamant that Kemetic culture had sprung from a Nubian culture that existed in the Nile Valley for thousands of years.

School Reform:  Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic

            It always amused me to hear Asa refer to school reform as “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”.  The public schools were a sinking ship and historical and contemporary efforts at reform amounted to nothing more than tinkering around the edges.  Asa always asserted that we know how to successfully educate African American children, but it was the will power that was missing

The African Teacher

            A few years ago I closed out a professional development workshop at a local elementary school with Asa’s description of the qualities of the African teacher. Many teachers approached me after the workshop indicating that Asa’s description of the African teacher had challenged them to redefine their roles and alter their expectations. Asa had challenged their traditional training as banking (to use Freire’s term) educators and suggested a role that was much more in harmony with their cultural selves. His description of the African teacher included the following:

·         African teachers recognize the genius and the divinity of each of our children, speaking to and teaching to each child’s intellect, humanity, and spirit. We do not question a child’s possession of these things. In touching the intellect, humanity and spirit within children, African teachers recognize the centrality of relationships between teachers and students, among students, and within the African community as a whole.

·         For the African teacher, teaching is a calling, a constant journey towards mastery, a scientific activity, a matter of community membership, an aspect of a learning community, a process of “becoming a library,” a matter of care and custody for our culture and traditions, a matter of a critical viewing of the wider world, and a response to the imperative of MAAT.

·         The African teacher is a parent, friend, guide, coach, healer, counselor, model, storyteller, entertainer, artist, architect, builder, minister, and advocate to and for students (Hilliard, 2001)

Teaching My Students About Asa’s Legacy

            During the year after Asa’s transition, I taught a course at Howard University entitled Seminar in Black Child Development:  The Legacy of Dr. Asa G. Hilliard. The impact of Asa on future generations of students of African American child development must become a priority among those of us involved in the preparation of future teachers, social workers, school psychologists, and others who work with our children on a daily basis. The following is an excerpt from the course syllabus:

This course will examine the life and work of Dr. Asa G. Hilliard III as it has affected the education and development of African American children. It will explore Dr. Hilliard’s contributions in the areas of history and culture, standardized testing, special education, teacher training, multi-cultural education, child development, and other critical areas. The influence of Dr. Hilliard on prominent African Americans and other scholars will be examined via guest lectures, video presentations, and panel discussions. 

What I learned from Dr. Asa G. Hilliard III was much more valuable than anything I learned in graduate school. He taught me to look at the education of African Americans in historical and political contexts that are absent from mainstream graduate programs. Sharing his perspective with my students will always be a priority.

References

Diop, Cheikh Anta (1974).  The African origin of civilization: Myth or reality. Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books.

Diop, Cheikh Anta (1989).  The cultural unity of Black Africa. London: Karnak House.

Hilliard, A. G., III (2001). To be an African teacher. Psych Discourse, 32(8), 4-7.

James, G. (1954) Stolen legacy. New York, NY: Philosophical Library.