The Way of the Jegna: Restoring Excellence in African Education

Itihari Y. Toure, Program Coordinator,
Office of Black Women and Church in Society,
Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, Georgia

Key words: African American students, African, education, achievement, socialization


        In 2002 at the National Black Child Development Conference, Dr. Asa G. Hilliard III, known to some as Nana Baffour Amankwatia II, began to describe a way of being that preserved the cultural power evidenced in ancient and contemporary African societies.  He shared with those of us in attendance the characteristics of a master teacher/healer/warrior revered in the Ancient days of Egypt and in contemporary western and northern Africa. Ancient Egypt called them Sebai, in West Africa, they are Jeli or Jelimuso, and in Ethiopia, the personhood of the Jegna would later be institutionalized here in the United States as a model for restoring excellence in African[1] education (Hilliard, 2002)

        The Jegna is one response Dr. Hilliard articulated to the conditions of African education. This discourse describes the disposition and function of the Jegna as a relevant and effective response to the state of African education.  It is important to share the context from which Dr. Hilliard would galvanize educators, researchers, students, activists, and spiritual leaders to the way of the Jegna in Atlanta, Georgia and wherever he was asked to speak nationally.  The personhood of the Jegna not only addresses the challenge of restoring excellence in African education, it also responds to one of the most important and final areas of work for Dr. Hilliard, the work of renewing a process of social transmission among African people that ensures our survival and our thriving of future generations.

A  Jegna Speaks the Truth

        Jegna, an Amharic word, refers to one who is tested in battle, fearless, produces an exceptionally high quality of work, protects the people, land and culture with their very lives, and always speaks the truth (Hilliard, 2002). The need for the personhood of Jegna was enumerated in his paper, “The State of African Education” (Hilliard, 2000).  This paper described the challenges facing the African world:

1.      We are unconscious, with no global view of African people and no global view of successful ethnic groups.  We experience ourselves as local people in a global world.  Some of us experience ourselves only as individuals without any connection even to a local African community.

2.      We have acute amnesia, with no valid memories or awareness of ourselves as a historical people evolving through time and spreading throughout the world.  We are episodic in our experience of ourselves.

3.      We are disintegrating as a people and disorganized.  We have lost our solidarity.  Many of us feel no bond of identity with our people.

4.      We are not raising our own children.  We have no systematic socialization structures for the masses of our children.  They are raising themselves or they are being raised by others.  We have forfeited one of the most vital functions of a people, the responsibility for intergenerational cultural transmission.

5.      We have a growing loss of independent faith communities, becoming more subordinate in institutions that we do not control.

6.      We have no long-range strategic goals, plans and mobilization.  Without these things, nothing positive will happen for us.

7.      We do not have an adequate comprehension of wealth production and accumulation.  Many of us make money.  Few of us make wealth.  Our consumption appetites make us prime sources for exploitation by others.

8.      We do not have an adequate comprehension of how to nurture health and prevent illness.  We do not have healthy diets.  We do not monitor and control our environment.  We do not have a critical orientation about these things.

9.      We have no major independent, self-funded think tanks to help us to define and to resolve our problems.  We do not see how successful groups fund and rely upon ideas based upon research and reflection.

10.  We do not have an adequate African Centered higher education.  Definitions, assumptions, priorities and above all our worldviews must reflect us.

11.  We do not have sufficient cultural centers, movements, monuments, and celebrations to highlight important experiences and to shape directions.  These things offer us the opportunity to be reflective and to develop a more firm vision of the future.

12.  We have no regular independent communication capabilities, such as serious national and international periodicals to address our serious and continuing problems.  This is shameful.  It is not really a matter of resources.  It is a matter of consciousness.  Appropriate socialization will produce an appetite among the masses of our people for appropriate information (Hilliard, 2000).

        In this same paper presented to the American Educational Research Association (AERA), Dr. Hilliard would identify several “potent myths” about African learners that constitute many of the accepted responses to the challenge of academic achievement and excellence in African learners. These myths suggested negative effects of poverty, limited academic abilities and a deficient culture affecting the African leaner.  Dr. Hilliard’s work and research uncovered the truth about these prescribed myths undergirding many of the accepted practices in and outside of Black communities across the country.  The way of the Jegna described later in this discourse is one response that connects the long history of the African world to the present need to restore excellent education and other social institutions for African people. The successful response to these adverse realities for Dr. Hilliard did not come from outside of the African world.  He would tell us in his commentary on African power:

No matter where Africans are in the world, our circumstances are basically the same. Many of us are waiting for a magic program, a grant, a charismatic leader or European institution to lead us to the Promised Land.  The reality is that there is no chance that anyone other than Africans will act to move us from the bottom of the heap” (Hilliard,2002, p. 5).

Thus, one aspect for the call of the Jegna is one that counters the myths about African learners and African communities.

A Jegna Produces an Exceptionally High Quality of Work

        The response to the myth of poor achievement by Black children due to impoverished communities was the presence of excellence and consistent high performance in these same communities.  Throughout his career Dr. Hilliard documented, and in some settings presented the actual principals and teachers from schools in impoverished communities across the United States that consistently produced high achievement in their students.  The schools like Chick Elementary and teachers like Gloria Merrieux produced learners who loved their school experience, performed consistently high academically and had considerable parent involvement.  Asa would document the work of national programs such as Project SEED working with teachers and learners in teaching calculus and advanced mathematics to Black children from these same poor communities. Principals and educational leaders in these schools did not only have high expectations for the children they served, they were master teachers thoroughly knowledgeable about their discipline and willing to extend the boundaries of content scope to produce excellence.  There was no region of the United States in which Dr. Hilliard did not have an example of academic excellence in schools that were considered part of a “depressed” community. The presence of these schools in major urban neighborhoods identified as challenged or high risk raises the question of how many examples of excellence does it take before educational decision makers believe excellence is possible?

         Asa would highlight master teachers such as Mr. Tommie Lindsey or Ms. Carrie Secret taking students who had mastered failure and introduced them to academic excellence, one class after another. Principals such as Audrey Bullard and her son Kevin creating charter schools of excellence in St. Louis or cultivating excellence through the performing arts were highlighted.  Dr. Hilliard would remind us that teaching children to be excellent is not rocket science in the United States.  He would quote colleague and founder of the Effective Schools Movement Ron Edmonds who said, “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to in order to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend upon how we feel about the fact that we haven't so far” (Edmonds, 1979, p. 23).

A Jegna is Tested in Battle

        Unfortunately, to shift the question from closing the achievement gap to producing excellence is not without adverse consequences.  The presence of negative consequences to producing excellence is evident upon examination of who benefits from school failure in urban schools (Haberman, 2003).  The funding assigned to scripted instruction programs, accompanying assessments for these programs, academic consultants, private educational corporations, administrative salaries and federally mandated curriculum is massive. Excellence in the non-achiever or the economically disadvantaged changes the power relationship between those who have access to quality education and those who did not. 

        The price for producing excellence in a paradigm of failure generates few rewards.  The consequence of excellence frequently generates personal and community hardship.  These same teachers of excellence would be transferred, limited in the access to the student population or misunderstood. Tommie Lindsey has consistently produced national forensic champions in northern California school systems. He started with learners placed in juvenile hall, battled to keep funding for this “extracurricular” program and even suffered personal loss related to the demands of coaching.  Carrie Secret was criticized for incorporating “Ebonics” in her pedagogy rather than receiving commendations for her learners’ consistent high academic performance in Reading and English (Perry & Delpit, 1998).  Although Project SEED has a record of more than thirty years of teaching advanced mathematics to underserved, high risk learners, the organization is still relatively unknown and minimally used by challenged urban school systems.

        Dr. Hilliard would remind us of master teachers like Jaime Escalante (highlighted in the film, Stand and Deliver (1988) who would produce excellence in his Latino students only to be told that he must have helped his learners to cheat on the advanced placement mathematics exam.  The skill exhibited by these master teachers to move their learners beyond the minimal competencies of the state curricula is undeniable. 

        The results these teachers and schools produced has little to do with an achievement gap and more to do with a formula for excellence in education.  Asa introduced us to the factors common to the success of these educators who produced academic and social excellence.  In an interview with Dennis Sparks of the National Staff Development Council and in an article in the Journal for Staff Development, Asa addressed the quality of teacher professional staff development that was disconnected from the learning environment and the failure to connect apprenticing student teachers to master teachers with demonstrated records of accomplishment (Hilliard, 1991).  

A Jegna Protects the Land, People and Culture

        The state of African education cannot be separate from the state of African people everywhere (Hilliard, 2000).  The personhood of the Jegna serves as the social link for the cultural transmission of a people.  The intergenerational cultural transmission is the transfer of valuable information between generations.  Dr. Hilliard would help us to understand the socialization of African people to wholeness is a sacred mission for the Jegna, not an occupation.

        Asa Hilliard, III  (Nana Baffour Amankwatia II)  (2004) described The Jegna Collective as a signal that some Africans have take seriously our responsibility for intergenerational social transmission, for raising our own children, and for continuing to raise us. We acknowledge the ancient African foundations of deep thought and deep spirituality from which our excellent practices sprang, and from which further development is possible. In doing this, we join the process of Sankofa, reaching back to the African ideals of MAAT, denying the authority and legitimacy of the Maafa, the great terror of slavery, colonization, segregation/apartheid, and the ideology of white supremacy, and any other form of domination over us.

      This is the point of trajectory for the Jegna Collective. This journey of the Jegna for me began some 32 years ago, when Dr. Hilliard and a small group of educators called “Stage 7” recognized the critical need for generational transmission. Asa and the other members of Stage7 such as Carol Day, Barbara Richardson, and Ed Green adopted me and other young critical thinkers willing to imagine and study deep structures of African consciousness, philosophy and socialization. We now are scattered all over the world. Yet, we have a common thread to our work and study. This thread is an understanding of what it means to be an African Teacher -- a Jegna.

      The Jegna Collective like Stage 7 is a community. It is a group of people connected by the desire to strengthen our African power through African socialization. We are a community that has decided to grow in understanding this power and African socialization in honor of our Ancestors, for the benefit of Africans everywhere and for those yet to be born. In 2002, Asa gave the clarion call for the Jegna and I was one who answered that call. The call gave birth to a community dedicated to the socialization of the Jegna.  A Master teacher/warrior/healer called to educate African children and families based on the tradition of the African master teacher. Asa G. Hilliard, III and the voices of our Ancestors called The Jegna Collective to manifest an African socialization process that is:

       For all Africans, not merely for teachers;

       Through age-graded cohorts, it is a life span process

       Is community controlled, designed and led by wise elders

       Is community centered and rooted

       Is more than schooling (Our analyses must not be limited to what goes on in public schools and is a team process to produce a        Pan African consciousness and belonging.)

       Asa instructed us on these ideas in the book African Power: Affirming African Indigenous Socialization in the Face of the Culture Wars (Hilliard, 2002). Dr. Asa Hilliard III, Dr. Kwame Kalimara, Dr. James Young, Reverend Susan Mitchell, Iya Eniola Kalimara, Bro. Nkosi Diop (James Riley II) and I constructed the mission and disposition of the Jegna Collective based upon these social constructs. The way of the Jegna positioned us to reinvigorate African socialization as:       

1.    Healers; The Jegna Collective recognizes several basic principles for communal healing:

a.       Community renewal, sustenance, and service

b.      Personal growth and development, character and values

c.       Cultural acquisition and transmission

d.      Knowledge, skills, and wisdom

e.       Health and well-being

f.       Environmental protection and nurture

g.      Spiritual development

h.      Family identity, belonging, bonding

i.        Linkages to families and children

j.        Assumption of responsibilities for self/community

        Every month we held “The Commons.”  The Commons were open community learning conversations guided by master teachers to pass on the ways and means of valuing and protecting these principles for communal healing.  The characteristic of the commons was different from a lecture or typical teaching opportunity by a knowledgeable facilitator.  It was different because the conversation focused upon what were the results of the communal healing principle.  We established a criterion of examining the product of the principle. This narrowed the identification of “master teachers” to those persons who had produced or had evidence of the communal healing principle rather than talk about the communal healing principle. It did not matter if we had 10 people or 100, each Common went off as scheduled and Dr. Hilliard attended every single one. He would share with me that the most important factor of The Commons is not the topic of conversation but the practice of gathering and learning to value our ways of knowing. He managed an extremely hectic travel schedule to be back in town every fourth Sunday of the month to participate in the practice of community healing as a family.

 2.    Students of Disciplined Study, Service, Scholarship and Research

        Dr. Hilliard’s writings and research on Kemet and work through the Association of Study of Classical African Civilization (ASCAC) established the foundation for the Collective’s study and ideas about what is deep thought.  This foundation allowed us to ground our investigations in African worldviews, which Asa would coin as our “Afrientation”.  Afrientations refer to a paradigm and methodology that applies utamawazo (culturally structured thought) to every issue and context pertinent to African liberation and wholeness. In the Jegna Collective, we would identify “Afrientations” as an intentional experience to immerse ourselves in these worldviews, to consider them as sacred and vital to every endeavor. There is no field or discipline void of an Afrientation.  We studied and utilized the resources of other institutions such as ASCAC and scholars like Cheikh Anta Diop, Theophile Obenga and John Henrik Clarke to restore them.  This is why the Jegna Collective involved educators, community activists, artists, spiritual leaders, musicians, academicians and scientists in the restoration, reconstruction and reconnection of African deep thought.

        Through the experiences of the Commons, Nsaka Sunsum[1] To Be An African Teacher Institute, and study abroad, the Jegna Collective with Dr. Hilliard as our guide worked to illustrate models of excellence in African tradition and history. His writings and work sustained a contagious passion for study and research, scholarship and service that demonstrated those models of excellence wherever they are in African history and in our current existence as an oppressed people. What I learned from Nana Baffour (Asa Hilliard) was to be diligent and steadfast in increasing my knowledge and understanding about all of the ways Africans all over the world have been and are a people of deep thought.

      3.   Believers of Education as Sacred

        In African tradition, education is a spiritual task. Dr. Hilliard reminds us of this in the book, SBA, (Hilliard, 1997) and it is reflected in the meaning of Nsaka Sunsum. Our Afrientation determined that the goal of the educational process is to touch the spirit and discover our spiritual path, which is the reason for our existence. The Jegna Collective identified the spiritual nature in all aspects of our socialization and strived to rekindle the relationship we have as a people to our spiritual destiny. The 2003 study and travel to Bahia in Brazil with Dr. Hilliard and the Jegna Collective was one such experience to understand the spirituality of resistance in the history of Palmares and the Quilombo, the Sisters of the Good Death (Boa Morte) and the religious tradition of Candomblé.  During that trip, on November 19, 2003, Dr. Asa G. Hilliard III gave a presentation on why we were there at one of the Candomble houses during a celebration for the deity Yemonja:

All of us attempt to connect, not only with those of us in the Diaspora, but with the motherland itself. It's gratifying to see that no matter where African people are, we can recognize the same things everywhere. We can see the martial arts, Capoeira, in Egypt. We can see them in the Congo. Of  course, we can see them here in Brasil with the descendants. We know not only those things survived, but many other things survived. And, hopefully, in this temple, that our spirituality has survived. That's what made us strong and continues to connect us to each other and to roots in the motherland. So we're grateful, thankful and we're overjoyed. We're so proud to see what has been done here. And we learn from you, as we go home. And we're going home with more conviction than we had before...that to do this work is correct. It is time in the year 2003 to continue the work of Zumbi. To return to those plantations that still enslave us and to set the captives free and take our place at the stage of humanity where we belong (Hilliard videotape, 2003).

4.    Creators and Practitioners of Rituals of the Jegna

        One last significant aspect of socialization that separates its function and experiences from being episodic to continuous is the formation of ritual. Asa challenged us to reject episodic interpretations of our African being and to share how we have embedded common threads of existence in our culture and social ways. Part of that spiritual journey is to recover, create, and practice those social traditions and rituals that reinforce African power in all of its forms. In the worldview of “ubuntu” (I am because we are, we are because I am), is the acknowledgement, value and role of our ancestors in all that we do, in the spirit of resistance, in our struggle to regain our power and in the preservation and sanctity of our culture.

        When we locate rituals in the context of spiritual value of African society, we find the consistent and constant recognition of those who came before us. The ancestor is one who lived a life of commitment and service to her/his people, land and culture.  Their life had great merit because of the contributions made to their people. The experiences of the Jegna Collective and its role in the African community are clear, because it is present and guided by the Ancestors.  The practice of including and recognizing our African ancestors reinforces this cultural thread in the re-weaving of African identity. It reinstituted an Afrientation espoused by Asa G. Hilliard, III that the aim of education did not separate the mind from the body, which housed the spirit. African education for the mind and body is education for the spirit (Hilliard, 1995).

        The Jegna Collective is a developing community; its structure, experiences and processes continue to grow as we establish key aspects of a community infrastructure to protect its mission and intent as envisioned by Nana Baffour (Asa G. Hilliard III). One phase of development is how the Jegna Collective functions as a community and sustains a healthy, inclusive, and balanced environment for the re-socialization and instruction of those persons who choose the sojourn of the Jegnoch. Another is how we work as Conveners, Spirit Guides, Sebai, and Initiates to reflect a collective leadership that emphasizes consistent engagement, assumed responsibility and accountability. 

        We are still guided by the Ancestors and now we have an Ancestor in Jegna Asa G. Hilliard III, (Nana Baffour Amankwatia II) who knows best our mission and purpose as the Jegna Collective because he helped us to re-invigorate our tradition of excellence and to re-connect to our African power in the midst of cultural war (Hilliard 2002).





<h3 text-align:="" center;"=""> References


Edmonds, R. (1979). Effective schools and the urban poor. Educational Leadership, 37(1), 15-24.

Haberman, M. (2003) Who benefits from failing urban school districts? An essay on equity and justice for diverse children inurban poverty. Haberman Educational Foundation. Retrieved January 13, 2005, from /research/research.asp?article=Benefits&page=Research

Hilliard III, A. G. (1995) Teacher Education from an African American Perspective. ERIC Document No. ED 393-798/Nov.1995.

Hilliard III, A. G. (1997). SBA: The reawakening of the African mind. Gainesville, FL: Makare Publishing.

Hilliard III, A. G. (1991). The structure of valid staff development. Journal of Staff Development, 18(2), 28-34.

Hilliard III, A. G. (2000). The state of African education. American Educational Research Association Plenary Presentation Commission on Research in Black Education. New Orleans, LA.

Hilliard III, A. G. (2002). African Power: Affirming African indigenous socialization in the face of cultural wars. Gainesville, FL Makare Publishing

Hilliard III, A. G. (2003). Presentation in Bahia, Festival of Yemonja. The Jegna Collective.

Perry, T. & Delpit, L. (1998) The real ebonics debate: Power, language, and the education of African-American children. Boston, MA: Beacon Press

Musca, T. (Producer), & Menendez, R. (Director). (1988). Stand and deliver [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Brother Studio.



[1] Hilliard III, G. Asa (2002) African Power: Affirming African Indigenous Socialization in the Face of Culture Wars Makare Press Gainesville Florida p 13.

[2] Professional Development Institutes held in San Francisco and Atlanta (2005-2006) discussed in the article, Nobles, Wade W. Adeleke Nobles, Zetha ChinazaNsaka Sunsum (Touching the Spirit): A Pedagogy and Process of Black Educational Excellence Multicultural Learning and Teaching. Volume 6, Issue 2, Pages –, ISSN (Online) 2161-2412, DOI: 10.2202/2161-2412.1076, November 2011