Dear Professors Neal and Peterson,
I write to you today because as I gave your talk on the role of the Black public intellectual a second listen in preparation for an entirely different essay, my seventeen year old daughter left her computer to sit near me and listen. While she may at times listen from her desk while engaged in some activity, Girly never leaves her computer to listen to anything I might be playing. But she did, and I thought I would tell you why.
I credit my daughter’s interest to the fact that, as a junior at an institution of higher learning, she chose to take three courses from the African American Studies department to satisfy some of her general education requirements. As we near the end of the semester, I can report to you that she and her classmates have been transformed by the experience. Those students who came in with the type of biased mindset that sources from inherited ignorance began to change at the first quarter of the semester, as they began to realize how little they knew. The same is true for those among the class for whom the curriculum is their heritage. Their self-awareness has been heightened.
Those who came in with the intention to build upon what they already knew realized how weak their foundation was. Those who came in aware of their knowledge deficit, as that quarter semester passed, began asking out loud why it is they didn’t learn any of the material in front of them in primary and secondary school.
Whereas, at the start of the semester, there was as deep an ideological divide in class debates as there is in public discourse, that gap has closed. Whereas there was a deficit in understanding and empathy in analyzing and expressing issues of race, gender, and culture at the start of the semester, that deficit has been almost completely erased as we near the end of Spring 2015. Whereas there might have been a hint of contempt at the idea of a marriage between academic rigor and Hip Hop, there is nothing but respect now, thanks to the knowledge these students gained from these classes.
Many of them signed up for two or more classes, as my daughter did. Whereas there was a lack of appreciation of the importance of African American contribution to American culture, there is no longer a doubt that it is central to it. Whereas there might not have been an understanding of the seriousness of cultural appropriation, that problem is now well-understood. Finally and most importantly, whereas there was only a superficial awareness and knowledge of what racism is, what its roots are, and the implications as they pertain to class and gender, there is a more robust understanding. Most importantly, these students are now far better equipped to analyze and approach themes in race relations from a historical and cross-cultural perspective they didn’t have before.
As an observer, these transformations are individual miracles in the making; miracles which, were all the relatively conscious adults in America to do their duty, could be happening in public schools across the land. Unfortunately, it isn’t. I am quite sure you know that, in just the last seven years, there has been a renewed push by some to preserve the dominant cultural supremacy by further diluting historical and cultural curriculum in certain states when there has never been an appropriate quantitative or qualitative focus in presenting history and culture to begin with, across the nation.
This conscious effort to whitewash what our children learn even further takes place even though it has been established, through academic studies, that a college education reduces racial bias.
I submit that exposure to the same broad and culturally-diverse historical and cultural curricula that is taught to first and second year college students in primary and secondary public schools would go a long way toward attenuating racial bias on the broader scale of the general population, rather than the more limited, though not insignificant, college population.
I further submit that the changes observed among college graduates would be far deeper if they arrived at their institutions of higher learning with 100 and 200-course level in African American history, literature, and culture already under their belts. How much more meaningful would their studies in such topics as social ethics, history, economics and political science be? The deprivation of millions of African American, Latino and Asian public school students of equal access to their heritage as part of the teaching of our common American history, needs to end.
African American studies are American studies. Hispanic studies are American studies. Asian studies are American studies. No student should be deprived of such deep knowledge of their heritage or their classmates’, regardless of race. That deprivation, in and of itself, is part and parcel of the perpetuation of institutional racism.
I’ve taken this very long route to suggest, respectfully, that a part of the role of African American public intellectuals must include vigorous activism for the reform of public education to reflect America’s diverse cultural heritage, as well as the elevation of its Africana component to equal status in all branches of the humanities as they are taught throughout the course of a primary and secondary education.
The fact that African American history is still decoupled from American History is outrageous and, as a result, only a portion of America’s population receives what should be generally agreed-upon as an integral part of a basic education in a post-secondary setting, but only by the way of courses selected by the students. This shouldn’t be how we receive our education. Education was supposed to be the great equalizer in our society. It isn’t, yet.
For as long as Black history is allowed to be “othered” from mainstream American history, neither African American literature or culture will fully be accepted as topics of serious inquiry. It’ll continue to be “their literature,” “their music,” all the while appropriation will continue to be accepted by consumers who are unable to appreciate the provenance of the culture they consume. For as long as historical events are taught extra-contemporaneously, students earliest impressions of the legacy of our nation will continue to be a fractured one where Black Americans are somehow separate, disconnected from their ancestors, alien in their own land, denied of their birthright of equality and all benefits of citizenship.
Finally, it has been my pleasure to listen to young people debate, from a position of knowledge and understanding, issues such as Affirmative Action, civil rights, feminism, appropriation in Hip Hop, Blues and Rock and watch them as they discover truths that were previously hidden from them. It’s been an immense joy to watch them as they soak in readings from Black feminist writers and eventually, completely shift gears from previous positions and tackle new materials correctly, fairly, outside the oppressive shadow of previous biases.
Both of you addressed the issue of preserving the works of important artists and thinkers and you also addressed the high cost of academic texts. You should include yourselves among those whose work needs to be widely accessible. It would be wonderful if there were a way for all Black intellectuals to contribute videos of some of their lectures into an MOOC site similar to Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Such an online resource would be incredibly powerful and useful for university and community college professors, school teachers, parents and anyone with a thirst for knowledge.
As you can see, I am a very proud mother. I am proud that my child, given what she knew, chose to learn and understand more and that her interest isn’t a passing one. Gaining a deep knowledge of Africana is opening connections and perspectives into the world she lives in that would otherwise have been closed to her. She and her classmates are going through an amazing period of intellectual growth this semester, thanks to professors like you!