It's the first day of the fall semester at my university, and my thoughts have been turning, as they often do, to the nature and purpose of my work and my attitude towards it. Some years ago I came across this essay, part of a scholarly exchange in the newsletter of the American Historical Association, by Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University, one of the giants of Black Studies and the originator of the term Afrocentricity. Since then I have returned to it frequently as both inspiration and touchstone. Here's a portion:
As an Afrocentrist my concern is not so much could or should a white person reach African American history but rather what "location" the teacher brings to the subject. I would wish that a teacher who undertook to teach African American history would teach the subject from the standpoint of African Americans as historical agents, not merely as objects or appendages to white American history. The biology of the person neither guarantees nor prohibits centered teaching.
Quite frankly, the real issue for me is whether the professor who teaches African American history is properly oriented to the material. Given the proper orientation, mastery of the facts, basic pedagogical skills, and a willingness to learn from gifted students, any teacher ought to be able to teach any subject.
However, most white teachers and many African American teachers do not have the proper orientation to adequately teach any African American studies. They tend to be off on either orientation, facts, pedagogical skills, or humility, a necessary attitude toward information you do not possess. Some weaknesses in professors are more revealing than others. For example, I am sure the standard facts of African American history are fairly accessible to most scholars, although a few areas may still be debated or debatable. On the other hand, I am just as certain that most whites who teach African American history do so from their own historical perspectives, not from those of African American people. To teach from an African American perspective does not mean one has to be an African American; it means one must attempt to understand the centric position of the African American people.
The ideas expressed here are simple yet profound; the moral and intellectual standard Dr. Asante sets is high indeed. While virtually anyone might become acquainted with the "standard facts of African American history," maintaining the "proper orientation" and acquiring the "necessary attitude" of humility is another matter entirely--one that requires daily reflection and discipline.
The very least I can say is that I'm grateful to be walking this path.