During my initial lecture in my freshman survey course, a course that invariably includes upperclassmen who have avoided addressing mandatory history requirements, I purposely attempt to pique their interest in the subject matter as a preemptive strike against the malaise that the subject matter of history generates in their minds. If nothing else, this introductory moment allows me to gauge their understanding of African-American history.
When I address the volatile identity politic driven 1960s, my area of expertise I might add, I highlight several notable Black Powerites by asking those assembled in front of me if they know anything about Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson, Fred Hampton, or Carl Hampton? Puzzled and bewildered looks appear on the faces of my young charges. Without fail, it is not until I reference the name Assata Shakur that the hands of a few students who are eager to share that they know who this revolutionary sister is confidently raised. For most, this is their moment, the one opportunity to prove to me that they do know something about African-American history; unfortunately, it is a moment that will definitively prove how little they do know. Invariably, some non-descript student eagerly announces to their classmates that “Assata Shakur is Tupac Shakur’s momma.” I just shake my head and sigh as once again, my students have confused their Shakur’s. In one swoop, this particular student has erased the legacies of both Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mother, and Assata Shakur, our revolutionary sister who remains exiled in Cuba. Experience has taught me that this is a common misstep among my students.
The above mistake occurs so frequently that it has caused me to ponder the following question; what does it mean that the vast majority of my students do not know about Assata Shakur. What does this troubling historical illiteracy say about black educators, the American educational system, and the black community?
One does not need to be a pessimist to reach the conclusion that the fact that African-American children have no real understanding of Black History means that the American educational system has no utility to Black America. Dare I say that sizable portions of this antiquated and non-representative institution have no utility whatsoever when measured against a much-needed effort to liberate Black America socially, politically, culturally, and economically.
I fervently believe that the process of inquiry and intellectual curiosity are critical components of the development of self-identity, politicization, and the generation of priorities for Black America. Such conclusions force me to use Assata Shakur’s story, Assata, in my courses on a repeated basis as it is a succinct articulation of the cost African-American revolutionaries have paid for their commitment to liberate their people around the globe.
I am confident that you understand that as a black educator, I consistently wrestle with matters of education and the development of a relevant education on a consistent basis. I am not ashamed to share that the alluded to moments of reflection engender a slight depression. The alluded to depression is a direct extension of the realization that the irrelevant curriculum that teachers, regardless of race/ethnicity, are forced to teach has created bountiful crops of African-Americans who are not only guided by a pervasive ignorance regarding African-American history, but also are quick to attack anyone that raises issues such as Race, racial inequality, prejudice, discrimination, or racism. Their complicity with their own oppression has been manufactured in American school houses.
In the end, the question of who will teach our people about the heroic struggle persons of African descent have undergone around the globe remains. The only reasonable answer to this query is that enlightened African-Americans must recommit themselves to educating our people “by any means necessary.” In many ways, we have no other choice if we are to survive. Failure to take definitive action in this matter ensures that we will continue our tradition of being economically exploited, socially inappropriate, and politically inept; places that I hope you would agree we have occupied for far too long.
Dr. James Thomas Jones III
© Manhood, Race, and Culture, 2017