Professor Calls Attention to Historic Black Intellectuals
Asukile Thabiti says teaching black history will "make America a better place."Date: 1/27/2012
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Tom Robinette
If someone stopped you on the street and asked you to name 10 contemporary black intellectuals, could you do it?
What if they spotted you President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder? Could you come up with another eight?
Assistant professor Thabiti Asukile knows that few Americans could. That’s why he feels his work in Africana Studies in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences is so important.
“If you talk about diversity, then the history of African-American people needs to be taught,” he said. “If you really want to have students who are well-rounded and know about American life, then the classes I’m teaching, the type of research I’m doing, would only make America a better place.”
Asukile will have his research paper “Joel Augustus Rogers’ Race Vindication: A Chicago Pullman Porter & the Making of ‘From Superman to Man’” published in The Western Journal of Black Studies interdisciplinary journal in February. The paper focuses on Rogers, an early 19th century historian and author. Rogers immigrated to the United States from Jamaica, settling in Chicago. He self-published his first book, “From Superman to Man,” in 1917. The novel explores issues of race in America through a dialogue between a porter named Dixon and a racist senator from Oklahoma. Rogers used the Dixon character to reflect his own experiences as a porter.
“It’s a race novel that dealt with defending the humanity of black people during that era because during that era many black people were written out of history,” Asukile said. “And you had a lot of pseudo-scientific scholarship and things in popular culture that dehumanized black people.”
Asukile says stereotypes about black people that existed in 1917 have been filtered through the generations and the lessons of “From Superman” remain relevant today. Terry Kershaw, head of Africana studies, agrees. He said two of Rogers’ lessons are of particular importance: there is only one race – the human race, and accepting racism is a detriment to what America can become.
Asukile’s concern is that today’s youth don’t know enough about historic black intellectuals such as Rogers. Asukile became interested in Rogers while pursuing a dissertation topic at the University of California, Berkeley. He pored over old newspaper articles, scanned microfiche and studied the works of Rogers’ contemporaries. Now Asukile wants to reintroduce Rogers to his students.
“A lot of the young students don’t know about African-American history or the African Diaspora, period,” Asukile said. “But they really don’t know anything about these guys who wrote history.”
There are other influential black figures Asukile wants students to know. His class, “20th Century Black Internationalism,” deals with obscure and known blacks who’ve had an influence on global politics and social events, including Willis Nathaniel Huggins,
Claudia Jones, W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis. Among them are two of Asukile’s favorites: Paul Robeson, an early 20th century singer, scholar and civil rights activist; and Huey Newton, who co-founded the Black Panther Party in 1966.
“(Robeson is) like the precursor to Michael Jackson. He’s making all the money, except he’s not Michael Jackson in the sense that he’s a serious intellectual,” Asukile said. “(Newton) is probably one of the greatest African-Americans to ever live because of the odds he had to overcome early in his life in a school system that essentially set him and other black students up for failure; the courage he showed against openly challenging police brutality; and his intellectual insight into institutional racism among other things.”
All of these individuals discussed in the class made significant contributions to American history. Yet they often remain in the shadows of more famous black cultural icons such as Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. What makes these individuals so well known and more acceptable for study, Kershaw says, is that they are known quantities and therefore less threatening to average Americans.
Asukile attributes the fade from prominence of Robeson, Newton and others to insufficient education at the kindergarten through high school levels. He said K-12 teaching on black history follows a predictable progression, starting with slavery and then moving to Abraham Lincoln, King and Obama.
Asukile said this leads to a broader problem in society, where black males are predominantly perceived as athletes, entertainers and criminals – not as great thinkers. Part of what drives his research is the desire to counter those images. He knows there was a time when people wished for the chance to go to college and study African history and to live in an era where they would see a black president.
“Asukile’s work stands out because he is looking at people who are central to the struggle for social justice and social change,” Kershaw said. “It helps to show the link between those whose shoulders we stand on, who stands on them and why it is important to understand the connection.”
And like Rogers, Asukile hopes his message appeals to a broad audience.
“The stereotype is that all black people think one way or two ways and that’s it,” he said. “But there are so many different voices about black people who have worked things out in this country.”
There are so many, but can you think of 10?