RIP, Nana Baffour Amankwatia II (Asa G. Hilliard III)
©Georgia State University
There are names that instantly put me on the Wayback Machine. Back to when I was a young college student, far away from home and for the first time really thinking through who I was and what I believed independently from my family's identity and family's beliefs.
Dr. Asa Grant Hilliard III, reported to have passed at the age of 73 a few days ago in Egypt (possibly from malaria) during the annual ASCAC Conference, is one of those names.
The teachings of Asa Hilliard are some of the foundational pillars of who I am today and my approach to Black issues and Black people. For Dr. Hilliard first exposed me to the idea of Pan-Africanism. Afrocentrism. But far more importantly, Asa Hilliard did not just expose me to these ideas: he then taught me how these concepts mattered, and why they mattered, within the field I thought then would be my career, clinical psychology treating African-American patients.
Not to mention that it was Asa Hilliard who first taught me -- along with other young Black scholars at Stanford in the late 1970's and early 1980's -- about Ma'at.
Asa Hilliard's biography is way too long and impressive for me to accurately cover it all in one diary, so you can find it here. I can only summarize it briefly.
In the field of educational psychology, Dr. Hillard's work was responsible for elimination of mandatory IQ testing of Black children in San Francisco, as he was the first researcher who showed the cultural biases inherent in the examinations, biases that, when children performed poorly because of them, permanently limited the life chances of youth, particularly those Black youth who but for the testing would be identified as "gifted" through other educational measurements.
His dedication to improving the life chances and self-esteem of Black children through education was complete, leading him to co-found the National Black Child Development Institute in 1970, while newly resident at San Francisco State.
In later years, Asa Hilliard argued forcefully for the elimination of all standardized IQ testing, contending that the well-known findings of inherent bias and inaccuracy of IQ testing for students of color were simply evidence of a tracking system that fails in everyone to measure what it claims to measure. He continued to argue for educational psychology's return to models developed to test malleable intelligence as a means of avoiding what he believed was the inherently destructive and limiting messaging of standardized IQ testing on children. This was true even as he believed in a quality public education for children; Dr. Hilliard was an opponent of the charter schools movement, recognizing the racist original motivations of that movement, and urging Black parents in particular not to allow the public schools to be destroyed by those who impetus for creating the movement were grounded in Black inferiority. Instead, he argued that the failure of public education -- even in Black-led school districts -- was fundamentally a failure of will through the denial of resources to do whatever it took to educate children, regardless of socioeconomic status, and that this, and that this -- NOT the poverty of the students -- was where much of the problem with education lay when it came to the underperformance of Black poor children and, indeed, all poor children, in the public schools.
You'd have thought that Dr. Hilliard, being quite busy challenging long-standing orthodoxies in the field of educational psychology that had harmed children's educational progress, would have been too busy to develop an alternative speciality.
You'd have been wrong.
From early in his career, Dr. Hilliard became a profilic researcher and writer about Africa, and Ancient Egypt -- Kemet -- in particular. It was ultimately his pursuit of knowledge in this field that led to his departure from his tenured position at San Francisco State - where he'd served for 18 years, including as Chair of the Education department - to Africa itself, where he lived for several years including in Liberia before returning to accept a tenured position at Georgia State University as Professor of Urban Education.
Each year, he along with other Afrocentric scholars of the Association for the Study of Classic African Civilizations, which Dr. Hilliard helped found, would have their annual conference in Egypt, which would usually conducted on the banks of the Nile itself by Dr. Hilliard and others. The theme of this year's conference, which was as much a spiritual journey as professional conference, was Raising Ma'at to the Height of Heaven, is poignant to me, since it was during this year's conference that the severity of Dr. Hilliard's fatal illness became apparent, and passed several days later, just before his birthday.
I was fortunate enough to have sat in several guest lectures of Asa Hilliard's at Stanford as a psychology student, and to visit his classroom several times while he was a professor at San Francisco State University in educational psychology. The first time I heard him lecture was when he presented his visually assisted lecture, Free Your Mind: Return to the Source, (which later became a television show but, back then in 1978, it was a slide show) an adventure in primary source images of Egypt and ancient African civilizations. What I remember most about Dr. Hilliard's teaching was the simplicity of his thesis as it related to the education of Black children, and their psychological well-being. His central argument, which was that it was necessary to a non-Eurocentric focus on history for the development of self-esteem, and to reconnect children affirmatively with a past, a culture, that we still mimicked today in bits and pieces, by teaching them the greatness of our civilizations in Africa, particular Egypt, which he rightfully pointed out the west has been trying to label to make a non-Black country pretty much forever, given its historical greatness. Everything he said made sense (especially the Egypt part, since when I was growing up we were taught in elementary school that Egypt wasn't even in Africa - and they even showed us a bogus map at least once that I personally remember to prove it.)
What made Dr. Hilliard's teaching forceful and engaging pedagogy for me as a college student was that rather than polemic, Dr. Hilliard insisted to all of us that our mission was not to take what he said as the gospel about Ancient African cultures, the Blackness of Egypt and ancient cultures in the East that we pretend were not influenced by Africa and the attempt to eradicate all visual trace of the nexus between them, the ongoing preservation of aspects of ancient belief systems such as Ma'at from Africa in our culture and their suitability as theoretical foundations for treatment modalities when treating Black people, particularly children. Instead, Dr. Hilliard almost constantly punctuated everything he did and said to us with the admonition to go do the research ourselves, to learn it for ourselves - but that, unlike most folks, we must always always use primary source material for our study.
That is a rule I still try to live by, today. Even as I am no longer pan-African, but an Afrocentric multiculturalist, in my approach today. Even though I am now a lawyer, not a psychologist as planned (or teacher, as Dr. Hilliard once told me I should strongly consider instead during one of the two face-to-face conversations we had, way back in the day, at a mutual friend's home.)
Suffice it to say that while his conclusions about what some of that primary source material meant continue to be a subject of legitimate scholarly debate today, and always likely will be, Dr. Hilliard's insistence upon primary source materials as it related to all things African, including forensic research intended to be used to develop teaching methods for African American children, made him not only unquestionably a solid and honest researcher -- but an expert, in the fields of both psychology and ancient African history.
To say that he lived his life without controversy would be a lie, in the sense that as one of the earliest educators in the field of Pan-African studies, he has always had many fierce mainstream critics (some, but not that many, still attack Dr. Hilliard's work not on the grounds that his theories about education, psychology or the nexus between each and African educational and spiritual methods were unsound, but indirectly, making arguments about scholarly failings in other Afrocentric works such as Stolen Legacy to delegitimize the entire field and everyone working in it.) Given that for some, attacking Afrocentric scholarship has become their life's work, since they are paid handily for it, that's to be expected.
He never let it detract him from the work. And for those who knew Dr. Hilliard, that was to be expected, too. Because he knew how important the work was, for us all, and that our very survival as a people depended on it. This was his way of thinking, and it's hard to argue with it since it makes So. Much. Sense:
No matter where Africans are-on the continent or in the diaspora-our condition is the same. We are on the bottom and descending. The "maafa" [Kiswahili term for "disaster" or "terrible occurrence"] continues to take its toll. We are unconscious, unorganized, unfocused, and lost from our purpose. Our strongest visible leadership is in hot pursuit of minimal narrow goals like 'integration,' 'civil rights,' 'jobs,' 'voter registration,' etc. We seek minimal adjustment and temporary comfort by assimilating to whatever the political, economic and cultural order may be, even when that order is itself in chaos, or driven by values that are anti-African. . . .
When we "dream," we often do not dream original dreams; we merely seek relief from pain. As a result, the dream does not encompass a meaningful plan or strategy which is connected to mobilization. . . .
We do not know who we are, cannot explain how we got here, and have no sense of our destiny beyond mere survival. Most of us hope to hitch a ride on someone else's wagon with no thought whatsoever as to where that wagon may be going. We have no destination of our own. Ask our leadership, ask our women, men or children on the street what our agenda is. Ask them what plans Africans have and what we want to build for ourselves within the next five, ten, twenty-five, seventy-five or one-hundred years? We are so used to having others make long-term plans for us that the idea of our own five-year plan is petrifying to us.
I know that those those like me who were blessed to have ever spent a day learning in rapture and awe of his intellect, your thorough scholarship, and his fierce dedication to the cause of education and psychological health for Black youth, send blessings and thanks to the maker for him, now that he is going Home, having started his journey by passing from this life in the place that all who knew Asa Hilliard understood he loved more than any other - the ancient and beautiful land known as Kemet (Egypt).
For the sparks he lit in generations of students of African descent, like me, all over the world, through his candid words and fierce scholarship in furtherance of the cause of Black people, we can not only give thanks, but commit to keep carrying his very heavy torch and using it to light up the diaspora.
So, Rest in Peace, Dr. Asa Grant Hilliard, III. Rest in Peace, Nana Baffour Amankwatia II, so named by the Ghanaian village that honored you by renaming. If there was any man living today who I know spent his life in the glad tidings of hard service to the truth, for the benefit of his people, yet still was able to face the scales of Ma'at with his heart truly lighter than her feather, it was you.