Molefi Asante speech, Philadelphia, PA, September 13, 2014. (AP photo/file).
If I so chose, I could be a jealous-hearted bastard, and look at every achievement of all the folk in my life as, “Well, good for you, asshole!” But I learned a long time ago, maybe even when I was at high school’s end, that the main person I have to compete and contend with is me, that I am exhausting enough. Vying for popularity, kudos, or power was never a big thing for me. It was a game I’d almost always lose, for enough reasons to make my pre-Christian and depressed self actually jump off that bridge and end it all. What I learned by my mid-twenties was to allow myself a moment or two of envy, to feel like life was easier for those who achieved what seemed like cheap and easy success and fame. And then I’d think, But that’s not what I want for me. That’s their path, not mine, no matter how many parallels and similarities there may be between them and me.
What helped me get there is a story of plagiarism, of ideas, if not of actual words. It’s a story of my first attempt to publish an article as an adult, my first foray into the world of popularity, of ideas, of writing, and of extreme disappointment. It began the summer before grad school at Pitt in 1991. My friend Elaine egged me into this work, after a long and hard final semester of undergrad and three weeks on a starvation diet while working full time that April and May (I stretched $30 over 20 days). I began work on what I hoped would be my first article, comparing ideas around Afrocentric education with the broader idea of multicultural education.
The piece was originally to be her and my response to what was then a major controversy involving research into the revision of New York State’s social studies curriculum. The New York State Department of Education had given a committee the task of figuring out how to make the state’s K-12 curriculum more inclusive and representative of the state’s tremendous racial, ethnic and other forms of diversity.
By July, I had gone from disinterested to fully engaged, minus the young woman in whom I no longer had an interest, now working on a piece that had become much more academic than we had originally intended. By then, I’d already learned the names Leonard Jeffries, Asa Hilliard III and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. I’d read articles from the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal about Jeffries’ name-calling, Schlesinger’s incredulousness about calling slaves “enslaved persons,” and about the committee in general getting along like hyenas tearing at a dead wildebeest.
By the end of September, they would produce One Nation, Many Peoples: A Curriculum of Inclusion: Report of the Commissioner’s Task Force on Minorities: Equity and Excellence. With all my revisions out of the way, I’d produce my first publishable document since elementary school. I titled it “Comparing Afrocentric and Multicultural Education: Why American Education Needs Both.” I had reviewed much of the leading literature in the field at that point, between James A. Banks, Cherry McGee Banks, Christine Sleeter, Robert Slavin, Maulana Karenga, Frances Cress Welsing,
I mailed it to three journals, including the Journal of Black Studies. It was then that I realized that one of the folks whose writing and research I had referred to in my review was also the editor of the journal. It was the one and only Molefi Kete Asante. He was also the founder and chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies (now Africology and African American Studies) at Temple University in Philadelphia. His The Afrocentric Idea (1987) was half the basis for my understanding what Afrocentricity could look like as pedagogy at the K-12 level.
But I had problems with that pedagogy. I chafed at the idea that there was any litmus test to what was and was not authentically Black or African. No, I’m not sure if “chafed” is the right word. The idea that anyone — including folks like Asante, Karenga, Welsing, Jeffries, and John Henry Clarke — could arbitrarily decided that ragtime isn’t authentically Black or African, while say, rap and hip-hop was definitively so? It seemed like a bunch of bullshit to me.
I knew why reading Asante’s work made me feel that way, too. Those three-and-a-half years spent living in a Hebrew-Israelite household. Those times were with a man who claimed to be my stepfather, the one who could quote the Torah. All while eating squid and crabs and lobster tails, cheating on my Mom while begetting other kids he never fed, and beating on his “womens”, too.
That’s ultimately what I saw in Asante’s work, hell, in the work of the Afrocentric set across the board. That none of them grew up in Accra, Lagos, Dar es Salaam, Gaborone, Nairobi, or Jo’Burg or were Africanists who spent years and years living somewhere on the continent before committing to this litmus test. Intellectually, it made as much sense as a “reincarnated” Balkis Makeda in her 70s living in my Mom’s master bedroom at 616 in 1984 while we eight lived by rules like me cooking for the family at 14 because Mom had “unclean issues of blood.” Or, this fake-ass Balkis Makeda telling us that we could no longer use Ivory soap because she dreamt about rats gnawing on it. Authenticity has its costs, no?
I didn’t write all this in my essay, though. I merely wrote that between an authentic African-centered education and an authentic multicultural curriculum, the latter made the most sense in a multicultural nation like the US, in a multicultural state like New York. I justified this because I only grew up in New York State, in and around New York City. I justified it because the fact was and remains, American Black folx are, well, Americans, who have cobbled together a culture of resistance, and joy within that, both multicultural American with shards and pieces of African Blackness, and all at the same time.
Nearly two months pass. The Black Action Society at Pitt had brought in Asante to speak, a week and a half before Thanksgiving. The ballroom BAS used in William Pitt Union was jam-packed. BAS heads Justin and Doug looked so proud of themselves that evening. And Asante was just as full of himself. He spoke for between 45 minutes and an hour, about Eurocentricity, about Afrocentricity, about creating a path where Black boys (and sometimes, girls) could become proud Afrocentric men (and sometimes women). Really, it wasn’t much different than anything I heard from temple during my Hebrew-Israelite years.
Then, he turned to multiculturalism and the controversy over the revisions to the New York State global studies curriculum. Unbeknown to the nearly 300 students in the room — aside from yours truly — he began parroting my submitted article. Not quite word-for-word, though. You see, he used my arguments as fodder for sarcasm while on stage, to point to “how the poison” of Eurocentricity “flows” in multicultural curriculum across the US. Asante believed that multicultural education was a mere euphemism to disguise the “Eurocentric in the multicultural.”
“He stole my ideas. He quoted me to crush me,” I told my friend Marc, who attended the talk with me that evening. Marc thought I was wrong, that Asante wasn’t quoting me at all. Yeah, sure Marc, I thought.
Two months later, I received my first article rejection. It was a week after I finally got my driver’s license, and two weeks before I published my first piece, a book review for a small scholarly journal. It was from Journal of Black Studies. I do not remember what the rejection letter said, but I read it as, “Nice try, but you’re not Black enough for this publication.”
This was my first foray — but hardly my last — into this world, where popularity mattered more than reality, perception more than evidence, and power more than anything.
But I do consider myself lucky. A few months later, I presented another paper at a conference at Lincoln University. Bettye Collier-Thomas was in attendance, and we ended up in a conversation. She invited me to apply for the PhD program in history, where I could work with her and esteemed people like Asante. I listened and respectfully declined.
A year later was my joint article with Marc about the pitfalls of Afrocentricity. And with it, two months of Asante’s sycophants, er, students sitting in seminar rooms writing scathing rebuttal letters questioning if between the two of us we had enough brainpower to spell Black. To learn from one of his former students in 2007 that my imaginations of what could have happened in Asante’s seminars was actually true? Well, I was so glad he had used my words as a baseball bat to my head back in 1991.
I grew up with phony proselytizers. I didn’t need to follow another one. Plus, where’s my Afrocentric gravy? Does it go with my Jollof and Brussels sprouts, too?