Where is the White Professor Located?

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/20/2009

As an Afrocentrist my concern is not so much could or should a white person teach 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 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 or not the professor who teaches African American history is properly oriented to the material. Given the proper orientation, the 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 that 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 those of African American people. To teach from an African American perspective does not mean one has to be an African American; it means that one must attempt to understand the centric position of the African American people.

To turn more precisely to Vince Nobile's intellectual location in asking, Could a white professor teach African American history? I would say that it is a narrow, provincial question that he asks. But there is something even more disturbing in his second question, "Should whites teach African American history?" Nobile seems not to consider the intellectual location of the professor as a problem, but I believe it to be a fundamental issue in the teaching of African American history because the subject is not simply an extension of Eurocentric history. As a legitimate subject within its own right the area must be viewed from this perspective. However, this takes a particular type of professor who is committed to understanding the culture he or she teaches as opposed to the professeor who does not want to be "detained."

A professor who participates in teaching African American history must do so with a commitment to understand how Africans impacted upon America. This must be done from the standpoint of Africans as agents nor merely as sideshows to Europe. Any professor who has a perspective informed by African American agency could teach an Afrocentric history. Of course, Professor Nobile, from the record he presents, should probably not teach African American history. He fails to integrate African American history into the larger American historiography thus producing a truncated view of our past. A deeper weakness in Nobile's case is what appears to be his lack of knowledge or sensitivity to the genetic, social and cultural links between Africa and Europe.

Africology, the Afrocentric study of African phenomena, advances when a professor declares a course as a centered study and analysis of African American history. A professor using this approach will announce to the class where he or she stands on African agency, self-consciousness, merely by his or her choices of textbooks, themes, and approaches to the material. Every student will know after the first lecture where the professor is located and will be able to determine if the professor gives agency, subject position, to Africans. In Nobile's case he argues that students he taught in the early 80s did not criticize the texts chosen for his class. What he fails to say, however, is that many students had no experience in how to locate a text. Of course, his laments is that those days are gone. Now an African American student will more likely raise questions about the texts and the use of certain terms, such as "African slave trade," "African tribes," and "pygmy" and so forth.

I guess, therefore, the problem as I see it is that few white professors have the kind of empathy for the African American history they are teaching to do a good job. Can a German teach the history of the Jewish holocaust? I am sure that the answer is "yes" for the same reasons it is possible for a white person to teach African American history. Could a Nazi teach the history of the Jewish holocaust? is another type of question. Such a question is about intellectual location, social orientation, and moral investment.

As I read Nobile he seems not to understand the preservation of courgage, struggle, and valor as icons of resistance in the African American community. He said he did not understand why his students objected to the characterization of Africans as holding affection for the enslavers or why some students walked out of his class when he totalized the psychological adjustments to enslavement by using the literate Mary Reynolds without emphasizing her personal reaction to enslavement. This can only happen when a professor disregards his students and concentrates on "teaching the subject" just as if Africans are objects being manipulated in the European frame of reference.

So, in the end, I would say, yes, whites can teach African American history but a more acute question is, are whites willing to make the necessary commitment to teach accurately and Afrocentrically? Only when we are able to answer in the affirmative to the preceding question can we really answer the question of "should" whites teach African American history.

African symbol