We lost a giant in August when educator, psychologist and historian Asa G. Hilliard III died while leading a study tour in Egypt. Asa Hilliard was a pioneering scholar who sought a greater balance in the history curriculum as it is taught in American elementary and secondary schools and at the university level. He was a special kind of freedom fighter who struggled to liberate us from the bondage of ignorance of our rich African heritage.
He said, “Basic change in our condition as a people must begin with our change of mind.” Many of us can remember when the worst thing we could call somebody we didn’t like was “Black.” Asa worked to spread cultural wellness by helping Black people become grounded in their African heritage and expel the negative self images acquired from the dominant culture.
Asa Hilliard was born to a father who was a high school principal and a mother who was a Pentecostal minister in Galveston, Texas. He graduated from the University of Denver in 1955 and received a master’s degree in counseling in 1962 and a doctorate in educational psychology from the University in 1963. He taught at San Francisco State University for 18 years concluding his tenure there as Dean of Education. Since 1980, he was Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Urban Education at Georgia State University.
Dr. Hilliard traveled extensively in Africa and his scholarship was based on the direct study of the Dogon and Akan peoples of West Africa. He was one of the founders of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations. It was through the Association that he led 1,000 students and scholars to Aswan, Egypt, in 1987 to study Nile Valley civilizations. He made huge contributions to education in other lands as a consultant to the Peace Corps and Superintendent of Schools in Monrovia, Liberia.
A founding member of the National Black Child Development Institute, Asa Hilliard was first and foremost an educator who believed that every child can learn. He was always correcting the historical record and opposed the mis-teaching of European and American history and sought an inclusive truth in historical courses. In addition to stand-alone courses on African history and culture, he developed K-12 school curricula that infused African and African American content in virtually all subjects. For instance, math students might learn how ancient Egyptians counted.
Not only did he push for the story of African Americans to be included in the stream of historic instruction, but he also insisted that the experience of peoples of Latin American, Asian and Native American descent be included in the curriculum. Much of this was focused on building self-esteem among young people of color. Dr. Hilliard was a strong opponent of culturally biased IQ and standardized tests and charged that these tests operated to exclude minority applicants who are most in need of higher education.
He refused to treat the study of African history as a static academic subject and worked to introduce the cultural content of the pre-enslavement African experience into current social systems. He said, “We must go back through the Door of No Return, transforming it to the Door of Return, reconnecting to our traditions and propelling ourselves forward in a direction of our own choosing.” Rather than call a meeting, Asa would convene a “Mbongi,” a Ki-Congo term for a gathering of a community to solve a problem where everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute. He insisted upon redefining common misconceptions about the status of Black Americans like rejecting efforts to “close the achievement gap” between Black and White students, and instead promoting the closing of the excellence gap between Black students and their potential.
Asa Hilliard died on August 13, 2007, in Cairo of complications from malaria. He was 73. His transition leaves a huge gap we must all work to fill. He felt that there was still much more to do. He said, “We do not have sufficient cultural centers, movements, monuments and celebrations to highlight important experiences and to shape directions. These things offer us the opportunity to be reflective and to develop a more firm vision of the future.”
It seems appropriate that he should die while doing one of the things he loved most: leading students on the 20th annual study tour of the Nile Valley.