Transcript of the episode “Holistic history: The African diaspora”

Jon M: [00:00:15] Hi. I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: [00:00:17] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.  Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Kim Butler, Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies and Director of the Certificate Program in Africana Studies at Rutgers University. A former president of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora, Dr. Butler is author of Freedoms Given Freedoms Won as well as numerous articles and book chapters. Welcome, Kim! 

Kim B: [00:00:46] Hi. Well, thank you very much. It’s great to be here.

Jon M: [00:00:50] What is Africana Studies?

Kim B: [00:00:54] Africana Studies is sort of synonymous with Black Studies, but the reason why the name Africana was chosen… Well, let me back up a little bit. Black Studies got started as a result of protests in the 1960s, where the Black student movement basically organized to fight for greater inclusion of Black students in universities. They fought also for inclusion of the study of Black people and People of Color in the curriculum. And as a framework for that, they fought for Black Studies/Africana Studies. And the name Africana Studies refers to sort of the global African community. So it is Africa and the African diaspora. So it’s a little bit broader than just African-American studies based in the United States. It really takes into consideration all the interrelationships with Africa and the diaspora.

Amy H-L: [00:02:05] So it’s a little bit different from ethnic studies in that it’s a global focus.

Kim B: [00:02:13] Well, ethnic studies is just that. It is the study of particular ethnic groups. And in a lot of schools, they consider Black Studies as just another of the ethnic groups that are being studied. But in terms of Africana Studies, as a discipline, the mandate is a little bit broader. Because if you think about it, a lot of times, one of the things that I always hear from my students is why don’t they teach us that? We’ll talk about some aspect of Black history. They’ll say, wow, they never told us about this, they never told us about him or her. And that’s what we’re about. We’re really interrogating how is knowledge produced. There is a problem if we have systems of education that manage to leave out a whole chunk of the human population. And so we have to, in addition to just studying the Black experience, we have to study the way knowledge is produced, because if we just do the same things that people have been doing all along, we’ll produce the same kind of information. So, what we do is figure out what is it that we need to shift so that we’re opening up our lens to see a little bit more. And so it is more than just the study of Black people. It’s also that. 

And there’s one more element of it. And this is actually very connected to what you guys do, which is. You know, Blackness is really kind of the product of… I mean, Africa’s a huge continent, right. We cover many nations, many cultures and languages and everything. What unites us? It’s the history of the growth of capitalism, slavery, colonialism, racism, white supremacy. All that stuff winds up defining what it means to be Black in the world today. And so we have had to contend with some of the most fundamental systems of hierarchy and oppression in modern history.

And so, but yet we survive. And so part of what we get from study of Africana Studies is how do people take on systems of oppression that are designed to destroy them? And how do they challenge them? How do they manage to find a way through that they can still somehow do things like create jazz and do things like, you know, the fabulous arts and cultures that we create, or the systems of spiritual resistance or any of the other things that Black people have done to fight against the ways in which we were designed to just be commodities? So to take from the study of Africana Studies.

Jon M: [00:05:23] And you’ve also talked about how the history of Black people, as you just mentioned, is so fundamental to the history of capitalism and the history of modern world and how it developed. So that it’s not only the study of the effects on Black people, but the ways that the, the whole structures of the world have come out of the development of slavery and capitalism.

Kim B: [00:06:02] Exactly. I mean, you cannot understand capitalism fully, if you do not understand its relationship to the taking of African labor and the taking of Indigenous land. You won’t have capitalism without that. And as a matter of fact, that is, um, the critique that’s made by Cedric Robinson in his book, Black Marxism, because he says, you know, the fatal flaw of Marx is that he never really took into account slavery and the enslaved people. He was always looking for, you know, revolt and resistance to come from the proletariat. That’s not where it was going to come from. Think about it, you know, and this is another thing that has come up in like the black political scholarship, you know, the political tradition is, or the Black radical tradition is another way to say it, is that if you really think about it, who had the most to gain from resisting the system, it’s the people who were completely enslaved. And so that’s where your natural class of resistance was. And Marx never really, really grappled with how fundamental slavery was to capitalism

Amy H-L: [00:07:26] Kim,  often ethnic studies are intended mainly for the particular ethnic group being studied. Should all students take Africana studies?

Kim B: [00:07:38] Oh my goodness, yes. I mean, let me put it this way. If you , a student who is, first of all, want to understand the society in which you live. I mean, my goodness, look at this year, right. So many people have been wringing their hands about, oh my goodness, why are all these people in the streets? Why is it that we can’t seem to get around the corner with these, you know, racial problems? And they’re looking to do things like do sensitivity training with police, and it’s much deeper than that. So if you really, if you just want to put a little bow on it and put a little money behind it and get a little ribbon and say, oh, I did something for diversity then sure, fine, do that. But if you really are about fundamental change, you all had something on your website that said one of the things that y’all are about is how do we dismantle oppression. Well, how can you dismantle a system if you don’t truly understand its nature and how it works, its origin? So if you’re really about dismantling oppression, you’ve got to go and grapple with that understanding, that fundamental understanding, and the thing that’s a little bit of a challenge is that we are so used to these little sound bites, explanations of everything. I don’t have like three bullet points that I could give you. I can’t sit there and do, you know, Deepak Chopra has all these nice little rules [inaudible] packaging his little stuff. And I tell my students, I want to teach you all the history of slavery. That I cannot do it in one class. I can’t do it in two. It might take us a good three weeks just for you to be at a point where, and this is my thing, too. Can anybody explain why was it that people got slaves from Africa? And I always tell my students, you have to give me more than well, they, the colonists needed slaves so they went to Africa. Well, what’s the logic there? That’s just says Africa, I would say “Africa is not the 7-11 for slaves.” “I need a slave. Let me go on to Africa,” right and to tell that story is to tell the story of the birth of capitalism from what was feudalism. And you need to bring in there the whole growth of global trade and industrialization and colonial experience. It’s a complicated story. And a lot of times people do not carve out the time it takes to really understand it. So they want quick answers. They want to go on NewsHour or Fox News or MSNBC and stand up there and rattle off, oh, this is what’s going to fix the problem. It’s a problem that stayed, that’s goes back 500 years. You can’t explain a 500 year problem in five minutes.

Jon M: [00:10:47] So that actually leads into my next question. I mean, you’ve started to answer it and it’s a huge question actually. How could high schools do a better job of teaching about the African diaspora?

Kim B: [00:11:06] There’s a lot they could do. It’s somewhat of a challenge because we tend to teach things in isolation that were really in conversation. So like we might have a unit on the Middle Ages and then a unit on the Enlightenment and then unit on something else. And the world was very interconnected. So, you know, If we’re understanding why it is that so many Africans left the continent and went to other places there are actual connections to things like the Crusades, things like the great expansion of Islam across North Africa, the history of sugar cultivation, and all of those things are taught in very disparate kind of units. So that’s a little tough.

One easy thing they could do is to understand that, you know, when you’re talking about the Black experience in America, it’s really the whole hemisphere of the Americas. Even if you were just to contextualize the fact that the number of Africans that came to the United States is only about five percent of the total. I mean, even if students were just to understand that much, that there are a whole lot more Black people in places like Brazil and the Caribbean and Colombia, you know, that is just something in and of itself that many people do not learn. I did not know that there were Black people in Brazil until I was 20 years old and a junior in college. So it just blew my mind. That’s helpful. And also, they need to understand that that experience did not begin in 1619 with the English and their colony. It began much, much earlier in the 1400s with the Portuguese. And what we have here is built and modeled after what was started there. And, you know, even…

Listen, I’ll give you something. You know, the African Burial Ground in New York City. And there’s the interesting thing. If you go there and you look at that plaque of the names of some of the very first Africans, they’ve got Dutch names and Brazilian names and African names, because that just speaks to the interconnectedness. The Dutch brought them there when they got defeated in Brazil, you know, all of these connections are, are very hard to talk about when we have an approach to a curriculum that is very, very rigid about the kinds of units that I guess social studies breaks up learning into. And so I wish that there was a little bit more freedom to follow the story the way it really developed.

Jon M: [00:14:21] So in addition to the presence of Africans throughout the Western Hemisphere, why do you think that high schools, at least most high schools, I think, teach so little about the Western Hemisphere in general, that it’s so Eurocentric in that perspective? Has that been your experience in terms of the students that you get of what their knowledge is of the  Western Hemisphere when they come to you,  that it’s Eurocentric? 

Kim B: [00:14:57] Well, yeah, it’s Eurocentric. It’s US-centric.

Jon M: [00:15:03] Why is, I mean, and here, I’m going back to my high school experience, which was a long time but everything I learned was in terms of the US vis-a-vis Europe. And it was only very, very vague that the US was part of this huge continent that goes all the way down to the tips of Chile. You know, we, we didn’t look southward or northward for that matter. We only looked eastward. So. Is it your sense that that’s still the case or do you think that high schools are doing a better job of teaching, say, about Brazil or about the history of Central America? 

Kim B: [00:15:44] Well, my students, I teach at Rutgers, which is a public university. We tend to get a lot of students from the public school system in New Jersey. I think that they, I think that they have a little bit more awareness of Latin America, some of the global experience, but I’m not sure that comes from school. I think it comes from our, you know, much more interconnected way we live now. They’re much more likely to run across, you know, Latino people and Asian people and people with different kinds of combinations that come across that either culturally or in their neighborhoods. We live in a much more diverse way. And I think students, young people, have a lot more access to diversity from social media. I’m not so sure that the schools are truly keeping up with it in their curriculum. I mean, there are little changes. I was blown away when I found a student who had learned about something called the Treaty of Tordesillas in one of my classes. Cause I had never heard of this. It was like right after Columbus landed. Like you remember, they said that Columbus was looking for India and they thought they had found India. So obviously he went back and reported to Spain that he found India. But at the same time, the Portuguese were looking for India. We never talk about the Portuguese. And really it was the Portuguese that made the blueprint for all the plantation societies, the relationships of slavery, the use of colonies as Imperial experience. All of that started with the Portuguese. We don’t even talk about them. And this particular treaty, it just sort of divvied up the world. It said everything on the Western side, which is entire Americas, would belong to Spain. The whole Eastern side, all of their discoveries in Africa and Europe would belong to Portugal. And that was very fundamental for the history of our hemisphere, but we don’t learn about that.

 So, yeah, that’s a long way to say I think they’re getting a little better. I think they’re talking about, you know, some Black writers, a little bit more Black content, but the other piece of this, Jon, is I think they are teaching to tests and schools are not going to be able to change unless the tests change or the relationship to testing changes.

Amy H-L: [00:18:30] You’ve mentioned that often your students lack writing skills. Why is that? Is that connected to teaching to the test? And why is it so important for them to learn to write?

Kim B: [00:18:44] Oh my gosh. Well, you know what? It is a form, uh, one of the most brilliant inventions of humanity, a way to express your ideas and have conversation across time and space. You can have a conversation with thinkers of, you know, like Descartes and [inaudible] like the Enlightenment thinking. You could be, like, I disagree with Socrates. You can. If you can write and if you can read and if you can engage in ideas that way it’s another language I always tell my students, you know, sometimes you might not have been trained to do like this kind of intellectual writing or this kind of writing, but it’s just another language of expression.

And I just think it’s really key for people to figure out ways in which they can develop original, creative thinking. It’s a language. I don’t think it’s the only language, but I think it’s a very important one. And, you know, students, I think, are afraid to say I have an opinion about something. I think one of the things that happens is they think that what they are there to do is to receive some information, memorize it, and spit it back out. And sometimes if you have a text, just because you received the text does not mean that this particular person, because somebody, you know, decided to publish that book makes them the be all and end all. You, too, have an independent mind. And it is perfectly okay to disagree and engage in conversation and debate if you know how to express an idea, but not only an opinion. To really make an argument saying, look, my opinion is different from yours because this is the evidence I see, and I’m saying this, you know, I’m talking about writing from the point of view of a historian. Obviously this is different from creative writing, but if they say, you know what, I think this, but it’s because of this, you know, A, B, C, D E. That’s why I think this. Let me show it to you. See what you think. If they can do that, they can be such original thinkers. And many of them were never, ever thought to think of themselves in that way. It blows their mind when they think that some of the major theorists that we know of began writing theory in their twenties, when they were the same age as my students, you know. They think that that’s all purview of real old people. It could be you, and to see them begin to do that, it makes a person powerful.

And it’s not just for academics. It’s just to be able to, you know, that’s the difference between like a real debate, an informed debate, and just, I think there’s an, I feel this and you feel that. And look at the state of our political debates today. I feel this, you feel that nobody’s willing to look at anybody else’s evidence. Everybody says evidence is suspect, but that’s because you know, y’all are not applying any kind of standards of corroboration, things like that. So you get a whole lot of heat, but not real exchange of ideas.

Jon M: [00:22:22] So how does the focus on teaching to the test relate to this? What do you find in terms of the students coming to you?

Kim B: [00:22:29] What, what impact? Oh my God. It is so sad. First of all, there’s an orientation towards passive learning. That’s one thing I see. And it’s so funny. If I say something is going to be on the test, everybody immediately perks up and starts writing madly. And if I don’t say that, they just kinda like, let it wash over them, you know. Maybe they get it, maybe they don’t. I know I’m being, um, of course I’m talking in big generalities. Sure. But yeah, I grew up in experimental education. I’m a childhood of a beautiful… you know, they, they never really had a name for people who grew up in the seventies, but it was a sort of, I think the only thing they called us was the “me generation.”  I guess every generation is a “me generation,”  but in the seventies, It was great because when I went to school, it was right after all of the new thinking of the sixties. Right. All the hippies and, and thinking, you know, break down everything, change everything. And I was such a beneficiary of that. Like my high school was founded in 1969 and it was like all hippie. And they were like, we’re not doing anything traditionally. And they really gave a lot of alternatives to testing. I went to a college that had no majors, no grades, no formal testing. And it was beautiful. And I really wish students would have at least some space. I understand tests are necessary, but I really wish they would have some space to just learn for learning’s sake. Let their minds just go where they want to go and just take away all the extra baggage we put on the learning process. And I really try to bring back to my students, just some genuine excitement and joy about learning something new and working out your brains and, you know, taking yourself in, imagining different things, letting the conversation go in other directions. I really wish we could open that up.

Actually, one thing I’ll say to you, I just got an email at work today saying students are stressed out because since we’re online, a lot of professors are thinking, well, the only way we can know that they’re not cheating and whatnot is give them all these tests and assignments and tests and this and that and online assessments and they’re driving the poor students crazy. And they’ve even asked professors to back off a little bit, and I had already figured that this semester was going to be a wash. So I said, you know what, we’re going to just kind of take it easy and have some sessions that it’s just, you don’t have to read. We’re just going to come in. You discuss something, watch something, just take a little break. And I think the students really appreciate that. And I wish that they could have a little bit more opportunity to just have some no stakes engagement with something. Yeah.

Amy H-L: [00:25:57] John Dewey saw participation in a democratic society as a principal purpose of education. Clearly, most of the things that we grapple with as citizens don’t have easy answers. Does teaching to the test undermine that as well?

Kim B: [00:26:18] I think that to the extent that it keeps people from just sorta like a freer engagement with new ideas and less, you know, just freedom to just move around with your ideas and change your mind about things and whatnot. I just think that I, I just don’t see how teaching to the test really encourages that kind of imaginative thinking and just sort of the free flow, cause that’s where the new stuff comes, right. It’s not just being able to repeat what they’re expecting you to say. It’s those surprises, it’s those things like, oh, I never would’ve thought about that, but if you don’t allow that to be an answer and certainly, you know, it’s one thing if a teacher is grading it. It’s another thing if it’s a scantron that can’t even take into account, like the little side note that a student might want to express, you know. Where’s the wiggle room for that, for the new ideas? You know, that’s just turning out cogs. So, and by the way you mentioned, I did, that was the name of my high school. It was John Dewey High School. So it was truly in that spirit.

Jon M: [00:27:39] So obviously there’s a tension between education as a liberating experience and an exciting experience in the sense that you’ve been talking about, that you were able to be exposed to, and the focus on education as workforce development and the means of getting a job. How do you see that playing out in terms of the students that you’re working with?

Kim B: [00:28:07] A hundred percent. I mean, that’s real. I think students are really panicked right now about how they’re going to make a living. They come to school, really, with a vocational objective. I am investing all of this money. It’s like the four years of my life and however many years they’re going to be in debt for that experience, right. They have to take that seriously. And so you don’t want to go to college and come out in debt with no prospect for a job. So many come in really desperate to have some kind of employment that they can get from this. So that’s real. That’s real. I think that it would help them to understand that there are many qualities and skills that you can gain from a liberal arts education, that would help you in today’s economy, but I think students need to be equipped with the language so that they could translate that.

What  I tell my students in Africana Studies… Nobody comes to Africana Studies almost intentionally. Almost everybody who’s in Africana Studies comes by accident because there is no job in Africana Studies. And in fact, ever since our foundation in the 1960s, it’s always been a thing where both students and their families always believed that that was like a little side something you take because they want those kids to be able to get jobs. So what I tell them now is that because Africana does teach you to think outside of the box, teach you to find things that you might not have seen using conventional methods, that’s actually a great skill set for developing your own job, developing your own way in the world, which is what increasingly a lot of young people are having to do as our corporate base is somewhat collapsing and those jobs are shrinking. And I think that not only, in my discipline, but in a lot of other disciplines that are like English and things like that, literature or philosophy even, if we can help students understand what they can take from that and translate that into a life skill. I think that’s a good medium. I mean, we never going to get people to just say, you know what, I just love to study medieval art. And that’s what I want to do the whole time, you know? Yeah, it’s going to be hard. I mean, how many curatorial jobs are there out there? But anyway, so that’s, that’s what I think we can try to help them do because it is hard out there and we have to be real. Nobody’s going to live, you know, without having some way to make a dollar. And they have to do that. You know, we got working-class kids coming through, so I want them to be able to do it, but again, their ability to be creative and say, you know what, I can see all of their skills. We were just talking about writing that you had asked about, Amy. That comes into being able to write a business plan or a proposal. Maybe you have some funders that might want to support your ideas, or you need to put it on a website. How do you express the beautiful, wonderful things in your head. You gotta be able to communicate them. So that’s the kind of way I’m trying to think about how we can help this generation of students.

Amy H-L: [00:31:58] I think that there is perhaps also an equity issue here. I see kids scrambling to, to actually use college as vocational school.

Kim B: [00:32:10] It is, it is, you know, and I know that this is the case because we do something, I’m actually, I’ve just, I’ve signed up to represent my department. We have something called a majors fair. So incoming students, it used to be in person, right, and this is when you really see it. Imagine all these students coming for a big day and they’ve got all these tables set up around the gigantic room. They have like a big table for pre-med and a table for accounting and labor relations  and social services. Those tables are packed. They are flooded. The business school is mobbed. They’ve got like all the swag that they give out and everything. All the students run to those things. And I sat one day with the Latino studies representative and the two of us sat there for four hours and not a single student came to stop by to pick up our little flyers because that’s not what they’re going for.

So, you know, we are sort of that point of putting out young people into the workforce now. And, um, that, that is what’s happening with liberal arts education. That is the reality. 

I wish that, I’m sorry, I mean, the ethics issue I see in a lot of these schools is how, how the liberal arts curriculum is so devalued. It’s become very corporate. We are putting tons of money into these executive positions, this whole teaching to the test thing. There’s this whole industry, as you all well know, about people who are assessing the tests and designing the tests. And so all this corporate money is going to these executives, right. Then you have don’t, you know, get started on the whole athletics as business side in the big universities. There’s also this whole question of the labs that are developing, you know, we’re basically serving industries like pharmaceuticals to develop patented drugs and things like that. So in that whole big mix, a little department of literature is … I’ve had a dean sit there and tell me, we don’t even know really why you all exist.

Jon M: [00:34:49] Do you expect the Movement for Black Lives to have a long-term impact on educational institutions?

Kim B: [00:35:00] Huh. I hope it has a long-term impact on the students, the young people. And I, I think one of the things that has made me really encouraged about this particular movement is that there is a shift in looking at individual acts of racist behavior to instead looking at systemic problems, because that’s really where change can come. And that’s really what we have to focus on. Individuals are going to act however they act, but it is the systems that we need to really address because, you know, in some ways, you know, who cares, what you feel about me. As long as the system is not structured against me, I’ll deal with you one-on-one as a person, but don’t make the system such that I cannot enter certain spaces, I cannot take certain types of positions or influence certain types of policy decisions, right. We need to be able to have a lot more people sitting around important tables. And if they can begin to shift that systemic problem, then I think we’re doing something.

I think in terms of right now, the people responding to it, it seems like everybody, like all these big corporate entities are putting out money there. Oh, yeah, we are for black lives and, you know, make nice ads and things like that. And they’re not really trying to change anything, but if the people understand that we’re not going to accept this window dressing anymore, we want real change, then I will feel like we’re getting somewhere.

Amy H-L: [00:36:49] Thank you so much, Dr. Kim Butler of Rutgers University.

Kim B: [00:36:54] Thank you guys, you know, you all, I have to say, first of all, y’all are doing absolutely fabulous work. We don’t think enough about education and how we are educating. And as you say, the ethics involved in the work of educator, it is so vitally important. It’s just another example of the ways in which we value certain things in our society. I mean, education is so vitally important. We are preparing an entire generation. Whatever we do with them is going to shape the world that is to come. And this is absolutely precious. We think about a brain surgeon, right. What is a brain surgeon? A brain surgeon has your brain in their hands. And we say, oh my gosh, this is so precious. This person should be paid thousands and thousands of dollars and held up on high. We hold brains in our hands.

Jon M: [00:37:57] Wow. And thank you listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review because it helps other people to find the show. Check out our website, ethicalschoolsorg, for more episodes and articles and to subscribe to our monthly emails.

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