Remembering Asa Hilliard

By Kathy Williams

Illustrator: © 2007 Denise Gray Photography

Photo: © 2007 Denise Gray Photography

As an African-American educator who came of age in the 1960s, I am constantly balancing my revolutionary spirit with the practical realities of professional life within the public school system. Dr. Asa Hilliard bridged this schism in a phenomenal way.

I first heard him speak 20 years ago in Madison, Wis. He had a large afro and wore a dashiki with red, green, and black beads. He was one of a number of presenters, many of whom were also African-American academics. But Asa was different. He connected the rage, the righteous indignation, and the feeling of being perceived as a “radical” with scholarship, research, and knowledge of the African worldview. He explained our situation like no other speaker I had ever heard before.

I was impressed, spellbound, and inspired to take action all at the same time. Asa did not mince words, as evidenced by what he said in a 1998 Chicago speech, reprinted in Rethinking Schools:

Education, like “race,” is situated in a context. There should be no need to go into great detail about the history of the education of Africans under slavery, colonization, apartheid, and white supremacy ideology. The record is clear. The treatment of Africans was not a matter of negligence or accident. It was not benign. Massive and strategic attempts were made to use educational structures to destroy “critical consciousness,” to alienate Africans from tradition and from each other, to teach African inferiority and European superiority.

In the spirit of the Griot, Asa mesmerized audiences with his magnetic storytelling. He was able to detail the stark realities of our condition within the African Diaspora and at the same time convey a love of life, sense of pride, and strategies for moving forward.

I learned from Asa that as an African-American educator, I do not need to choose between my history, knowledge, and understanding of what it means to be African American and the established power structures. Asa’s legacy is a reminder to engage others to think critically through an African-centered perspective utilizing the tools of the trade — communication, research, and scholarship.

I heard Asa speak many times over the course of my career. Each time the depth of his insight and his ability to inspire grew exponentially. What he shared seemed to be grounded by his journey of self-discovery, research, and educational practice. As my own practice grew — classroom teacher, co-chairperson of the district multicultural curriculum council, editor of Rethinking Schools, district level administrator — my grasp of the challenges in advocating for high-quality, equitable education for all, including African-American students, made Asa’s contributions all the more powerful.

Throughout his life, Asa’s research, writings, and consultation served as a catalyst for educators and activists working to transform the lives of students.

“I am a teacher, a psychologist, and a historian,” he was once quoted as saying. “As such, I am interested in the aims, the methods, and the content of the socialization processes that we ought to have in place to create wholeness among our people.”

Kathy Williams is a Rethinking Schools editorial associate.