The grass is not greener on the other side even if that side is Western literature, culture, tradition, and education. I will not teach my brothers, sisters, and children of color to travel away from home to drink from foreign wells and deceive my people to believe that the wells of their own homelands did not have enough water – goodness, truth, and beauty – to suffice and provide them with the nourishment needed to cultivate knowledge. I am not interested in the assumption, which I believe to be true, that non-European scholarship made immeasurable contributions in watering the garden of knowledge that is the prized Western or Greco-Roman literature. I am more interested in studying and teaching about the rich culture, tradition, and virtues that non-European thinkers, of which I am a descendent, received as an inheritance from the black and brown shoulders upon which they themselves stood. I do not even desire an education that adds a few more brown faces to white history because the representation of those who look like me is not a quantitative quota to be reached.
Nor is it cute to create units of study that ask black students to rewrite white characters and stories by adding black faces to those stories. Do we ask white children to paint white faces on black characters to better connect with them? Therefore, it is another form of maintaining a racial hierarchy that favors whiteness when we attempt to pacify black parents by asking their children to paint black skin on the white classical characters of the Great Books.
So you see, there is no reason for me to collect black and brown students to drink of the well of Western traditions and spend the imagination of their youth and the culmination of their life’s work making contributions to white history only so that they can be written in the margins of the text. Instead, they can stand, right where they are, surrounded by their present neighborhoods found in the inner-city, or among rural Africans, or within Hispanic or Indigenous communities, coming to school and spaces fully clothed in the rich antiquity of their own spiritual and ethnic ancestries. Therefore, through the centering of their own history, their own literature, their own traditions and ways of being, they can understand that because of the grace that God freely gives to all ethnicities, their brown histories, bodies, and minds are fully sufficient vessels for the Lord to work, and build, and cultivate every virtue that reflects Glory and the Kingdom.
The world does not need to appreciate Western thought tradition to the same extent that the descendants of Europe ought to, just as it is not necessary for Chinese schools to center U.S. history or Australian schools to center Nigerian history. It is not natural and, if it is mandated, it comes at a loss to the children who will only be separated from the knowledge of their own history and culture. I summarize with the direct and candid wisdom of Maya Angelou who , when limited to European literature, used it to educate herself and understand her racialized world. Then, when grown and given free access to the work of various nonwhite intellectuals, many becoming her greatest friends and mentors and sharing her black heritage, dove in with mind, body, and soul. While she still appreciated the European literature of her youth, she valued it as simply a lens but not the only nor the central. She states, “I have great respect for the past. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going. I have respect for the past, but I’m a person of the moment. I’m here, and I do my best to be completely centered at the place I’m at, then I go forward to the next place.”
The past that I think of is not a European past but of my own, through the lens of my ancestors, and in their accomplishments and mistakes by which I may acquire wisdom richer and deeper than this present age can give. I must know the past of my people, like I know the back of my own hands, in order to know where I am to go and what I am meant to contribute so that my contribution causes my people to progress as I progress. Today, as I stand in the present, I must use the past wisdom and truth passed down to me and apply it to the present context I find myself and my people in right now. I must be moved to go beyond lengthy and melancholy prayers and laments to a love that challenges me to study, empowers me to keep pushing hard conversations, and transforms me in the most uncomfortable of ways.
While looking back, in the journey of my own Sankofa, I do not see an overwhelming representation of Western and European accomplishments, thought, and tradition, instead I see an overwhelming reflection looking back at me that looks… well, as brown as me. That reflection is both my past and the work of my future laid out before me. So my business in the present is to guard and protect, build and cultivate the bridge between the two, in spite of Western and European control for the souls and bodies of my Black ancestors and today for the education of our Black mind.