Nearly a year ago, I sat around a conference table in a windowless classroom in Midtown and talked about one particular dilemma I face as a White teacher of primarily students of color. The dilemma was about knowing my students. Not simply, knowing their names, or their favorite music, or even their learning preferences but knowing them: on a psychic level, reaching beyond their racial classification. Even though I knew some of my Black students were of Caribbean extraction and some West African and some were American, I had only a rudimentary, surface-level understanding of what those places, cultures, or histories meant. I value my relationships with students and have found that personal connections breed academic success. My ignorance was an obstacle to relationship-building and being able to teach students holistically. I eagerly registered for a course called African Diaspora at CUNY Graduate Center. On the first day, Professor Herman Bennett, my first Black professor in two Masters’ Degrees, asked us to introduce ourselves by explaining our interest in the course. I had never had to articulate this feeling of disconnection or unknowing I had with my Black students. As I shared this feeling, it had never been clearer that this feeling was detrimental both to me and my students.
The first revelation of the semester was that “diaspora” was not necessarily about the geographic dispersion of a people, or about loss alone, but the rich ground for dialogue between cultures and places. My Black students are part of this dialogue. I wanted to understand how. We read the story of Domingos Alvares, a man of some social stature in his native Dahomey, in what is now Benin, kidnapped, enslaved, and brought to Brazil, where he was eventually able to earn enough money to purchase his own freedom. This only scratches the surface of Alvares’s story. He made his money while enslaved in Brazil as a medicine man of sorts. In his book, James Sweet suggests that Alvares’s healing
methods would have been neither purely Dahomean, nor Portuguese, but instead a mixture, some syncretic product of Africa, Europe, and South America. Alvares’s craft was his salvation and his downfall. Local Brazilian officials, perhaps threatened by his spiritual and economic power, kidnapped him once again, this time delivering him to an Inquisitor in Lisbon. A transcript of the interrogation exists, which Sweet uses to make claims about contradictions between African and European conceptions of rationality and logic. I prefer to see this transcript as evidence of the diasporic dialogue. It shows how Africans in Europe and its American colonies were not simple victims of chattel slavery, but active participants in shaping new spiritualities and cultures. I began to see my students’ share in this creative legacy, in how they changed their speech and posture when they left the hallway for the subway, in how their faces changed when a school security agent approached them.
But I don’t want to see my students as victims of society and history. Analyzing the African Diaspora highlights cultural and historical diversity among Black folks, who, more often than not are perceived as monolithic and homogenous. In class, Professor Bennett pushed us to understand that among the unfathomable destruction wreaked by European colonizers and plunderers on Africa, one often overlooked loss is the ability of scholars to analyze the culture and history of the continent on its own, without the European gaze. Take, for example, the Yoruba. Yoruba language, religion, mythology, and people are numerous and influential in West Africa. On the surface, Yoruba is authentically African, but it too has its origins in the diaspora. In the 18th and 19th centuries, formerly enslaved Africans and their progeny, having bought or won their freedom in Brazil, returned to West Africa, bringing language, food, religion, and other cultural components from a diverse African population, indigenous Brazilians and Portuguese. Peel argues that Yoruban culture as it is today would not exist without the Atlantic slave trade. And that as Yoruban culture was influenced in Africa by the movement of people, so Brazilian and American cultures were influenced. Professor Bennett saw the loss for academic study in this story, but I again saw creative agency in a people so often silenced, by history and otherwise.
Already, history was helping me see my students differently. The Walking Qur’an, a book about West African Islam, helped me know them differently, too. Before this book, I had associated Black Islam with Malcolm X. Somehow, it had never fully computed why a Black nationalist would be drawn to Islam. The Walking Qur’an offers a credible explanation; that Islam is authentic and endemic to West Africa, so a natural fit for Black Americans carving out an identity and culture free from the White American gaze. And, of course, more recent arrivals to the United States from West Africa bring Islam with them, too. In the long history of Black Diaspora, religion and spirituality – from Domingos Alvares’s healing practices to Yoruba spirituality, to Islam – are a theme, and a continuing example of how the diaspora is a two-way mirror, creating new shapes and shadows in both the old land and the new.
As the semester went on, my students’ names kept appearing in texts, and this historical context, which was new to me, lent them new meaning. Kalifa is a prince; Kadijah, a fierce and noble spiritual leader; Mahamadou is Muhammed, how had I not seen this before! This simple understanding brought these students into focus: their West African roots, the orientation of their families, their parents’ hopes for them, their faith. I don’t yet know what this means for my teaching, but I am sure that knowing my students on a deeper level helps me feel more connected to them, and that feels better.