Out of Africa

June 2, 2010

One of BMCC’s Ethnic Studies classes, “The Black Man in Contemporary Society,” provides “an historical understanding of how African-descended men reached this point in American culture,” says Assistant Professor of History, Kwasi Konadu.

“In other words,” he says, “students learn to understand their own contemporary realities by looking at an historical backdrop of men like them and the challenges they faced.”  

One of the young men in the class, Liberal Arts major Naj McCarthy, puts it this way: “With Professor Konadu’s classes, if you come in to learn, you will gain a perspective that you probably can’t get anywhere else, so it’s definitely great, in terms of development of self.”

A child of the African Diaspora

Konadu was born in the Kingston, Jamaica community of Cassava Piece, and his mother’s family is from Ghana, West Africa.  The family moved to Brooklyn when he was 11, and after attending public school, he earned a bachelor’s degree in African American History at the New Paltz campus of the State University of New York, then went on to earn his MA at Cornell University and PhD in African Studies/African History at Howard University.

“I share the privilege of being a child of the African Diaspora,” Konadu says, and draws on that personal history as well as his work as an historian to guide students through discussions of “the pitfalls, the constraints of African-descended men in North America.”

Building a ‘composite’ vision of African American life

Along the way, students examine biographies of Martin Delaney, Frederick Douglass, Henry H. Garnett, Malcolm X and other African-descended men—“a range of men, a range of lives,” Konadu explains. “Fathers, husbands, freedom fighters, collaborators—betrayers, even.”

He is careful to present the men “as a composite, rather than to have a singular, monolithic vision of them,” and considers not just “the variety, but also the shared experiences of African-descended men—and then when we come to the present tense or the contemporary period, we can make sense of those realities as they unfold.”

“I don’t really define ‘contemporary’ for the class,” he adds. “But I think I try to lead us to that point.”  McCarthy, from a student’s perspective, says, “I don’t really think there is a ‘contemporary society’. When you take his classes you realize, you are just an extension of the past, so to say contemporary society exists is really hard.”

Konadu’s research connecting the link between history and current realities of African descended people is reflected in his books on the subject, including The Akan Diaspora in the Americas (Oxford University Press, 2010), A View from the East: Black Cultural Nationalism and Education in New York City (Syracuse University Press, 2009), and Truth Crushed to the Earth Will Rise Again! The East Organization and the Principles and Practice of Nationalist Development (African World Press, 2005).

Unraveling a seeming paradox

A thread that holds African-descended men together—while they populate every socio-economic, religious, political and other group—is a concern for family, Konadu contends, one that “flies in direct contrast with the idea that many African-descended households are single-parent households headed by women.”  

Through a growing historical context, students unravel this seeming paradox, constructing an understanding of how family cohesiveness, as Konadu explains, has been eroded by contemporary dynamics such as the incarceration rate among African-descended men ages 14 to 25, “more of whom are in prisons, in New York State in particular, than in colleges like this one.”

He also notes the impact of economic factors on African-descended men, who are disproportionately affected by unemployment, and “certain structural issues within welfare,” such as a requirement in Aid to Families with Dependent Children “that a man not be in the household, so the women can get benefits for their children.”

From Mandingo to Kimbo

In addition to writing research papers, making oral presentations, and reading articles and historical documents, Konadu’s students watch films including the 1975 Mandingo, which tells the story of people living on a pre-Civil War plantation—enslaved Africans, the owner and his family.  

In one scene, the character “Mede,” played by former world champion heavyweight boxer Ken Norton, is fighting another enslaved African—in a bout staged by the plantation owner—and a student called out, “Kimbo!” the name of a Bahamian-American martial arts fighter highly featured today on YouTube and other online venues.

The outburst led to a discussion, says Konadu, “about what that means in terms of sports, in terms of the excitement that comes from watching these two men kill each other—the barbarity of it all,” and moved students from the setting of a Louisiana plantation, “to the plantation of professional sports, where the structure is very similar; and in terms of ownership—coaches, players and the like—the demographic is very similar.  So these themes were sparked by what would be a contemporary reading of this historical film.”

Profit, class, and race—intertwined

Students also just read Diane Somerville’s article, “The Rape Myth in the Old South,” in which she reconsiders 258 court cases, mostly in Virginia and North Carolina, centering on enslaved African men accused of having raped a white woman—and were surprised how often plantation owners came to the defense of the accused men.

“But it was not really a defense of the black men,” says Konadu, “it was a defense of their [the plantation owner’s] property.  It was worth it to them to spend a little defending the men, these equipped and skilled laborers,” rather than lose them “to execution or being thrown out of the state.”

On closer read, the students noticed, as well, that the white women in these cases usually came from a level of poverty in stark contrast to the higher social standing of the plantation owner—her disenfranchisement stemming from class, not race.

“One of the reasons students really enjoyed this article,” says Konadu, “was the ways in which enslavement as a social institution operated beyond the more, I would say, simplistic visions that they have seen either through Roots or other kinds of images.”

Citizenship in a changing Diaspora

Learning about the history behind the Diaspora of African-descended men in North America resonates for students whose families have immigrated from around the world to settle in New York City.  

Bringing a modern sense of what it means to strive for citizenship can deepen their perspective on men such as Marten Delaney, who was born in 1812, fought in the Civil War, and spent his life promoting the civil—and citizenship—rights of former slaves.  Delaney studied medicine at Harvard and was a prominent journalist, before visiting Liberia and Nigeria, and speaking out for the Black Nationalist movement.

“Even once citizenship was granted,” says Konadu, “it came with the Klan, it came with violence…it came with Jim Crowe, and structural and institutional limitations.”

Critical thinking: A life skill

Considering the range of issues Konadu’s class brings up, it seems likely to attract a broad base of students. But do women, or any individuals who don’t identify as African-descended men take the course, “The Black Man in Contemporary Society”?  

“There are a lot of females in the class,” says McCarthy, of his fellow students. “Sometimes it’s harder for them to really relate to what’s being said, but ultimately I think that everybody in the class understands the material and gets where it’s coming from.”

Konadu welcomes diversity in his class, and has taught a range of students in North Carolina and at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC; he’s also lectured and taught in Brazil and West Africa.

“I engage the students as an historian,” he says. “I look at issues of evidence, issues of interpretation, issues of perspective, and of really grounding ourselves.  All in all, my focus is on developing critical skills—reading and writing through the content.”

The challenge, he says, “is to move students from dogma…from their own particular way in which they see the world, to a broader perspective.”

“Look,” Konadu tells his class, “These are life skills.  Unless you plan to be a hermit the rest of your life, you’re going to need effective communication skills, writing skills…you will need to have also research skills for 4-year colleges and for graduate school. I really drive home these skills, and I use the content to do this.”

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