In Memoriam: Dr. Asa Hilliard 1933-2007
By J. Herman Blake
The news spread rapidly: Brother Asa Hilliard had died. It was like one had to tell another and another because one could not believe Asa had transitioned to join the elders. Telling others helped convince ourselves that the unbelievable was true: His voice was silenced and his presence was no longer among us. Quiet meditations and deep reflections followed this realization.
In my mind Asa, Brother Asa, may no longer be a presence among us, but to me Asa, Brother Asa, will “keep on keeping on” in the transformed lives of countless numbers of younger sisters and brothers who will stop and grieve, sing and pray in tribute, but will then shoulder his mantle and continue his work.
Asa and I met when he was a professor at San Francisco State University and I was a professor at the University of California Santa Cruz — 75 miles away. Even though we were in different institutions, our lives paralleled each other. We were teachers, scholars, active researchers and administrators. We were both seeking to empower African-American students through self-knowledge, wisdom and understanding. At the same time we sought to create fundamental changes in institutions of higher education that were rooted in medieval structures and values that once denied our very existence. Through subtle patterns of vision and communication, we fueled each other’s struggle. As warriors in daily battle, we held up each other’s arms.
In time we both left California but we still met and strengthened each other. Many times we would join Dr. Ike Tribble at meetings of his McKnight Black Doctoral Program in Tampa, Fla.
Asa loved to challenge, motivate and counsel the incredible young people. Asa saw the future in these aspiring scholars and he not only inspired them with words, he was a model of what he expected of them. He shared his intellectual odyssey with them, his growing studies of Africa and the foundations of our Black as well as human communities. His lectures were profound and left each of us seeking to do better in our teaching, to do more in our scholarship; as well we had the desire to hear more of his learning and wisdom. He was truly inspirational.
Asa was so gracious and generous with his time and attention. Every one of those future scholars was as important to him as they were to Dr. Tribble. Asa Hilliard touched each one individually and held each one up to the stars.
While pursuing his research into African history and culture, Asa Hilliard also maintained his scholarly interests in the early education of children and their intellectual development. He carefully and systematically built bridges between his new research and his earlier analyzes. In all those he studied or taught, he saw whole people living whole lives and he modeled what he espoused.
To me one of his finest moments was in Allen Chapel AME Church in Indianapolis. I was vice chancellor at Indiana University- Purdue University Indianapolis and Asa was in town to work with public school teachers. It was during Black History Month and we were both invited to speak at the worship service on the same Sunday morning. When Asa was introduced, he reverently greeted the pastor, politely spoke to the parents and elders, acknowledged me and then turned his back on all of us. He assembled the children at the foot of the rostrum and sat among them — adjusting his flowing robes so they seemed to envelope the youth.
He started his message by sharing a familiar scripture from the Holy Bible. With his encouragement one child read aloud Timothy 2:15: “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
With an emphasis on the words “study,” “work” and “truth,” Asa Hilliard spoke earnestly to all the children. He spoke of the importance of diligence and discipline as one learns knowledge of self, family and community. With an emphasis on “study” and “truth,” Asa Hilliard focused the children on the importance of listening to their parents and elders, of learning the truths of the Bible, and also learning from their school books. He also spoke of learning from books out of their rich and sacred past. He ended by telling the youth about the oldest book in the world, The Teachings of Ptahhotep. In the span of a few minutes, Asa Hilliard led the entire congregation from the familiar to the new, and left us all enriched.
Whether addressing doctoral students or children, Asa Hilliard was a model of what we must all become. His transition is an inspiration for us all to make our own unique transitions as we learn for ourselves and teach others. Because we are part of his legacy, we will keep on keeping on.
— Dr. J. Herman Blake currently serves as scholar in residence and founding director of The Sea Islands Institute at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.
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