By Norma Adams-Wade
Author, filmmaker, poet, rapper, and professor M. K. Asante Jr., had it right when he said “Black students (should) always take two sets of notes.” I spent some time researching this “woke” young tenured professor the other day. His life story–even though comparatively young – is an impressive example of how learning and education can transform a life. Asante recalls his troubled youth in the wildly popular book Buck: A Memoir. The award-winning coming-of-age remembrance was published in 2013 when the author was 31 and realizing that his over-comer journey could and should help redirect other misguided youths. Later, he helped make the book a film.
Conflicts with his college professor father; concern for his mother, a choreographer struggling with self-destructive depression; a brother in prison; being sent to alternative schools, and an attraction to bad influences on the wild streets of Philadelphia combined to take young Asante swiftly down wrong paths as a teenager. But he found his salvation in writing and ultimately, at age 26, became the nation’s youngest tenured professor at historically-Black Morgan State University in Baltimore where he teaches creative writing and film-making. During one part of his journey, the legendary Maya Angelou was his mentor.
Today, at age 37, Asante has written several books, made various films, recorded rap music, lectured, and given commencement addresses at distinguished universities including Southern Methodist University, Vassar, and Harvard. For many years, his signature appears in the classroom was t-shirts and long dreadlocks. His teaching style has been described as freewheeling, promoting discussion and pushback from his students, provoking thought and examination at every turn. “Two sets of notes” is one of his most quoted utterances. The poem by that same title is in the professor’s book entitled It’s Bigger than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post Hip Hop Generation. In the poem, he deftly castigates American textbooks and robot teachers who only regurgitate what’s on the page. He says because of long-standing, bureaucratic policies, these educators and the books they use teach students supposed “facts” that under scrutiny are mostly myths or devised imaginings. He says these portrayals come from the minds of mainly white history writers who record the past only the way they interpret it, not the way it really happened.
Asante Jr. offered the perfect formula for how students can succeed in the classroom – even while knowing that much of what they are hearing is only one person’s likely distorted view of the world in which we all live. “I always take two sets of notes,” he declares, “– one set to ace the test and one set I call the truth, and when I find historical contradictions, I used the first set as proof.” I was just thinking…: At what point in life does one really begin to think for himself or herself? When does an individual begin to question what they hear? And when does a student in school begin to say, ‘I think I need to research that for myself,’ instead of mindlessly swallowing what they hear.
There already are a number of familiar school lessons that recent decades have debunked. Some include George Washington and the cherry tree and that he wore dentures made of wood, that Columbus “discovering” America, that Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake,” that enslaved Africans had no substantial history when they were brought to America in chains, and that the message of July 4th celebrations truthfully meant equality and independence for all people. I leave you with Asante Jr.’s counsel for young Black minds in classrooms:
Black children look in the mirror you are the reflection of divinity don’t let them fool you with selective memory walk high, listen to the elder who spoke Black students, always take two sets of notes.
Norma Adams-Wade is a veteran, award-winning Journalist, a graduate of UT-Austin and Dallas native. She is also one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and was inducted into the NABJ Hall of Fame.