By Derby Chukwudi
Dr. Jose Pimienta-Bey is an author and Associate Professor of the African and African-American Studies at Berea College. Berea, KY. Pimienta-Bey holds a B.A in History from Gettysburg College, an M.A. in History from Shippensburg University, and a PhD in African American Studies (interdisciplinary) from Temple University. Pimienta-Bey’s doctoral focus (concentration) combined the fields of African/African American History and Psychology, with an emphasis upon ‘Black Psychology.’
Pinnacle: What made you choose Berea College?
Pimienta-Bey: I chose Berea because I was impressed by its “Mission” and its association with the legendary Dr. Carter G. Woodson. There is true legendary significance in this pre-Civil War Southern institution of “higher learning.” Berea College is a school whose visionary leadership under Rev John G. Fee, worked to bring students of African and European descent together, in order to improve mutual understanding, promote Christian ideals, and produce a more loving, just, and peaceful world.. Of course in more recent decades, Berea has been working on ways to expand that diversity in order to meet the contemporary challenges which we as Humans, U.S citizens, and World citizens now face. But in short, I chose Berea College because I’d felt I was coming to “sacred ground” because of the College’s deepest theological and ideological roots.
Pinnacle: You have a Bachelor’s and a Master’s and Doctorate degrees in History, what was your motivation to pursue advance studies in history?
Pimienta-Bey: I hold a B.A. and an M.A. in History, and a PhD in African American Studies which is interdisciplinary. My doctoral focus (concentration) combined the fields of African/African American History and Psychology, with an emphasis upon “Black Psychology.” But my earliest motivation for pursuing advanced studies- as you say- came after reading a classic work by Joel Augustus Rogers (1886-1966), entitled From ‘Superman’ To Man. Rogers was a world-traveling Jamaican born amateur historian, who later became a prominent journalist and member of the Paris Society of Anthropologists. I read his work at 16 years old, and immediately recognized the profound impact which historical literacy, or illiteracy, had upon the mind. Rogers’ work was essentially a slightly fictionalized dramatization of his own life. His work illustrated how one’s awareness of Africa’s little known history, was psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually empowering! Upon completion of my Bachelor of Arts in History, I knew that I needed to pursue advanced studies in History, but I also realized that this needed to be complemented by the study of Psychology.
Later, I would be introduced to the immensely important work of Dr. Woodson, the classic The Mis-Education of the Negro. Reading Woodson’s work while working on my Master’s in History, only reinforced the value and wisdom of my decision to combine the fields of History and Psychology. When you read his seminal work, it’s easy to see the highly empowering connection.
Pinnacle: According to the transatlantic productions, “your primary research interest has been focused on the Moors.” What impact does this have on the development of academic and social institutions around the globe?
Pimienta-Bey: Within the field of “Intellectual/Scientific History,” it is widely known that the Islamic world had an extremely large impact and influence upon the development of various technologies and schools of “higher education” within Europe and the entire world. It’s no secret among such scholars that
medieval Europe’s transformation from an emphasis upon Bible/Church-centered “Cathedral Schools” to more modern-style institutions with “Liberal Arts” curricula, owes much to African and Asiatic/Asian Muslims. But most of these Muslims who served as tutors for European students and intellectuals came from north and west Africa, territories largely known as “Moorish.” The impact which the Moors had upon Europe’s ascension out of the “Dark Ages” is well known to historians of Science. What is not as well known, is that a large percentage of those Muslims who contributed to the rise and success of the university system within Europe, were African Muslims. Such influence can be seen in the beginnings of such esteemed schools as Oxford in England, as well as in various schools within Spain- a country which the Moors held for several centuries following their invasion in 711 A.D./C.E. The evidence of such tutelage under Moorish sages and Muslim treatises/works can also be seen in several other schools, especially in Italy and France.
The use of Arabic numerals, the introduction of Algebra, advances in various types of surgeries, pharmacology, astronomy, and geology, to name a few influences, were in large measure due to the presence and influence of these African and Asiatic Muslims widely known as “Moors.” Yet, most western historians have generally failed to acknowledge these facts. Even the great Catholic Theologian Thomas Aquinas, was a student of a Muslim from “Moorish Spain,” a man named Abu Walid Ibn Muhammed Ibn Rushd. Aquinas made use of the theological and philosophical writings of Ibn Rushd, whose Latinized name was “Averroes.” It was the Muslims who’d preserved much of the ancient knowledge of Egypt and Greece, and made considerable advances in various sciences which would then be shared with the Christian European world.
Pinnacle: Do you think that students who choose to attend Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) graduate with certain advantages than those who attend racially diverse Colleges and Universities?
Pimienta-Bey: If you mean African/African American students, then I think that perhaps the greatest presumed “advantage” would have to do with being immersed in an environment filled with brown-skinned people. Several studies in psychology and sociology have shown that “Black” students often tend to do better when they feel that they are in comfortable/welcoming environments where they don’t feel “alienated” or “foreign.” And that “comfort” is often determined by how similar the student body, faculty, and staff, are to them. However, as a person of African American, Cuban, and European ancestry who attended a predominately European-American college, I found that I was still able to thrive because I took it upon myself to use the potentially alienating campus as a sort of personal Cloister. In other words, I typically enjoyed the solitude and small circle of like-minded friends of various backgrounds. But I also went to college well aware that my primary purpose for being there was to excel academically/intellectually, not to emphasize any quest for social recognition. As long as the faculty and staff were highly competent, kind, and reasonably supportive, I believed that I could excel there.
I came to college with a fairly strong sense of my own identity; a consequence of a very wise and influential uncle. In addition I was ever mindful that the larger society was not necessarily going to accommodate me with regard to any ethnic difference(s) I had with the “majority” culture. In time I even came to appreciate many of the challenges which I faced. As Frederick Douglas famously said, “Without struggle, there is no progress.”
It is interesting that when I later read in grad school about W.E.B. DuBois’ educational experiences and over-arching attitude, they were quite similar to my own. That being said, I believe that generalizing about All HBCU’s providing “certain advantages” not to be found or matched at non-HBCU’s, would be fallacious. Ultimately, I think that student success largely depends upon what a particular school- any school- does to promote and encourage intercultural and inter-ethnic respect and understanding.
Pinnacle: What are your reflections on the governing of the first black president of the United States, president Obama?
Pimienta-Bey: Former Attorney General Eric Holder said that as a country, the United States has repeatedly failed to have an honest and open discussion about “race.” In spite of former President Obama’s ability to win two terms, we witnessed 8 years of his struggle against the country’s “National Character” which consists of strong anti-African/anti-Black societal sentiments. This “National Character” continues to reflect certain biases and contempt for non-European peoples- especially those defined as “Black.” This realization is what led me to my chosen profession, as well as my choice of academic/disciplinary tools with which to address these weaknesses of our “National Character.” A reading of Coates and other social critics of “race” help to make that point quite well.
Yet, the silver lining in this cloud is the fact that Obama’s largely ubiquitous presence for almost a decade, has placed a vibrant seed of societal amelioration within the minds of young people of all ethnicities. In spite of Obama’s setbacks, he still had significant political success. But perhaps most importantly with regard to the future and his legacy, President Obama has shown a new generation that phenotype is no obstacle to achieving the highest office in the land, and arguably the most powerful political office in the world! Fortunately I think that in the long term this favorable truth will supersede most of the negative experiences and insults leveled against the first “Black” President of these United States. Many young people of every color and creed who’ve grown up under this President, will not possess the same pre-Obama “racist” notions regarding African Americans.
Pinnacle: How can the students in this modern era stay informed about the past as well as modern history?
Pimienta-Bey: I would encourage them to please stop spending so much mindless time on social media, gossiping about nothing. Time and Life are precious and limited. Use more of your time studying great works of history and current political commentary; be diverse in what areas of history you read. Study Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas. As I stated earlier, I was more attracted to the interdisciplinary approach of AFR, because it emphasized using the research and methodologies of scholars from various disciplines in order to understand the past.
I’d also say to look for well-done documentaries, then use social media to discuss any given topic(s) from positions of knowledge and not simply uninformed opinion. Put less emphasis upon “I feel that,” and more upon “I think that” and “I know that.” Feelings backed by informed scholarly inquiry are much more powerful than those which are not. Finally, set aside time for quiet reflection. Filling your eyes and mind with materials you read or watch, and not setting aside some time to be still and quietly reflective, often prevents us from fully appreciating and understanding what we have watched or read.