They were brilliant young minds, many full of naivety and childish idealism. Back home in Africa, they had studied deep into the night, many under the flickering lights of kerosene lamps with the starry African sky as the roof of their classrooms. They devoured physics, chemistry, biology, math, foreign languages, history, sociology, philosophy and many countless other disciplines. Some after high school set out for the West to conquer the Olympian heights of academic excellence in the citadels of western learning, many joined the exodus after their college degrees to seek graduate degrees of either a masters or a doctorate. This is their journey through racist hell as told by some of them.

The train snarled south toward Manhattan, New York City. Kofi Ghanaba was running late for his appointment. He had by a strange twist of personal circumstances crossed paths with a young African mathematics graduate student who was studying in New York. They had agreed to meet at a café to discuss some educational matters. He got to the café and took a seat to wait. The young African who we will call U was also running late. Finally, he saw U come into the café. Kofi Ghanaba was shocked beyond description. U had a very straggly unkempt appearance with a wild beard. He carried with himself an old worn out suitcase. His eyes were shifting in their sockets and he had a constant nervous laugh. Kofi contained his surprise and they got down to talk.

U began to recount his story. He was the only child of a single parent mother. He had studied hard in high school and then finished his bachelor’s degree somewhere in Africa. He then managed to make it to New York where he had enrolled in a graduate program in mathematics on a teaching assistantship. He worked hard at his graduate courses and discharged his teaching duties faithfully. None of his fellow graduate students who were non-black would work with him in solving homework problems or doing projects together. They would gang among themselves and work together. He did not get fazed or discouraged. He worked on his own and managed to pass the doctoral oral exams to start working on his PhD.

All this time, he experienced a concerted racial assault on him, both covert and overt from faculty and fellow graduate students. He began to work with a doctoral advisor in one field of mathematics. This American advisor was very prominent in the field. This man did everything to frustrate U. He even cut U’s funding and U found himself homeless on the streets of New York while trying to do research at the graduate level in mathematics. He managed to collect himself together and cobbled some funds to find a place to live. Meanwhile his work in mathematics was going well.

Despite the intense racial assault, he had managed to prove a significant result in the field. He got so excited that one day, he told a few fellow graduate students standing in the main corridor of the department. His advisor happened to be passing by and overhead U. Right after that, the racial assault became a racial tsunami. It was at that time that Kofi Ghanaba met him. He said he was so broken, so frustrated and that he had lost his drive and appetite for math. He was quitting since he already had obtained the masters degree and go back home. He had an old mother to feed. Kofi sat in silence watching U. U was a broken young man; his beautiful mind had been shattered. He looked silently at Kofi and said softly, do not ever make the mistake of coming to this university. They sat in silence for a while, young American college students flitted in and out stealing nervous glances at two black men sitting in the café. They patted company. Kofi Ghanaba watched as U dragged his worn out briefcase and shuffled his straggly psychologically beaten self down the street. That was the first and last time they met.

Kofi Ghanaba kept on hearing the same stories from young African men and women as he meandered his way across North America.

There was the story of one brilliant young man who we will call V, who had also been hounded out of a PhD program in the physical sciences at a very elite school. The young man described how the departmental chair would come and stand at his office door almost every day staring at him with a hostile expression. It was psychological pressure designed to smoke him out. V was the first black graduate student in the department since 1929. He described the hostile attitude toward him during his qualifying exams for the PhD by the examiners. There was one incident where he had to pass out of one graduate class (since he had taken that course at another university) by taking an oral exam with the professor teaching the class. The professor grilled him mercilessly for an hour and a half and finally said in exasperation, “You have passed! Now get out of my office“. Finally, they found a way to kick him out of the program and cut his funding.

A fine young man W narrated to Kofi Ghanaba how he had finished all his requirements for a graduate degree in the engineering sciences but the graduate group chair flatly told him in his face that she would not allow him to graduate and that there was nothing he could do about it. This was at an elite school in the Northeast.

One young African man X shared his story with Kofi Ghanaba, about how, he had studied the physical sciences in one of the most elite institutions in the US and had then proceeded to the Midwest to a PhD program in engineering. Although he had written two papers with his doctoral advisor, they still put obstacles in his path. He got so frustrated that he almost contemplated suicide. Finally broken and on the verge of a mental breakdown, he quit with a masters degree and left the country vowing never to come back. That was his story of hell in the lily-white citadels of white privilege in North American academia.

Kofi Ghanaba travelled to Washington DC where he met a young African woman called Y. She had just obtained her PhD in the social sciences after ten long years of frustration punctuated with stretches of homelessness on the streets of DC, appeals and court cases. Kofi stared long and hard at her. He could see that the struggle and relentless racial thuggery of highbrow white academics had taken a huge psychological toll on Y.

There were countless other stories of young men and women who had been broken. Some had committed suicide, as they could not handle the toll that the psychological thuggery inflicted on them. Others had suffered mental retrogression and were now behaving almost like children. Some had just gone mad, as was the case of a brilliant student in Northwestern Canada. Several years later, his name kept coming up, as Kofi Ghanaba continued to talk to more and more students in North America. His had been such a tragedy. Young African students talked about the turmoil in their minds, the struggles with self-doubt, inferiority and the relentless mental assaults they endured day in and day out.  Many had suffered some kind of trauma in their studies while studying. He had now met too many brilliant young black men and women who had gone off the edge after being methodically frustrated by their white professors.

All these stories put into perspective the story and behavior of one Ghanaian professor of Mathematics who we will call Z, at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Kofi Ghanaba was then living in Kumasi and kept on hearing stories from students about the unhinged behavior of professor Z. He would be teaching in class and then suddenly spin around as if he had been attacked from the back. This behavior was consistent. The story was that, he had come to the US as a graduate student in the 1960s to study at one of the most elite institutions in the US somewhere in the state of New York. His PhD advisor had stolen his work claiming it as his own and another white student’s work. This had so traumatized professor Z that he swore never to ever step foot in the US.

A young lady narrated to Kofi Ghanaba the story of her uncle who had come from Ghana to the US to study for a PhD in Biochemistry in the 1960s. A sympathetic white lady professor told him that, he would never get a PhD from the department. She said, “They will never let you have it, just leave with your masters degree and go get a job”. He followed her advice and left to work in industry.

Of course, some were lucky to meet and work with decent white scholars and went through the graduate degree programs relatively unscathed. However, these were few and in between.

Now the strange words of an old white American doctor kept ringing in his head, as he waited at the airport to catch his flight back to Accra. The old white American doctor said to him, “You Africans coming here to the US are incredibly well educated and are driven. But be careful, they will try to do to you what they did to the African Americans. They will try to systematically destroy you. You are a powerful role model to African Americans and they do not like that”.

Those words did not seem strange anymore. Kofi Ghanaba understood it was a psycho- historical war being waged against the intellectual flower of African youth. The racial thuggery sought to brutalize and destroy African minds in the prime of their intellectual fervor. An intellectually powerful critical mass of Africans with skills and expertise in various fields was a grave threat to the dominance of their racial hierarchy, and they would do everything to prevent that.

Kofi Ghanaba now understood what was happening to the minds of these young people. Their entire sense of intellectual self-worth was conditioned on their being accepted by western institutions. A degree tag conferred on them by these institutions was a mark of their intellectual prowess. A failure to obtain this degree tag was construed by them as a catastrophic intellectual failure. It meant that they were not intelligent. Their white professors understood this stream of thought and used it to devastating effect to brutalize them. Their only way to self-recovery was to decouple their intellectual ability from the ability to obtain a western academic dog tag. An African should not define his intellect by his ability to obtain an academic dog tag from the west. If these destroyed young minds had understood that, they might not have gone over the edge. This was a message he was determined to propagate as his plane landed at the international airport in Accra.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Faith is a bulb that needs brutality to root well; I would rather walk with my Ancestors in the corridors of brutality than go alone in naïveté before those who partly despise me and partly abhor a future with me in it; Hundreds may believe that they too have a history, that they have descended from great Ancestors who have accomplished formidable things, but each has to believe by himself; No faith is our own that we have not arduously won with our sweat and blood; If a thing is right, it should be done, and if it should, it can!

  2. Interesting brief of what some of our great minds go through – a brutalized mind – while trying to obtain degrees in the West.

  3. This are interesting stories that need further expansion by the various peoples. Jehuti must encourage these friends to write their stuff here, or for Grandmother Africa! Let’s start growing a pair folks. Let us tell our stories lest others will tell them for us!

  4. I am a descendant of enslaved Africans who lived in America (African American) and a few things comes to mind when reading this article. No doubt, all mentioned in the story had brilliant minds that at one point excelled to the highest levels of critical thinking and problem solving…in academia. But how transferable are these skills for solving day to day personal life crisis and figuring out out to work together in critical times? Kofi and U are undoubtedly “brilliant” men – I would hope to have read about how Kofi refused to allow U to leave the cafe without attempting to collaborate with him to come up with a strategy and an agreement to support each other and work together toward their mutual safety and benefit. Yet we read about Kofi watching U walk away looking broken? Hmmm. Grow up here in this land amongst the majority class as a person of African descent and you learn quickly that the intelligence we “perceive” of them is a “swarm” intelligence, an intellect that very can be ascribed to the individual but rather is an attribute/outcome of them figuring out advanced ways of thinking and operating as a collective. Think about swarm intelligence when we observe when we see the spectacle of bird murmations when they migrate. I believe that we too once had an extraordinary ability to do this and more but the trap of individualism cancels out (or seriously diminishes) our ability to tap into it when we need it most and thus, very often, neutralizes any so-called intellectual and academic strides we make. In simpler terms, across the diaspora on a micro level (person to person – i.e. Kofi and U) and on a macro level we have a difficult time using our brilliance to figure out how to work together so we just don’t have to spend so much time depending on how smart we are individually while trying to make our way in this world. It’s just plain exhausting and as the students profiled in your article demonstrate – it can make many folk go coo-coo.

    The other thing that comes to mind is the fact that what the white doctor said is true. Certainly this can’t be said of all African Americans but I would say a majority feel this way.

  5. This article’s points made can be applied to every Western country. In Europe, they may even refuse to have a jury for you to defend your thesis, or they may simply refuse to admit you you into the Masters’ and PhD programs. Some African students are even deliberately failed repeated so that they can be sacked afterward, why? They are too independent-minded. I know this, because I’ve had all of my university education in Western Europe. I quickly learned to “play the game” after some bad grades, a lecturer told me I’d would have had good grades had I not talked about colonialism and imperialism in a dissertation.

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