Professor Changes Student Expectations

Florida A&M University professor Janet L. DeCosmo changes student expectations as she, a white woman, teaches, researches and publishes material based on the Caribbean and other regions part of the African Diaspora.

In a spacious room with large, black televisions showing the official music video to Bob Marley’s 1983 hit single “Buffalo Soldier, walks in a middle-aged white woman.

Excited and confident, she walks around the room speaking in a gracious, southern accent; wearing an African, kente cloth inspired blazer. Her hair is fine, straight and brown. She has it in a nice, tight ponytail.

Was this woman a teacher’s assistant? Maybe, the real professor was still on vacation.  Was she a part of a joke the professor is playing on his or her students? No, in fact, she is the professor.  

“I can admit I was surprised when I saw her walk in,” said Brande’ Brewton, a student in DeCosmo’s Caribbean Religion and Culture class.  

There are hundreds of Caucasians in the Caribbean. One may ask, what makes DeCosmo so special?  The answer would be her roots.  She was raised in Florida to a Catholic father and Baptist mother.  Janet DeCosmo has no biological connection to the Caribbean or the White people that inhabit it.

DeCosmo is used to seeing the crazy stares that students and faculty make when she walks into the room. However, she does not understand why people make them.

“It’s a shock when people walk in the class and they see some white woman teaching about the Caribbean and Africa,” DeCosmo said. “There was a black professor here that loved Medieval literature and music and wanted to go over there and travel. People have always appreciated other cultures. It’s nothing new“

While sitting in her office covered with African and Caribbean art, DeCosmo talks about her obsession with Caribbean culture and how it began.  As cliché as it sounds, she gives all of the credit to the legendary Reggae singer Bob Marley.

“It was the 90s when I discovered him. I heard Bob Marley’s music and I went nuts,” DeCosmo said.

She later adds that Bob Marley’s music inspired her to create the Caribbean Culture and Religion class here at FAMU.  DeCosmo believes that the content of his music discussed rare topics relevant to  FAMU at the time.

After she pondered on how Bob Marley’s music encouraged her to create a Caribbean course, DeCosmo said, “Since so much of his music is about Africa and recovering African Heritage, I started the Caribbean class first.”

Brewton believes DeCosmo is qualified to teach the subject regardless of her ethnicity.

“I don’t feel like I’m being robbed from my education because she’s white,” Brewton said. “She is really passionate about the subject and knows her stuff.”

The pro-African, eccentric professor received a bachelors degree in international affairs and a doctorate in humanities from FSU with emphasis on religion and social change. She also created an African Humanities course at FAMU.

DeCosmo not only created courses about the Caribbean and Africa, she also published a book entitled The Caribbean in Global Perspective: Focus on Film. The book covers several aspects of a variety of Caribbean cultures through the use of film, including education, images and stereotypes and religions.

Lorenzo Smith, a student enrolled in DeCosmo’s Caribbean Culture and Religion course decided to read The Caribbean in Global Perspective book.

“So far I love the book,” Smith said. “I can’t believe that the author is white.  I’ve learned so much about the Caribbean, from Capitalism to Voodoo. Island people are not as scary and uncivilized as I believed.”

DeCosmo said that her students make her more a credible person to teach the course.

“I don’t claim to know the culture more than a black person. I listen to you guys and your experiences and I share them,” DeCosmo said.

DeCosmo has been teaching Caribbean Culture and Religion for over 15 years.  She has gained popularity amongst the students.