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A School of Their Own

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Despite efforts to keep them out of the public eye, Afrocentric studies have slowly spread across the country.

The upper grades at Malcolm X Academy have filed into the school's aging auditorium on a June afternoon too damp for the usual outdoor games. On the stage before them, a woman wearing a flowing African-style dress, her hair a mass of corkscrew locks, stands at a lectern. Principal Clifford Watson, an African kuffe topping his head, paces behind her on the stage.

"This major event, which has been widely acknowledged by blacks around the world, took place on Oct. 16, 1995," the woman reads from a set of notecards. Dozens of small brown hands shoot up, jockeying for prominence like paparazzi at a film premiere. The principal singles out one neatly dressed boy. "The Million Man March," the boy answers and grins. His correct response has earned him a "check" he can exchange for a pencil sharpener, a plastic bank, or some other treasure at the school's store. "Where did it take place?" the woman on the stage asks when the buzz dies down. Again, the hands strain toward the ceiling. Again, a student nails the answer. "Washington, D.C."

Over the next 20 minutes or so of this impromptu assembly, the students will correctly respond to current events questions like these. They know the name of the "racist, violent paramilitary group" based in Michigan that has been linked to the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City (the Michigan Militia). They can identify the daughter of Malcolm X who was "severely persecuted" in the media this time last year (Qubilah Shabazz). And they know the name of the local court where black judges are in danger of losing their positions because of "racist" legislation (Recorder Court).

Malcolm X students know these answers because Afrocentric studies are part of the curricular fabric at this public school on the city's outskirts.

A few years ago, when Afrocentric schooling first burst onto the education scene, schools like Malcolm X were front-page news. Prominent educators, historians, and other scholars denounced the programs, accusing their proponents of pedaling racial hatred and historical distortions. Now, those battles are being fought mostly by academics who argue in journals and books over whether Cleopatra was black or the ancient Greeks stole their ideas from the Egyptians. But the brouhaha in the media pushed some of the schools underground. Call an Afrocentric school these days, and chances are you won't get a return phone call. If you do, the principal will tell you he or she is too busy to answer your questions.

Yet even as they have lowered their profiles, African-centered schools have slowly spread from mostly private academies to public schools like Malcolm X Academy. Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Oakland, Washington, and other cities all have public schools that are avowedly Afrocentrist. Some were created because local communities demanded a curriculum that told the "truth" about black history. Others came about because educators and administrators saw the Afrocentric approach as a good strategy for boosting black students' self-esteem and keeping them in school.

"When students are in an African-centered school, they see that we've been around since the beginning of time and that we've made contributions along the way," explains Kimberly Harris, a 7th grade teacher at Malcolm X Academy. "They see, yeah, we've made achievements, and we've been kings and queens. It's not just slavery and the Underground Railroad."

But the questions that fueled the controversy over Afrocentric education are as insistent as ever. Critics say they become even more of an issue when public money and children's educations are at stake. "I worry that Afrocentric curricula promote fantasy as fact," one such critic, Rosalind Johnson, a teacher in the Prince George's County, Md., public schools, writes in an essay published by the Manhattan Institute. In her school system, which serves one of the nation's first middle-class black suburbs, schools have dabbled on and off with Afrocentric approaches for years.

Still, writes Johnson, she worries that children taught an Afrocentric curriculum "learn to feel self-worth by denying any worth to other cultural groups. I worry that these children won't value the cultural diversity of their own country, let alone the world. I worry that they will feel no comfort living and working outside of the black experience. I worry that they will grow up intolerant."

Amid all the debate, no one knows for sure how many explicitly Afrocentric schools exist or how many teachers across the nation have, on their own, introduced elements of the philosophy into their teaching. More important, no one knows how much of this controversial curriculum is actually filtering down to students or what effect it might have on their lives.

Afrocentric ideas are by no means new. As long ago as 1854, the American writer Frederick Douglass argued that historians gave short shrift to the contributions of Egypt because Egyptians were not white. Today, the term Afrocentrism covers a whole range of meanings. It can refer to anything from simply teaching students more about the names and contributions of prominent blacks to immersing students in everything African, including social customs, language, and history.

Today, the term Afrocentrism covers a whole range of meanings.

Adherents of the philosophy do, however, share a few common ideas. Among them is the belief that ancient Egypt, crowning the African continent, was a black civilization. Some Afrocentrists further contend that many of the innovations and ideas long attributed to the ancient Greeks were, in fact, derived from the people of the Nile Valley.

No one would deny that Egypt is part of Africa. And few would dispute the assertion that ancient Egypt, with its expertly engineered pyramids, stunning art, and sophisticated religion, was an impressive civilization.

But experts disagree over whether Egyptians were black in the same sense as other Africans. According to Frank J. Yurco, an Egyptologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, studies in Egyptian art and anthropology suggest the people were actually of varying complexions from the light-skinned Mediterranean type to light brown to darker brown. Moreover, neither the Egyptians nor the Greeks were race-conscious in the way that modern societies have become.

Yurco and others say Afrocentrists are misinterpreting the phrase "land of the blacks" from the Egyptian word "kemet" to refer to the Egyptian people. Instead, they say, the word refers to the rich black alluvial soil deposited by the annual flooding of the Nile.

As for the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, these critics assert, no one can say for sure what color she was. Although Cleopatra's ancestors were Greek, there is one blank spot in her family tree. Historians do not know if Cleopatra's grandmother on her father's side was Greek, Egyptian, or some other ethnic origin. Afrocentrists figure that since Cleopatra's grandfather was living in Egypt, her grandmother, who was actually his mistress, must have been Egyptian. They also point to early renderings of Cleopatra's brother, which show him with typically black features.

Right now, some of the harshest criticisms of Afrocentric ideas come from a new book titled Not Out of Africa by Wellesley College professor Mary Lefkowitz. Lefkowitz, a classicist, takes aim in particular at the Afrocentrist notion that the Greeks "stole" or derived much of their art, philosophy, religion, and science from the Egyptians.

Afrocentrists base some of their reasoning on the writings of Herodotus, the fifth-century B.C. Greek often called the "Father of History" and an admirer of Egyptian civilization. But Herodotus, Lefkowitz says, was only speculating on the parallels he saw between the Greek and Egyptian cultures. Moreover, he sometimes got his facts wrong, she says, as when he wrote that the Egyptians believed in the transmigration of souls when they did not. His mistakes have led some scholars to question whether he traveled in Egypt at all.

And, contrary to Afrocentrist teachings, Aristotle did not sack the library at Alexandria, Lefkowitz insists. He couldn't have, she says, because the library wasn't built until 25 years after his death. Lefkowitz also dissects a theory, promulgated in the 1950s by Arkansas college teacher George G.M. James, that Greek philosophy is based on an "Egyptian mystery system"--a series of rituals and academies for Egyptian priests. But, according to Lefkowitz, the first reference to this system comes from an 18th-century French novel. She says the rituals the novelist described, which later became the basis for Freemasonry, come from Greek and Latin literature.

Afrocentrism has spawned a number of other controversies in recent years. Among them:

  • A set of essays written in the late 1980s to infuse Afrocentric content into the Portland, Ore., public schools suggests that the ancient Egyptians used gliders for expeditions and recreation. The basis for this claim was the discovery of a model "glider" in a tomb at Saqqara. But Bernard Ortiz de Montellana, an anthropology professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, says the object was not a glider but a "bird made of sycamore wood and too heavy to fly."
  • The same set of documents, known as the Portland Baseline Essays, also suggests that the Dogon tribe of Mali have known of the existence of the white dwarf star Sirius B for 700 years. According to de Montellana, however, the star would have been visible under the best of conditions only with the aid of a five-inch telescope.
  • The essays also repeat the often-circulated story that Dr. Charles Richard Drew, the black American physician who pioneered blood plasma storage, died after an auto accident because nearby whites-only hospitals in the South refused him the blood transfusion he needed. But Erich Martel, who teaches history in the District of Columbia, Drew's hometown, says other sources dispute that claim. He cites one biographical reference, for example, which states that despite conflicting versions of the account, Drew did receive prompt medical attention.

"Arguing that Afrocentric writers offer a valid interpretation of ancient history is like being comfortable with the notion that the earth is flat," writes Lefkowitz, whose book has received considerable attention since its publication earlier this year. "Even though it may inspire pride and self-confidence, writing and teaching such ethnic histories, each with its own brand of 'ethnic truth,' sanctions the invention of falsehoods.

"What will happen some years from now, when students who have studied different versions of the past discover that their picture of events is totally incomparable with what their classmates have learned about their own ethnic histories?" she asks.

But to Asa G. Hilliard, the Georgia State University professor who spearheaded the development of the Portland essays, critics such as Lefkowitz are "nitpicking."

"If you look hard enough, you can nitpick anything," he complains.

Besides, other Afrocentrists argue, the point is not to replace Greece with Egypt or to argue such marginal issues as Cleopatra's skin color.

"The main point by Afrocentrists is much simpler--that Greece owes a substantial debt to Egypt and that Egypt, as a much older civilization than Greece, should be considered a major contributor to our current knowledge," writes Temple University professor Molefi Kete Asante. The fact is, Asante and other Afrocentrists claim, a number of Greek thinkers traveled in Egypt and some wrote about their studies in that land.

Afrocentrism, they argue, like any ethnic history, gives students a sense of their proper place in the world. "It gives everybody a place to stand," says Carolyn Leonard, who, as the coordinator of multicultural/multiethnic education for the Portland public schools, helped create the baseline essays. "We're all here together, but many of us were standing before we came here."

Adds Audrey Bullard, the principal of J.S. Chick Elementary, an Afrocentric public school in Kansas City, Mo.: "When we talk about teaching our children who they are, suddenly everyone has a problem with that."

If you wanted to find a hotbed of radical Afrocentrism, you would think Detroit's Malcolm X Academy would be the place. In a city with three full-fledged African-centered academies and 18 other schools with African-centered themes of one form or another, Malcolm X is the feisty granddaddy of them all.

After all, this is the school named after the black civil rights leader who coined the slogan "by any means necessary"--a phrase that some consider an invitation to violence. This is also the school that went to court in a losing battle to keep its student population all male. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has a history of spewing racist rhetoric, once spoke here to raise scholarship funds. A Nation of Islam volunteer, dressed in characteristic suit and bow tie, patrols the school grounds daily, guarding against white neighbors who once pelted the school's buses with eggs and unknown vandals who fired guns into the school and painted swastikas on its doors. (The school has since moved to a mostly black neighborhood in downtown Detroit.)

Sit in classrooms for a few days, and you may well wonder what the fuss is all about.

Step inside the school, and you might, indeed, believe you'd found the mothership of radical Afrocentrism. Bold-colored, larger-than-life paintings of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, the Sphinx, and Imhotep, a founding father of modern medicine, adorn the wall of a main hallway. The tricolored African nationalist flag hangs in every classroom. And one teacher even displays a poster proclaiming "Free Mumia Abu-Jamal," the black radical whose case became a cause c‚lŠbre after he was sentenced to death for the murder of a white police officer in Philadelphia.

But sit in classrooms for a few days, and you may well wonder what the fuss is all about. While academics slug it out over Cleopatra's skin tone, the talk here has more to do with basic reading, writing, arithmetic, and science. Granted, children are mostly reading and writing about the countries of Africa or famous black Americans. But, beyond the bias evident in some of the current events questions that students answered in their assembly and the posters on the walls, racial hatred and the Egypt vs. Greece controversy are not on the lesson plan.

"Our approach is to prepare students for the 21st century," says Principal Watson, an unabashed African nationalist. "It's not about some demagoguery or whether Socrates was black."

He has given his teachers the Portland Baseline Essays as well as textbooks available only through local black bookstores. Watson has himself written a book on "10 great African-American men of science." But the pickings for Afrocentric materials have otherwise been slim.

"When you start talking African-centered, you're talking no curriculum. You have to make your own curriculum," Watson says. "We had workshops, and I told the teachers, 'Go through this stuff, and pick out what you can use in your discipline. Just make sure it makes sense to you.' "

But basic academics, particularly reading, are the school's top priority. Watson wants his students to read before they get to 1st grade. And Malcolm X students must pass exit tests each year before they can move on to the next grade level. The school also operates year-round, closing for just a few weeks in late July and early August, so its students have a competitive edge over those elsewhere in Detroit.

When asked why they chose to send their children to Malcolm X, parents often cite reasons other than the school's Afrocentrist focus.

"What they learn when they leave here will not be African-centered," says Harris, the 7th grade teacher, "and you have to prepare them for that."

Indeed, when asked why they chose to send their children to Malcolm X, parents often cite reasons other than the school's Afrocentrist focus. "I love this school," says Nicole Pritchett, whose daughter Erica is in 1st grade. "I like how the teachers work with kids, and I think they're ahead of a lot of kids." The school's African-centered teachings, she says, were only one factor in her decision.

Parents also cite the school's strict discipline, its relatively small size--there are just 633 students in kindergarten through 8th grade--and its supportive family atmosphere.

Like students in Roman Catholic schools, the boys at Malcolm X wear neat navy pants, white shirts, and matching navy ties. They are not allowed to wear earrings or "designer" haircuts. (The few girls at the school wear similar attire: navy skirts or jumpers, white blouses, ties, and conservative hairstyles.) Students who fight once are automatically suspended. A second fight results in expulsion.

"The kids know you don't bring drugsbecause I will have the police personally come here and take them out in handcuffs," Watson says. At the same time, he adds, "this is a village. This is a family, and my staff shows affection." Students are taught to use "mama," rather than "Mrs." or "Ms." in addressing their female teachers. Male teachers are given the prefix "baba."

"They tell us that some whites are bad--but not to think that all whites are bad," says 6th grader Alandius Muirhead. "And I believe that." In fact, three of the school's 26 teachers are white. And Watson hired them because they were master teachers who also supported the school's philosophy, not because union regulations forced him to take them.

"You remember that Malcolm X in his early days was a Muslim, and he taught that the white man was the devil," Watson says. "When he went to Mecca, he remained a nationalist, but his views became world-centered. One day, a staff member put on a tape of Malcolm's speech when he was a fiery Muslim preacher. But children take information out of context, so, as a leader, I had to say, 'We will take that off.'

"The flip side of that is that you can't have all reading books dominated by Dick and Jane because that's not the real world," Watson adds. "A black lie is wrong, and a white lie is wrong."

Because Afrocentric schools have become so wary of visitors, it's hard to say whether Malcolm X's moderate approach is typical of other Afrocentric schools or whether students elsewhere are getting more extremist views. (Of course, some would argue that inflammatory posters, paintings, and flags are as much a part of the curriculum as textbooks and teacher lectures.)

The bottom line is that Afrocentrism has many faces and shapes in schools nationwide.

The bottom line is that Afrocentrism has many faces and shapes in schools nationwide.

Some schools, such as J.S. Chick Elementary in Kansas City and Malcolm X, immerse students in Africanism from morning to afternoon. Students at J.S. Chick, for example, start each week with a Harambee, an assembly where "educators stress the positiveness of the coming week," says Principal Bullard. They also reiterate the seven principles of Kwanzaa, a cultural festival celebrated by some American blacks from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.

In Washington, a program at Joel EliasSpingarn Senior High infuses lessons about African-American traditions, literature, and history into a traditional curriculum. Biology students learning about the heart, for example, might also learn about Daniel Hale Williams, the black physician who is credited with the first successful heart surgery.

It is obvious, however, that Malcolm X Academy is not alone in steering clear of the heavy academic controversies so prominent in Afrocentrism today.

"People here tend to deal with noncontroversial content," says Michael Charney, who was the co-chairman of a committee that set up three African-centered schools in Cleveland and sought to infuse Afrocentric ideas districtwide. "I think it's more the college professors who get bent out of shape, and most teachers just want to make sure kids know that, from Cleveland, you go east to get to Africa," Charney says. "You sure don't want to teach kids stuff that's academically alienating."

Despite Charney's protestations, every teacher in Cleveland has a set of lesson plans from the controversial Portland Baseline Essays. So far, the plans to introduce Afrocentric teachings districtwide have been stalled by the state's decision to take over the troubled school district.

Some educators aren't concerned about moderation. Instead, they believe schools like Malcolm X don't go far enough in their Afrocentrist teachings. "They get six hours here, and soon as they leave here, they turn on the television or go back in a society that has constantly taught a more European perspective," says Nasr Buchanan, who teaches a 6th grade all-male class at Malcolm X Academy. "I don't think these young brothers get enough of who they are." Buchanan, for one, would like to see the school use nothing but Afrocentric texts, rather than the traditional texts the school must rely on now for some subjects, such as mathematics.

Others view Malcolm X's approach as too African-oriented. Russell Adams, the chairman of the black-studies department at Howard University in Washington, criticizes schools that teach Swahili, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and African rituals, calling such practices "affectations." Students at Malcolm X begin learning Swahili in kindergarten but do not learn hieroglyphics. ''Swahili was the language of pre-European trade in Africa. Now, Africans are learning English," Adams says.

"If we have tight resources, they shouldn't be spent teaching somebody this language just so they can say, 'Look, I can speak Swahili, so I'm African,'" Adams contends. "Where would you use it?"

Adams, who helped design the more moderate Afrocentric program at Washington's Spingarn Senior High, is also critical of monolithic approaches to teaching about Africa, a continent whose people are at least as diverse as those of Europe or Asia. "What happens in Egypt is one thing," he says. "What happens in Sierra Leone is something else."

For Clifford Watson, all the academic debate pales in significance compared with what he sees as his mission: rescuing a generation of black boys. Sitting in his cluttered office, a black-and-white poster of Farrakhan hanging behind him, Watson can rattle off a mountain of statistics on the plight of African-American males. Watson lost his court battle to keep the school exclusively male, but few parents have chosen to send their daughters here: Five years after its opening, only 15 percent of Malcolm X's students are female.

For Clifford Watson, all the debate pales in significance compared with his mission: rescuing a generation of black boys.

Nationwide, Watson says, almost one in four black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole on any given day, quoting 1990 figures from the National Sentencing Project.

In Detroit, the homicide rate among black males 18 and younger went from 54 per 100,000 in 1980 to 292 per 100,000 seven years later. He quotes similarly high unemployment rates and dropout rates for Detroit's young black males.

Among his own students, Watson says, 70 percent of the boys have no man at hometo set an example for them. Some 60 percent of the students overall come from families poor enough to qualify for the federal subsidized-lunch program.

"I'm keeping these boys out of prison," Watson says of his program.

Though it's impossible to tell whether what students get here will indeed keep them out of trouble for years to come, the school's educators can point to one indicator of success: better-than-average scores on standardized reading and math tests.

In 1994, an independent consulting firm hired by the school district found that Malcolm X's students at every grade level performed at or above the national norm--and better than district students overall--on the California Achievement Test. The school's attendance rate, averaging 97 percent, is among the highest in the district.

Statistics for other Afrocentric public schools, however, are harder to come by. "I don't know of any city that has the baseline data for test scores," says Beverly Lloyd, the Afrocentric/multicultural curriculum specialist for the Cleveland public schools.

What's even harder to tell is whether Malcolm X's test scores are high because of the curriculum, the school's relatively small size, its discipline and security, its family-centered approach to teaching, or just the fact that students feel less inhibited because the school is almost entirely black.

"I think the teachers are different because they're not prejudiced," says Charlitta Wesley, a 6th grader at Malcolm X. "At my old school it was like, 'Ooh, you black, I can't answer your hand.'"

Despite the controversy roiling at the national level, Malcolm X Academy is one Afrocentric school that is not going away. And local black families are practically beating down the door to get their children in. The names on the waiting list, Watson says, number more than 1,000.

Watson understands why. As a schoolchild in predominantly white schools in Ohio, he learned nothing about the contributions of his ancestors. Yet, at home, he could see that his father was a mechanical genius, able to take apart and put together a car and build a house without a blueprint. And his mother's knowledge of medicine, he says, could rival that of many professionals in the field.

"I could look at my parents," he says, "and I knew that black people had done more than pick cotton."

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