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Rediscovering A Lost Continent

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The Atlanta students are being taught these things because the content of their school curriculum has undergone what educators call an "Afrocentric infusion,'' a systematic effort to rectify past textbook distortions and omissions about black contributions to history, and to situate Africans "irrevocably on the stage of humanity.''

The Atlanta Public Schools' program, piloted in 18 elementary and secondary schools this year, is designed to instill pride in black children and to spark their interest in school by showing how their black ancestors influenced the various disciplines they are studying. The effort extends far beyond the typical observances of Black History Month and Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, delving into the history of African dynasties and the contributions of Africans to almost every school subject.

Atlanta's attempt to tell the African story, and the overwhelming success of a recent conference on the topic in that city, may signal the dawn of an "African renaissance'' in U.S. schools. It comes after centuries in which the contributions of Africa were overlooked in favor of the so-called "classical'' civilizations of Greece and Rome. But the subtle interweaving of African threads into the multicolored fabric of the public school curriculum is not simply a tit-for-tat question of equity. At heart, it's a question of identity.

"If the curriculum does not serve as a mirror for children, then the ability of the curriculum to stimulate their desire to learn is weakened,'' explains Wade Nobles, professor of black studies at San Francisco State University. African-American children can't make the most of their education, he suggests, "as long as they have a question about their value as human beings.''

Although Atlanta's curriculum is regarded as a national model, it wasn't the first, nor is it the only one. Washington, D.C., for example, is developing a model African-American curriculum, funded by a $150,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. And Atlanta's three-year, $1million program is itself modeled on an ambitious effort by the Portland, Ore., public schools to bring Africa into the classroom. "Portland has done 95 percent of our homework,'' says J. Jerome Harris, Atlanta's superintendent of schools. "We didn't have to go out and develop the product.''

Admittedly, Portland's curriculum came about as a result of a courtordered 1980 school desegregation plan calling for a multicultural curriculum, followed by pressure from black community activists. But by any measure, the district's response went beyond what the court required, says Carolyn Leonard, coordinator of multicultural and multi-ethnic education for the Portland schools.

Once the schools resolved to fill the continentwide gap in the curriculum, advocates did an effective job of selling the idea to the mostly white, politically liberal community. All students, they argued, need to develop an understanding of other world views. The district also pledged to follow the African program with curricula focusing on other groups, Leonard says.

Portland's key contribution to the nationwide movement is a collection of six "baseline essays'' designed to give teachers an "Afro-centric'' view of their subjects. One essay, for example, teaches math teachers about ancient Egyptian advances in arithmetic and explains how to introduce them to the students through an African math game played with cups and stones. Atlanta is using the essays, and other districts and state education departments across the country have requested copies.

Written by nationally known scholars of African and African-American culture, the essays extensively describe the contributions of Africans and African-Americans in art, language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and music. They describe how slaves brought African basket-making techniques and designs to America. And they tell the story of Phillis Wheatley, who was kidnapped from Senegal in 1760 when she was a young girl and emerged years later as England's most popular colonial poet.

Whether discussing science or language arts, the essays emphasize recurring themes: Africa is the cradle of civilization; Egypt was and is a significant African civilization; people of African descent have a history that precedes slavery and civil rights; the culture of African people was not destroyed by slavery; African people around the world have been influenced by similar ancient African traditions that continue to be found in their self-expression; African people have consistently resisted attempts to subjugate them and did not submit to slavery without a fight.

The essays have been used by the Portland and Atlanta school systems in developing African-oriented course content and materials. Because the essays contain vast amounts of information, educators in Atlanta decided to narrow the focus of the district's program to several African dynastic periods, such as the Third Dynasty, around 2750 B.C., which saw the birth of Imhotep, a pioneer in medicine, and the 18th Dynasty, around 1500 B.C., during which Queen Hatshepsut drove foreign powers from Egypt, establishing herself as one of history's most outstanding women.

To keep teachers from straying too far from their basic subject matter, the district established an unwritten guiding principle for inserting Afro-centric material into the existing curriculum, says Weyman Patterson, coordinator of Atlanta's math program: "If it doesn't fit, don't force it.''

But educators have found that there are many little ways in which it does fit. For example, kindergarten teachers can read African folk tales to their students, 6th grade social studies classes can study Egyptian civilization, and high school algebra classes can learn Egyptian hieroglyphic numerals. The focus is often on Egypt because that was the site of one of Africa's greatest civilizations, one that most influenced the rest of the world.

The new Africa focus in Atlanta and Portland has been well received, but officials from those districts warn that the political obstacles can be formidable. They say, for instance, that they have found themselves mired in scholarly debates over such questions as whether Egypt was truly an African society. And people argue over the merits of devoting so much attention to one cultural group.

If advocates of an African curriculum do not have a large or economically empowered black community to draw on for support, then they probably will encounter resistance from school officials, school boards, and segments of the community, says Portland's Leonard. The effort in her city has succeeded, she says, because "the people in power agreed to make it happen.''

--Peter Schmidt, Education Week

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