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Educators Foresee ‘Renaissance’ in African Studies

By Peter Schmidt & Peter Schmidt — October 18, 1989 6 min read

Atlanta--Some 500 educators gathered here this month for an emotionally charged meeting that many of them described as heralding an “African renaissance” throughout the school curriculum.

No longer is it enough for schools to focus on black “heroes and holidays,” speaker after speaker told the audience, which consisted primarily of black administrators, teachers, and experts on curriculum development.

The content of the curriculum must be fundamentally changed, the speakers asserted, to rectify past distortions about black contributions and situate Africans, as one participant put it, “irrevocably on the stage of humanity.”

When the three-day conference ended on Oct. 7, most of the educators said they had resolved to press their districts to infuse “Afro-centric” content into the teaching of almost every subject.

Few, however, said they were certain of success.

And officials from the handful of districts where African and African-American content has been incorporated across the curriculum warned that the political obstacles can be formidable.

“If they do not have a substantial tax base that comes from African-Americans, then they will encounter problems,” Carolyn M. Leonard, coordinator of multicultural and multi-ethnic education for the Portland, Ore., public schools, said in an interview.

“People can get at you in ways you never dreamed of,” she said.

The “infusion” program in the predominantly white Portland district was cited by conference-goers as a national model.

Educators at the meeting said any battles required to get such programs adopted would be worth the effort. The changes, they said, are needed to meet two goals: increasing the racial sensitivity of white students and instilling pride and self-confidence in their black peers.

“No people can maximize their educational potential as long as they have a question about their value as human beings,” Wade W. Nobles, professor of black studies at San Francisco State University, said in his speech opening the conference. “If the curriculum does not serve as a mirror for children, then the ability of curriculum to stimulate their desire to learn is weakened.”

Differs From Past Efforts

The Atlanta Public Schools, which last month began an “infusion” program based on the Portland model, sponsored the meeting in conjunction with Georgia State University and the Southern Education Foundation. The gathering was billed as the “National Conference on the Infusion of African and African-American Content in the School Curriculum.”

Asa G. Hilliard, professor of urban education at Georgia State and a co-chairman of the conference, was an adviser for the Atlanta and Portland efforts. He said the infusion of African themes in school curricula goes significantly beyond the black-studies approach that emerged in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the wake of the civil-rights movement.

“Now we have a much broader and deeper foundation just to raise the questions than we did in the 1960’s,” he said. The new programs, he noted, have 20 years of research and experience to draw on.

The earlier efforts, Mr. Hilliard said, typically involved adding information on black culture and personalities to history and social-studies courses and creating separate programs in African-American studies. Such programs usually lacked sufficient resources, he said. As the political climate of the country became more conservative, he added, many programs ceased to exist or narrowed their focus to “heroes and holidays.”

The new approach, Mr. Hilliard said, seeks to profoundly influence the content of the curriculum in almost all areas of study and emphasizes the historical role of Africans as well as African-Americans.

Its premise, advocates of the “infusion” method say, is that historians have disregarded and distorted Africa’s contributions to human development. They contend, for example, that mainstream scholars have paid inadequate attention to the influence of African civilizations on ancient Asia, Greece, and Rome and to the contributions of Africans and African-Americans in mathematics, science, and other fields.

Most initiatives that reflect the new approach have come at the district level. A few states, including Iowa and Minnesota, have adopted mandates for “multicultural” content throughout the curriculum. (See Education Week, Dec. 14, 1988.)

Atlanta’s Approach

The three-year, $1-million program launched in Atlanta seeks to train teachers at all levels to incorporate “Afro-centric” content into the study of reading and English, math, social studies, science, art, music, and physical education.

The project is under way in four high schools, four middle schools, and 10 elementary schools.

J. Jerome Harris, the district’s superintendent of schools, said the Portland district did “95 percent of our homework” five years ago when it contracted with experts on African and African-American culture to develop six “baseline essays.” The essays were designed to give teachers an Afro-centric view of their subjects.

Because of the vast amounts of information offered in the essays, the focus of the Atlanta program was narrowed mainly to African dynastic periods, district officials said. In adapting the Portland materials, said Weyman Patterson, coordinator of Atlanta’s math program, the guiding principle was that “if it doesn’t fit, don’t force it.”

“Infusion” techniques used in Altanta, officials said, might include reading African folk tales to kindergarten students, explaining Egyptian civilizations to 6th-grade social-science students, and teachingel10lEgyptian hieroglyphic numerals to high-school algebra classes.

Political Realities

Conference-goers from other districts, including Detroit, New Orleans, the District of Columbia, Indianapolis, and Columbus, Ohio, said they would use materials from Atlanta and Portland. Some are developing new programs, while others hope to strengthen multicultural or African-culture projects already in place.

“When teachers begin to see a response in those systems which have implemented this, then it will spread all over the country,” predicted Obadele Williams, a historian who served as a consultant to Atlanta in developing its program.

Most officials stressed, however, that any efforts undertaken in their districts would have to be tailored to suit local political realities.

Ron Lewis, associate superintendent in Atlanta, suggested that educators wishing to duplicate his district’s effort should form a coalition within the community, agree on what they want to propose, and make a direct appeal to the local school board or superintendent.

Such an appeal, Mr. Lewis advised, “shouldn’t just come from the black community.”

Officials said support for the Atlanta program has been strong largely because blacks dominate the city’s government and account for 92 percent of the district’s 62,000 students.

“In essence, this is a black district,” Superintendent Harris said. “The challenge is to do things that are going to help those kids and not alienate the other 8 percent.”

Harsher Rhetoric

A number of conference participants, however, appeared to favor a less conciliatory stance toward the white community.

John Henrik Clarke, a prominent historian of Africa who has trained more than a generation of professors in the field, declared in one of the keynote addresses that Europe had “dumped the worst of its garbage in the United States.”

Other speakers linked their calls for “infusion” programs to Pan-Africanism, African socialism, and an African model for revolutionary changes in the public schools.

Ms. Leonard of the Portland district said the harsher rhetoric used by some at the conference might serve to rally the black community behind a movement for curriculum change, but could also hinder efforts to gain support among whites.

In Portland, she said, advocates of infusion were able to gain approval of their proposals in the mostly white, politically liberal district by stressing the need to understand other world views and by pledging to follow up the African program with curricula for other ethnic groups.

Ms. Leonard said her district’s program, which was mandated by a 1980 desegregation plan, slowly evolved to its present form. “The people in power agreed to make it happen,” she said.

“You play it out in your own arena,” she added. “Inside the system, you are going to have to have someone who says ‘We come in peace to share knowledge.”’


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