Excerpts From Portland’s ‘African-American Baseline Essays’

November 28, 1990 4 min read

The goal of the Portland, Ore., public schools’ multicultural-education programs, in the words of the district’s school board, is to “develop in all students a better understanding and appreciation of the history, culture, and contributions to society of different ethnic groups and cultures.”

To guide that effort, the district plans to develop so-called “baseline essays” on the accomplishments of a number of ethnic and racial groups. The “African-American Baseline Essays"--a 111-page document issued to schools and teachers in early 1989--are the first such set of papers.

The following are excerpts from sections of that document:

In a section on African-American art traditions, Michael D. Harris, an assistant professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta, contends, “The malicious misrepresentation of African society and people was to

support the enormous profitability of slavery upon which the entire American agricultural economy, and a great deal of the European economy, depended.”

“Hard stereotypes were manufactured about the intelligence and social development of blacks,” he continues, “and their non-Christian status was exploited because they had been designated as the optimum ethnic group for the nature of New World European slavery.”

Joyce Braden Harris, in her essay on African-American contributions in the lan6guage arts, writes, “Black literature is manipulated and controlled by white editors and publishers.” Ms. Harris, co-founder of the Black Educational Center in Portland, also maintains the Ten Commandments may have originated with the Egyptians and that Aesop probably was black.

She also points out that Alexander S. Pushkin was of African ancestry, his great-grandfather having been a descendant of Hannibal, the great African military strategist from Carthage. She notes also that Alexander Dumas was the grandson of a Haitian woman.

The essay on the mathematical contributions of blacks, written by Beatrice Lumpkin, states, “Western historians first became aware of the great civilizations of Egypt at a time when the memory of slavery was still fresh and the governments of Europe were carving up the body of Africa.”

“Archaeologists could not deny the visible greatness of the African civilization that they were excavating in the Nile Valley,” writes Ms. Lumpkin, who is a retired associate professor of mathematics at Malcolm X College in Chicago. “Nor could the historians admit that black people had built this great civilization because to do so would contradict the theories of racial inferiority used as a cover for slavery and colonialism.”

“And so they invented the theory of ‘white’ Egyptians who were merely browned by the sun,” she states. The section also contains explanation of Egyptian and Yoruba counting systems and contends that Pythagoras learned his famous geometrical theorem in Egypt.

Hunter Havelin Adams 3rd, a research scientist at the U.S. Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., writes in his essay on science, “Above all, what emerges from this baseline essay is the vision of African people as being the wellspring of creativity and knowledge on which the foundation of all science, technology, and engineering rests and draws continuing inspiration.”

The essay details African and black-American contributions in astronomy, astrology, aeronautics, hydraulics, chemistry, and even magic. Of the latter, Mr. Adams writes, “that legacy has been cloaked in controversy, marred with misunderstanding, and veiled in mystery.”

He also writes that Imhotep, an Egyptian pyramid-builder, high priest, poet, and astronomer, was also the “true” father of medicine, having developed the first theory of heredity. The Egyptians also may have developed clay-pot, electrochemical storage batteries for use in electroplating gold and silver through “their study of electric eels in the Nile River along with their understanding of the basic principles of chemistry.”

Mr. Adams also attributes Sir Isaac Newton’s theories on the refraction of light and the law of gravity to Muslim scholars.

The essay on social studies by John Henrik Clarke, professor emeritus of African world history at Hunter College of the City University of New York, states that “Egypt’s place in world history is still being debated, mainly because a large number of Western scholars do not want to accept the fact that this was a nation and that its great achievements in history was the collective achievement of an African people.”

“To justify the enslavement and the exploitation of Africans, the Europeans began in the 15th century to read them out of the respectable commentary of human history,” Mr. Clarke writes. “Many achievements of black people were attributed to white people.”

Mr. Clarke also maintains that the role of Hebrew slaves in ancient Egypt has been misconstrued.

“They came originally from Western Asia, escaping famine,” he says. “They literally entered world history during this period and were treated much better in Africa than history tends to indicate.”

“Non-Biblical history of the period indicates the Hebrews were not slaves in Egypt,” he continues. “Some of the Hebrews mistakenly took sides with the enemies of Africa and were punished.”

He also notes that a number of Portuguese and Spanish explorers who came to the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries were accompanied by Africans.--dv

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as Excerpts From Portland’s ‘African-American Baseline Essays’