Portland’s Pioneer ‘Afro-Centric’ Program Stirs Pride, Sparks Debate

By Debra Viadero — November 28, 1990 12 min read
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Set in a mostly black neighborhood in the northeastern part of the city, Boise-Eliot Elementary School here is an oasis of black pride and multiculturalism.

Black girls at the school wear their hair in typical African styles. The children use African proverbs and folktales to practice their language skills. In the library, students check out books with titles like My Village in Ghana or The Story of Kofi: A Boy in West Africa.

But there was a time not long ago when that kind of ethnic pride was barely visible at the school, according to its principal, Betty Campbell.

She recalls how black children would choose white construction paper, instead of brown, to cut out images of their families. She remembers how a black child once asked if she could touch and admire the principal’s white skin. And Ms. Campbell recalls watching in dismay one afternoon just three years ago as three black girls put their heads down on their desks, ashamed that the subject of Africa had come up in class.

“I would venture to say,” the principal observed recently, “that you wouldn’t see any of that here now.”

Ms. Campbell and other educators in this city believe such changes have occurred in part because of a bold, and controversial, experiment in multicultural education taking place in all of Portland’s public schools.

Early in the 1980’s, school officials here commissioned a group of black academics to produce a set of “baseline essays” on the contributions of Africa and African Americans in art, language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and music. Since last year, teachers have been expected to take the information in the essays and “infuse” it into their teaching.

District officials say they plan to produce similar essays over the next few years on the contributions of Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders.

Programs like Portland’s are at the center of a national debate over the virtues of what is being called “Afro-centric” education. Using this school system’s approach as a model, officials in such districts as Atlanta, Detroit, Duval County, Fla., Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Washington are taking steps to develop their own Afro-centric education programs.

With the increased attention has come criticism--from scholars, who worry that the approach will distort history, and from educators, who wonder whether the underlying tone of hostility toward the majority culture running throughout the essays will inspire racial intolerance.

Despite the harmonious images of multiculturalism projected by schools like Boise-Eliot, those same debates have been playing out in this district for years. And Portland’s route to multiculturalism, school officials here acknowledge, has been long and tortuous, and has far from ended.

“There has never come a time,” said Matthew W. Prophet Jr., the district’s superintendent of schools, “when I, as superintendent, could say with absolute certainty that all parties, all interests, were satisfied.”

“And I was of the opinion that it would be impossible to reach total agreement,” he added.

‘Setting Our House on Fire’

That Portland should become the first U.S. city to install an Afro-centric curriculum is a little incongruous. Of the 55,000 students in this school system, fully 74 percent are white. Blacks constitute the next largest group, accounting for only 15 percent of the school population. The remaining ethnic groups represented, in order of size, are Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

In contrast, many of the urban school systems now following Portland’s lead have black-student enrollments greater than 70 percent.

School officials here said the reason the program began here--and not in a seemingly more likely setting--has much to do with the political clout of an unusually effective community group known as Black United Front.

“Our program started with somebody setting our house on fire,” said Carolyn M. Leonard, coordinator of the district’s multicultural/multiethnic programs.

Nearly a decade ago, she said, school officials were asking, “‘How are we going to keep people from jumping on us? How are we going to keep teachers from getting angry?”’

In 1979, long before the term Afro-centric had even been coined, members of Black United Front were pressing school officials to teach more about the contributions of Africa and black Americans as part of a larger effort to upgrade the quality of education their children were getting in the public schools.

“The whole push was for quality education in neighborhood schools,” said Ronald Herndon, a local organizer of that effort.

“We had a one-way busing system,” he added. “After primary school, the children were separated, and we had one primary-school graduating class that was sent to 32 different schools in the white community.”

Moreover, he said, rates of expulsion for black children were three times higher than they were for white children, and there were few black teachers to serve as role models.

The group spent a year organizing before presenting a long list of demands to the school board.

But, while the push for including more information about black culture was already on, the concept of the baseline essays did not materialize until 1982. It was introduced to the district by Asa G. Hilliard 3rd, an educator long active in multicultural education who, at the black community’s request, had been hired to bring a substantive multicultural-instruction program to Portland.

Mr. Hilliard, who holds the Fuller E. Calloway chair at Georgia State University, has since brought the idea to Atlanta and a number of oth4er school districts.

At about the same time, Mr. Prophet, then superintendent in Lansing, Mich., was working to find a way to incorporate more teaching about black history, achievement, and culture in classrooms there. He never saw that project bear fruit, Mr. Prophet said, but he accepted the Portland job in 1982 already convinced that black children needed to know more about their heritage.

“My basic reason is based more on my own individual experiences than on any eloquent philosophical rationale,” said Mr. Prophet, who is black. “I was born in 1930 in Mississippi during a period which was the epitome of apartheid.”

“I attended a school with all black students and teachers, where you couldn’t go beyond 8th grade with public tax support, where the Negro national anthem was prohibited,” he continued. “Up until I was 48 years old, my life was devoid of having been given the opportunity to learn about the important and significant contributions by my ancestors.”

“I do think [an Afro-centric curriculum] increases self-esteem for black children,” he said, “but I think it’s more important that textbooks should reflect truth.”

Turbulent Times

But even with the chief architect of the plan on board, and the unwavering support of the city’s new superintendent of schools, it took another seven years before the essays were put in the hands of nearly every teacher in the school district.

Educators and community leaders recall that that period was marked by fits and starts, resistance from teachers and curriculum specialists, slow progress, and some staff training in schools with mostly black students.

In 1985, the black community decided it could wait no longer. Black United Front staged boycotts and protests, bringing in as many as 300 people to speak at one school-board session, Ms. Leonard said.

“We are only now recovering from that,” she added.

At about the same time, a handful of schools in the district, such as Boise-Eliot, began to take steps on their own to infuse multicultural information into their programs. At Sabin Elementary School, not far from Boise-Eliot in the city’s northeastern quadrant, the principal, Michael Jordan, called together his teachers and asked them to draw up their own lesson plans for teaching about Africa.

“I got angry at that point,” said Mr. Jordan. “I said teachers are people who, if given information, can develop their own lesson plans.”

“It turned out to be a sharp move, because it got the staff personally involved,” he said. In contrast, teachers elsewhere in the system would later complain that the materials were being foisted upon them.

Now, Sabin, Boise-Eliot, and Harriet Tubman Middle School, which also started early to infuse the perspectives of non-Western cultures, are considered models of multiculturalism in the district.

While these schools were taking the lead, some teachers at other schools--particularly those at the middle-school and high-school levels--were voicing objections to the way the project was unfolding.

Distortions Charged

“There’s been some strong concerns about the content in some areas and the possibility that there’s been some distortions,” said Vicky Barrows, president of the Portland Teachers Association and a supporter of multicultural education.

Mr. Prophet acknowledged that he had received unsolicited letters from academicians providing detailed refutations to some of what was written in the baseline essays.

Teachers and scholars have questioned, for example, assertions in the essays that ancient Egypt was primarily a black society.

A furor also ensued over statements tracing the origins of modern mathematics to the Egyptians, some 2,000 years before mathematics is commonly said to have originated in Greece.

Proponents of the essays contend, however, that those who question the scholarship of the essays are “nitpicking.”

“We’re not saying that you have to 100 percent believe it,” said Ms. Leonard, “just know that the rest of the world is not in the same glass fish bowl you’re in.”

Some teachers also complained that the material was too scholarly and difficult to implement in their lessons.

The underlying tone of the essays, which has been described as hostile toward whites and excessively prideful of black achievements, also stirred some concerns in the city.

The essay on science, for example, states that: “Today the science contributions of the Islamic-African science tradition are relatively unknown in the Western world because of the lack of humility of many Medieval European scholars who diligently imitated, copied, and plagiarized the works of many Isla8mic scientists.” Among such “plagiarists’’ the author lists Newton, Copernicus, and Galileo.

And the essay on art maintains that African art has been misrepresented because of a “malicious” need to justify slavery.

But proponents of the essays say there are no plans to alter the document.

“This is our story, and we will not be told how to tell it,” said Joy Hicks, who was active in the early development of the essays and is currently a coordinator of talented-and-gifted programs for the district.

“This is like a pendulum,” she said. “After you’ve been to both extremes, only then can you come to the middle.”

The essays were finally completed and distributed in January 1989.

But, said Mr. Jordan of the Sabin school, “it finally took the superintendent to say, ‘Look, these materials will be treated as any other curriculum text and taught as gospel.”’

‘The Real Joke’

If their teachers faithfully teach from the essays, Ms. Campbell’s pupils at Boise-Eliot will learn, as they grow older, that Aesop was probably black. They will discover that Cleopatra was of mixed Greek and African heritage, and that Pushkin was a descendant of Hannibal, the black Carthaginian general.

They will also study Egyptian nuel25lmerals and the Yoruba counting system. And they may even be exposed to parapsychology and astrology as they were developed and practiced by the Egyptians.

The major stumbling block, according to Mr. Herndon and other ardent supporters of the approach, is that teachers may not be using the essays.

Estimates of the extent to which the essays are being incorporated in schools across the city vary widely. Mr. Prophet estimates nearly all of Portland’s public schools are using them. But Ms. Hicks said she put the number “optimistically” at 50 percent.

“Some of my colleagues at predominantly white schools have said, ‘I don’t have any black kids, so I don’t see the need,”’ Mr. Jordan said.

The overall level of implementation has disappointed some members of the black community, Mr. Herndon added.

“That’s the real joke about this,” he observed. “Everybody’s talking about Portland, and it isn’t even being implemented here.”

“You have to give this kind of information to the child in some kind of systematic and competent manner,” he said. “You have to say, ‘Here’s what we want kids to know in 1st grade; here’s what we want kids to know in 2nd grade.”’

Drawing in Other Groups

Schools such as Boise-Eliot that have taken steps to infuse the baseline-essay material throughout their classwork have adopted a decidedly more multicultural approach that embraces the heritage of non-African groups.

Boise-Eliot students might, for example, help sew an African Adinka quilt one day. But, on other occasions, they might also attempt a traditional Mexican bark painting or participate in a discussion about native peoples already long-established in North America when Lewis and Clark made their famous expedition.

“What we’re working toward is to be multicultural from Sept. 1 to June 15,” Ms. Campbell, the school’s principal, said.

Apart from those efforts, however, some educators are concerned that other ethnic minorities in the school system may get short shrift in light of all the attention paid to the Afro-centric program.

“We have large numbers of Russian immigrants coming in now, and, because the school system is entirely different for them and they tend to be real aggressive, there’s a real rub between them and other groups,” Ms. Barrows of the teachers’ union said. “Our teachers are saying we need some help here.”

She said the district is also seeing increasingly large numbers of students who are of Hmong, Chinese, and Japanese backgrounds. While Portland school officials might group all such students as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for the purposes of an essay, those groups have strong and unique cultures and histories of their own. Similar arguments have been made for the city’s Latino communities.

The essays on Native Americans, in the meantime, are scheduled to be completed by the fall of 1992. In an effort to ensure that the process does not take years, members of the local American Indian community have asked that the essays be prepared by one school-district employee working full time, rather than by outside scholars.

“We’re all headed in the same direction,” Ms. Barrows said recently. “We’re just not quite meshed in how we’re headed there.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as Portland’s Pioneer ‘Afro-Centric’ Program Stirs Pride, Sparks Debate


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