At Shule Mandela Academy in East Palo Alto, Calif, students are pursuing the African ideal. At their early morning assembly (called mkutano, the Kiswahili word for assembly), the school's 42 pupils--all African-American-pledge to "think black, act black, speak black, buy black, pray black, love black and live black." Students sing Bob Marley, not Francis Scott Key. They recite Langston Hughes, not Vachel Lindsay. "We have a rich tradition to share," says executive director Nobantu Ankoanda, who wears African attire. And a bright future: the academy's graduates are the only blacks in the local high school's advanced-placement classes.
Africa is more than academic to children at Chicago's Suder Elementary School, a public school in the shadow of the troubled Henry Horner housing project. Every summer, principal Brenda Daigre takes 10 fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders on a study trip to Africa itself (the money comes from community contributions). In order to qualify, students must study French, math (for converting money), journals) and local customs. The kids-many of whom have never even seen downtown Chicago-say the trip opens up the world to them. "I expected it to be a jungle, but it wasn't," says Maria Moon, 13. "They had buildings just like us: shops, hotels and motels. It was the greatest experience of my life. "
Shule Mandela and Suder are just two of dozens of private and public schools around the country that base their curriculum on African culture. No one knows exactly how many schools describe themselves as "Afrocentric" although educators agree that the number is growing, especially in inner-city neighborhoods where parents and community activists push for change. Defining an Afrocentric curriculum is highly subjective. At one extreme are schools like ists push for change. Defining an Afrocentric curriculum is highly subjective. At one extreme are schools like Shule Mandela, where African culture dominates the entire school. Other schools use African elements in music, art and socialstudies classes but continue traditional math and science lessons. Many more schools with predominantly black student populations limit the African-American influence to special events-such as a food festival or art exhibit.
In the past year, Afrocentric curricula have become a lightning rod for the intense debate over multicultural education in states like California and New York. Even educators who want to teach information about different cultures have registered strong objections to Afrocentrism. "It's antiAmerican," says former education secretary William Bennett, now with the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. "I think it will further alienate the poor who are already tenuously connected to American culture.. . lt's a mistake to think that these kids are going to get any more interested in schools by studying more about Africa."
Critics like Bennett say they are offended by what they perceive as an antiwhite tone in some materials used in Afrocentric schools. "There seems to be a central theme that anything that happens in the West is bad and everything out of Africa is good," says Lynne Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. "We shouldn't think of history as simply a political tool. There are places where scholars don't agree, but students should be allowed to understand that. They shouldn't be taught what people think is important to their self-esteem." Prominent Afrocentrists, such as Molefi Asante of Temple University, say they are only trying to give black children an awareness of their cultural heritage. "The European child is automatically centered, because the curriculum is essentially a white self-esteem curriculum," Asante says. "What I want for blacks is the same self-esteem that white children automatically get when they walk into a class."
Many Afrocentric schools base their programs on a series of essays written for the Portland, Ore., schools in the mid-1980s. Called the "African-American Baseline Essays," these materials trace African influences in virtually every field, concluding that Africans-principally ancient Egyptians-invented basic principles of mathematics, science, art, music and language. This information is news to many whitesand blacks as well-and the authors say that's because of centuries of systematic racism by white scholars, a virtual conspiracy to obscure the accomplishments of Africans. Black educators who support using an Afrocentric curriculum defend themselves against charges of reverse racism by saying they're fighting years of exclusion from written history. "There is a degree of anger because we feel left out. And the sentiment is, it was intentional," says Jawanza Kun jufu, a national black education consultant.
Although some of the information in the Portland essays and other Afrocentric curricula is unchallenged, other "facts" remain the subject of lively scholarly debate. For example, many anthropologists say that ancient Egypt was not a black culture in the way we understand such distinctions today, but rather a multiethnic society. However, the authors of the Portland essays state unequivocally that Egypt was black and make it clear that in matters of controversy, "African scholars are the final authority on Africa."
Concerns about accuracy have stalled the spread of Afrocentric materials in many areas-even in Portland itself. Carolyn Leonard, the city's coordinator for multicultural education, estimates that only 20 percent of the city's teachers use the essays comprehensively in their classrooms despite the fact that the materials have been available since 1987. She says many teachers are uncomfortable with such a radically different interpretation of history. "These are people who are followers, and we've been on the cutting edge," Leonard says. "We're asking people who are not trendsetters to come along and be that trendsetter." In Washington, D.C., school officials have been under intense pressure to incorporate African-American culture into the largely black district. But Frances Powell, the curriculum director for social studies, says the district is moving slowly, partly because of intellectual caution. "We've come to the conclusion that the information out there is incomplete," Powell says, "and much more needs to be done."
The push for Afrocentrism is not just a critique of curriculum. It is also another vehicle for parents and politicians to express their profound dissatisfaction with their schools. Some middle-class black parents worry that a lack of historical knowledge will cripple their children. Walter and Gail Goodman pulled their 12-year-old out of a suburban white school and enrolled her in the new Afrocentric Atlanta Preparatory School. "I don't have any problem with integration," says Mrs. Goodman, "but our children have to be prepared, and we want her to know both sides. It's like going into a war."
In inner-city neighborhoods, the failures of public schools are well-known. Deep concern over the fate of black boys, for example, led Detroit officials to set up all-male schools with what they call an "Africancentered" curriculum this fall. The experimental project was successfully challenged in court, and Detroit was ordered to let in girls. Thus far, only about 500 black boys have signed up, says Detroit principal Clifford Watson. He thinks they will believe in their own future if they see male teachers as positive role models. Watso says they'll stress self-discipline and hard work. But, he adds, these schools are not the end of the road: "We need to infuse al curriculum areas with the contributions of all people."
Indeed, many educators think the debate over Afrocentrism is a first step in raising public awareness of the importance of a multicultural curriculum, especially as other ethnic groups such as Asians and Latinos become more important politically and culturally. "If society realizes it has to deal with African-Americans, it will realize it's got to deal with others," says Harvard professor Charles Willie. And the "others" are already in the nation's student body. The 2,300 students at Cam bridge Rindge and Latin School in Massachusetts represent more than 70 nationalities. There is, says assistant principal Diane Tabor, no room for any one "centrism" in her building.
Evidence of real change can be found in one of education's most influential bailiwicks, textbook publishing, according to Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, a nonprofit educational organization. In a recent issue of the Social Studies Review, published by the council, Sewall contrasts a passage from a fifth-grade textbook used in the 1950s with a section from Houghton Mifflin's 1991 textbook called "America Will Be." The first book describes plantation life as benign: "The older colored people work on the great farm, or help about the plantation home. The small black boys and girls play about the small houses. They are pleased to have the white children come and play with them." The 1990s version portrays a much harsher world: "Most slaves lived in drafty, one-room cabins with dirt floors. Many times, two or more families would live together in one cabin. They slept on the ground on mattresses filled with cornhusks."
That's a significant revision, but there's more to come, black educators say. "We're at the first draft level," says Spencer Holland, director of the Center for Educating African-American Males in Baltimore, "and we're not going to correct all the problems in the first draft.... It will take generations." After all, today's students are tomorrow's historians.