A New Look At Afrocentric Curriculum

by Samuel A. Iyewarun, Ph. D.

(A paper presented at the Rocky Mountain/Great Plains Regional Social Studies Conference, held April 1012, 1997.)

First and foremost, I would like to express my gratitude to the Director and staff of the International Relations Council, Kansas City, Missouri, for the opportunity given to me to participate in this remarkable conference. This Council should be commended for its significant role in providing educational resources and materials to educators, business, and other intellectuals for a better understanding of domestic and international relations or issues. I would also like to commend the courage and high intellectual maturity of the coordinators of this conference in including my topic even though they are aware of the recent controversy surrounding it.

I understand the primary purpose of this conference is to prepare for the next century through identification, discussions, analysis, and solving a wide variety of issues that are currently affecting the nation. The term Afrocentric Curriculum is used synonymously or interchangeably with such terms as Afrocentricity or Afrocentrism referring to an African centered educational system as opposed to the traditional European centered one. Those of us who are familiar with Afrocentrism will agree with me that it has become not only an educational issue, but also one of social, cultural, political, racial, and philosophical issues as well. The fundamental objective of this presentation, however, is not meant to be confrontational or one of rocking the boat, regarding the pros and cons of the term. Rather, it is to enlighten the participants regarding its meaning and nature, the misconceptions surrounding the term, the arguments for and against it, and my reasons for feeling the way I feel about an Afrocentric Curriculum for African and African-American children as we move toward the twenty-first century.

The controversy that Afrocentrism ranges from moderation to extremity between the advocates of the Afrocentric Curriculum and the opponents of the movement. To most of the proponents, it is logical and ethical to give their students history lessons a broader scope which is not totally Euro-centric in nature. For example, Morgan-Brown states: We think there is a large body of knowledge that has been left out of the curriculum that will not only benefit the African-American population but all students. She agrees that Afrocentricity has become an emotionally loaded term today because it lacks a definition that everyone agrees with. She continues to say that its supporters agree that a principal component of Afrocentricity is the effort to increase the amount of information taught in schools about Africans and African-Americans. She maintains that adherents of the movement believe that the history traditionally taught is not only incomplete but often inaccurate (Morgan-Brown, 1). According to Nobles, Afrocentric Curriculum represents the concept of quality of thought and practice rooted in the cultural image and interest of African and African-American peoples. That is, it represents and reflects the life experiences, history, and traditions of African and African-American peoples as the center of analyses (Nobles,11).

One of the outstanding advocates of Afrocentricity, who has spoken at length and has written more than thirty books about Afrocentricity, is the Temple University Professor, Molefi K. Asante (Bailey-Mitchell, 2). He asserts, among other ideas, that Afrocentricity means treating African people as subjects instead of objects, putting them in the middle of their own historical context as active human agents (Asante, 12).

Referring to his Imprint Books, published by the Peoples Publishing Group, he states that by Afrocentric, he means that the African American person is placed in the center of each book, and that each book is written from within an African-centered perspective. He states: Centeredness seems to me to be a simple concept in any intellectual enterprise, and Afrocentricity is an intellectual philosophy which I first propounded and defined in 1980, (Asante, iv-v). To him, Afrocentricity means that the African American is viewed as an agent, an actor in the story of history, rather than a passive observer on the sidelines. It means helping students discover how active the African person or idea is in a given situation, narrative, illustration, or example. For example, he says that we take care to explain to students that ancient Egypt was called Kemet by the African people who lived there. We encourage students to evaluate the use of words with Western denotations, such as Classical, which too often implies a Greek or Roman standard to the exclusion of all other cultures as though others were inferior.

There are several critics of Afrocentricity among educators or intellectuals who frown upon most of the reasons the advocates provide for supporting the idea. For instance, Erich Martel questions many of what he believes were false claims such as black people coming to America before Columbus (Martel, 1). He argues that many findings have not been scientifically supported or lack adequate proof, and that the academic credentials of many Afrocentric writers are in fields other than in the area of Black Studies. There are other hard-liners, or those who are very antagonistic to Afrocentricity that claim it will replace Euro-Centric curriculum and disrupt the curriculum or the whole educational system.

One of the most talked about opponents of Afrocentrism, in recent times, is Mary Lefkowitz who has talked, debated, and written about what she considered the short comings of the movement. She went to the extent of writing a book titled: Not Out of Africa, in order to counteract the earlier texts on the subject such as: Out Of Africa, Stolen Legacy, They Stole It But You Must Return It, and others. In these texts, the authors argued that most of ancient civilizations accredited to the Greeks and Romans were actually African or Egyptian in origin. In her book, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History, she made some pronouncements that required critical evaluation.

What I find mystifying today is this increasing notion that the primary function of education is to teach a student about his or herselfand about people of exactly the same background. What I object to is Afrocentric ancient history as it is often taught which seems to me to be a political agenda imposed upon the pastan agenda that doesnt have much to do with factual reality, (Ringle, 2 & 4).

In order to support her claims in Not Out of Africa, she maintained that there was no evidence to support the influences of Egyptian philosophy, among others, on Greeks civilization. She also posed a series of questions which to African historians seem very irrelevant to the issues of connecting the African civilization to Afrocentrism. They include: Was Cleopatra black or white? Was ancient Egypt a black nation? and How much contact was there between Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa? Due to time constraint, this is not the forum to discuss these issues in detail regarding how much African History the author of Not Out of Africa, really knows. It is not only surprising but embarrassing to see someone refuting what the Greeks themselves have accepted as facts of history over two thousand years ago.

Basil Davidson, the British author who has written over 30 books about Africa, has this to say: Previous European Scholarship know that the foundations of European civilization derived from classical Greek civilization. That scholarship further accepted what the Greeks had laid down as patently obvious: that classical Greek civilization derived, in its religion, its philosophy, its mathematics, and much else, from the ancient civilizations of Africa, above all from Egypt of the Pharaohs. To those founding fathers in classical Greece any notion that Africans were inferior, morally or intellectually, would have seemed merely silly (Davidson, xxii-xxiii).

Referring to the dispersion of peoples from the green Sahara and Sudan, in about 5500 to 2500 BC., Davidson observes that those were evidently the first African regions where early forms of cultivation were practiced on any scale. He stresses that Egypt was a especial case due to its proximity to the early farming cultures of the Near East. He maintains that from the standpoint of African development, Egypt clearly belongs to the Saharan Sudanese region of the Makalian phase. He concludes by saying that Herodotus, the Greek Historian, saw the matter clearly when traveling through Egypt not long after 460 BC, for he had no difficulty in concluding that Egypts cultural origin lay in continental Africa (Davidson, 14-15). In another instance, Davidson observes: Most recent evidence combines to show that the earliest developments in Egypt derived not from Asia but from Africa; and the Chicago Oriental Institute has lately produced strong grounds for thinking that the earliest Pharaonic kinship likewise derived from the Saharan regions (Davidson, 27-28).

At this juncture, the pressing question that requires an intellectual, unbiased, and forthright answer is on the reasons why African and African American children need an Afrocentric Curriculum. The African American (children and adults) have been derogatorily described, defined, categorized, dehumanized, and so forth for the past four hundred years or more. To make the situation worse, such descriptions, definitions, categorizations, dehumanization, and so on were bogus and without foundations or scientific evidence, they have been accepted over the years up to the present generation, as facts of history by many educators, intellectuals, and those poor children who do not know their own history.

For centuries, African has been referred to by outsiders, particularly the Europeans, as a land of mystery or the Dark Continent. In fact, little was known about Africa, especially South of the Sahara, because of the massive desert land, the innavigability of most African rivers, and the inability of ships to dock on most of the African coastlines among other things. Due to this ignorance about Africa, the ill-conceived motives of slave traders, and the greedy colonial masters, fantastic storiesmostly stereotypesincludes the description of Africans as people without history of their own, primitive peoples, savages, grown up children, witch doctors and, above all, an uncivilized race of people. There are several examples of such ignominious pronouncements but only a few suffice for most educators and intellectuals to understand the issues clearly.

George Hegel, the German philosopher, states: Africa had no history prior to direct contact with Europe. Therefore, the Africans having made no history of their own, had clearly made no development of their own. Therefore, they were not properly human, and could not be left to themselves, but must be led towards civilization by other peoples: that is by the peoples of Europe, especially of Western Europe, and most particularly of Britain and France, (Davidson, xxii). The European explorer, Richard Burton, projected the picture of an Africa, inhabited by grown up children of beings who might be normal when children, but regressed ever backwards once they reached adulthood (Davidson, xxii-xxiii).

Those Europeans and the so-called missionaries were so desperate to explain Africans inferiority that they turned to the Biblical interpretation of Noahs curse on one of his sons: It must be Canaan, your first born, whom they enslave & Canaans children shall be born ugly and black, & Your grandchildrens hair shall be twisted into kinks & their lips shall swell. Men of this race are called Negroes, their forefather Canaan commanded them to love theft and fornication, to by banded together in hatred of their master and never to tell the truth, (Harris, 17).

It is gratifying to know that today, we have well-meaning and right thinking educators, intellectuals, business people, the media, and others from all walks of life, who recognized the damages the myths and stereotypes have done to African descendants everywhere in the world. Many believe that mere recognition of such negative concepts will not do unless concrete, realistic, effective, and workable educational programs are designed and implemented in a conducive environment to teach the next generation of African and African American children who they are before they are told who the are not!

In his work, Lets Combat Stereotypes About Africa, Richard Corby maintains that such myths about Africa still abound in American published materials and in the media. He is of the opinion that these stereotypes and myths contribute to the Tarzan image of Africa that many of the students develop about the continent and retain throughout their life times. According to him, these students cling to their misconceptions even when what they have learned flatly contradicts the stereotypes they hold (Corby, 18).

In Training About Africa: Tradition and Change, the authors expressed the view that it has become irrelevant to continue to ask negative questions about Africa because the real issue is not what Africa is or what it is not, but to initiate a process of discovery about the continent (Voger & Downing, 2). Furthermore, one is encouraged to know that the negativism and stereotypes about Africa is not the concern of African and African Americans alone in this country. Early in the present decade, about forty journalists throughout this great nation, including academics, and activities gathered in New York and Washington in discussion sessions on a topic titled: Africa and the American Media. The authors of the article made the following observations: Americans often clump together all of Sub-Sahara Africa as an undifferentiated mass, and public image of Africa in general are mostly negative: aids, starvation, corruption, dictatorship & a continent of poverty and flies (Ungar & Gergen, 4).

Being disgusted by lack of knowledge of Africa and the impact of the poor image of the continent, they inquire: Who Will Take the Lead in Changing Perceptions? To them, the media have painted such an incomplete and bleak picture of Africa, the U. S. government does not pay much attention, business will not invest, schools skip over the subject, and the public turns away (Ungar & Gergen, 5). After five days of discussions, interviews, debates, and suggestions, the authors came up with six recommendations they believe could improve the positive coverage of Africa and its peoples. After emphasizing the significant roles television and radio could play, they state: Serious consideration should be given to setting up an African Society along with an African House in New York or Washington to act as a clearinghouse, provide regular public dialogues, draw speakers, show films, and the like, so that Africa is more in the mainstream of Americans attention and not relegated so often to the fringes, (Ungar & Gergen,16).

Through the greater impact is still at the Elementary level, there is enough evidence, throughout this nation today, showing that Afrocentric Curriculum has succeeded where it has been introduced and implemented. The students who have been exposed to this program possess impeccable attitude, show regular school attendance, and demonstrate resounding academic achievement.

In a recent article, in the Kansas City Star, titled: Such Values Are Worth Instilling, we are informed that the visit of two foreign journalist from Nigeria, to Chick Elementary School caused a bit of sensation not only in the way the kids behaved but how they demonstrated their high intellectual capability (Gurley, 8). Responding to one of the journalists question, Audrey Bullard, the principal, states: The African focus doesnt involve cutting any basics from the curriculum and it doesnt promote racism. We are placing African-American children at the center because they have always been on the outside looking in. We are not teaching superiority. We are teaching that all people are created equal. The reporter concludes by stating that That Africans had expected the children at Chick to fit the stereotype of American youth as rowdy smart aleck. They were surprised how well-behaved and respectful they were.

The success of Afrocentrism is not unique to one city. There is an avalanche of information from other cities that show the same trend. In some Afrocentric schools in Philadelphia, for example, between 400 to 500 young people are on waiting lists every year at the close of enrollment (Bennett, 3).

At this point, I want to make my position abundantly clear to say that it will be unrealistic on my part, or on the part of any advocate of Afrocentrism, to claim that the program has no problems or short comings. It is my candid opinion that advocates of Afrocentrism based their claims on emotion rather than reason and research finding. Some of the problems could be attributed to over-simplification through the method of information dissemination, and/or as a result of undue exaggerations of facts, ideas, and issues without valid basis. An educator who is involved in such unfounded claims defeats the fundamental objective of Afrocentrism which is designed to right the wrong that has been in the field of historical research on Africa for centuries. A simple but typical and far reaching example, is the notion created in many African-American children's minds that states, I am from Africa, therefore, I am a King or Queen. While it is true that many of these kids have kingship or royal heritage, not all of them descended from royal families. Traditionally, kingship in Africa is hereditary. We should be cognizant that the mark of professionalism, integrity, and magnanimity of a historian is seen and appreciated mainly in his/her forthrightness, open-mindedness, objectivity, and unbiased discussions and reporting of ideas, issues and, above all, facts of history.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate my convictions about Afrocentrism, as I did during a recent interview at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. I emphasized that with Afrocentrism, sound discipline in schools is maintained, the dropout rate is at its lowest ebb, and academic achievement is superb, and additionally, that these kids are not headed for jail; they are headed for contributions to better themselves, their communities and their nation at large.

As educators, if we are interested in joining one of the greatest and symbolic missions of our time-building the bridge to the Twenty First Century-the incorporation of Afrocentric Curriculum into our school system cannot and should not be compromised. ________________________________

Samuel A. Iyewarun was born in Odo-Ere, Kogi State, Nigeria and received his Ph.D. in education from the University of Missouri. He is an adjunct professor in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri at Kansas City where he teaches Introduction to African History and Saga of Mankind: Africa in the Modern world. He also teaches World and African History, the Yoruba language, and African Culture at Southeast Magnet High School for Health Professions and International Studies.

_____________

Bibliography

Asante, K. Molefi. Classical Africa, Maywood, New Jersey: The Peoples Publishing Group, Inc., 1994.

Bailey-Mitchell, J. (ed.). Classical Africa, Maywood, New Jersey: The Peoples Publishing Group, Inc., 1994.

Bennett, W. J. "Afrocentric Curriculum Schools Are Selecting," The Philadelphia Daily News, February 12, 1996.

Morgan-Brown, A. "The Issue of Afrocentricity," The New York Times National, August 11, 1991, p. 12.

Corby, R. A. "Let's Combat Stereotypes About Africa," African Studies Program, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1986.

Gurley, George. "Such Values Are Worth Instilling," The Kansas City Star, Tuesday, June 1, 1993, p. 6.

Harris, J. E. African And Their History, New York: Penguin Books Inc,. 1987.

Martel, C. "The Issue of Afrocentricity," The New York Times National August 11, 1991, p, 14.

Noble, W. W. "Programmatic Components of African-Centered Development, The Institute for the Advanced Study of Black Family and Culture, Inc., 1990.

Ringle, Ken. "A Professor's Collision Course, Classics Scholar Mary Lefkowitz Shakes Up Academia with her Critique of Afrocentrism," Washington Post, June 11,1996, p. 1 & 3.

Ungar, S. J. & Gergen, David. "Africa and the American Media," New York: The Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, 1991.

Volger, C. & Downing, P. "Teaching About Africa: Tradition and Change," University of Denver, Colorado, 1992.