'Afro-centric' curriculum isn't just for blacks If you think the Civil War was about economics, you're wrong

Glenn McNatt

October 23, 1990|By Glenn McNatt

SHOULD THE Baltimore city public schools adopt an "Afro-centric" curriculum? As a former skeptic, I am increasingly becoming persuaded something of the sort must be done.

The school board has set up a task force to study the question, as usual. Does learning about the African origins of ancient Egyptian civilization increase the self-esteem of poor inner-city children? Will children learn algebra more willingly because they know it was invented by a black man? Will it deepen their appreciation of Shakespeare to study the plays of Douglas Turner Ward and Lorraine Hansberry?

And what about history?

During the recent 11-hour broadcast of public television's monumental series "The Civil War," I asked a number of acquaintances who pride themselves on an interest in black history and culture what they thought of the program. The responses were dismaying.

"That's white people's history; it doesn't have anything to do with us," said one young woman. A man who works for the city government admitted he "watched for a few minutes, but it was boring."

A high school youngster told me he had learned all he needed to know about the Civil War in middle school, so there was no point watching a TV program about it. And a middle school girl told me she didn't watch it because all TV programs depicting violence are "yukky."

To each of my respondents the war's pivotal importance to black Americans seemed an abstraction at best. Of course, the conflict irrevocably transformed the character of the young American nation; a good case could be made that it altered the course of world history, too. And of course it was violent. That is the nature of war (though the PBS series, compiled almost entirely from still photographs of the period, was mercifully restrained in its depiction of the carnage).

But the most dramatic change wrought by the war undoubtedly was the destruction of slavery, a result so "fundamental and astounding," as Lincoln put it, that blacks themselves -- and much of the nation -- regarded it as nothing less than evidence of divine intervention. Had the Civil War not happened, the history of blacks in America would have been different in ways that today are impossible to imagine.

True, the North did not go to war to abolish slavery. But slavery nevertheless was the root cause and casus belli of the strife -- despite the revisionist view that it was mainly a sectional conflict between competing economic systems. And the North's victory was a profound moral triumph as well as a military conquest -- greater even than the victors themselves realized. The end of Southern chattel slavery represented a milestone in a worldwide struggle for basic human rights that continues to this day.

Something is terribly wrong with the way our schools teach history when such momentous events can be glossed over in a few days or weeks of tepid instruction that allows students to come away thinking that what happened "back then" possesses only minimal significance for their present-day lives.

If "Afro-centrism" in the schools can begin to redress such sins of omission, I am all for it. And not only for poor, black inner-city kids. All Americans are impoverished by a standard curriculum that slights the meaning of the most critical event in their nation's history because of a refusal to acknowledge the central position blacks held in the causes and resolution of the conflict.

To this day, many argue passionately that the war was not about slavery, but about economics -- as if the economy of the ante-bellum South could be separated from the slave-holding system. And in a curiously ironic counterpoint to Southern revisionism, some blacks belittle the conflict's significance on the grounds that, since it also involved rival economic interests, it was a really a "white man's war" whose consequences only incidentally concern blacks.

Both these views are serious misreadings of history largely attributable to the deracinated version of the American past purveyed by school history texts. The racial animosity and paranoia that willful ignorance perpetuates are the legacy of this misunderstanding.

Perhaps we do need to take another look at what we are teaching our children. If that takes calls for an "Afro-centric" curriculum to get discussion going, so be it. The only thing worse than ignorance of the past is being condemned to repeat it.

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