Advanced Lessons in Ethnicity


November 29, 1990|By Garland L.Thompson

"AFROCENTRICITY is the belief in the centrality of Africans in post modern history.''

So saying, Molefi Kete Asante, Ph.D, proceeds to redefine the world. ''Afrocentricity'' is a book, written by Dr. Asante in 1980 to continue Cheikh Anta Diop's challenge to the European-centered description of the world extant since the 19th century, but it is also a mindset. Dr. Asante, chairman of the Department of African American Studies at Temple University, wants nothing less than a complete reordering of American race relations. Education happens to be his modus operandi.

A mixed gathering of educators, community activists and churchgoers met Dr. Asante at Union Baptist Church Saturday, to hear a stimulating lecture and get a handle on the man asked to help reshape Baltimore's school curriculum. Blacks since Carter G. Woodson have complained about their exclusion from the history and culture taught in American schools, but only recently has that resulted in more than lip service during Black History Month.

That's all going to change, if Molefi Asante has his way. For the lecture he delivered and the 25 books he has written, including ''Afrocentricity,'' ''The Afrocentric Idea,'' ''African Culture,'' ''Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge'' and the soon-to-come ''Historial and Cultural Atlas of African Americans'' and ''The Sources of the African Tradition'' aim at nothing less than reordering the universe seen through the prism of public education, from elementary school to university.

Dr. Asante, who developed the world's first doctoral program in African American studies, is a man who works hard to get what he wants. A poet, dramatist, painter and gardener, he has taught in Zimbabwe. He has already succeeded in persuading the city of Camden, N.J., to try his brand of educational restructuring and has emerged as a national leader in the movement. It was thus no surprise when the members of East Baltimore's Oliver Community Associtation and other groups cast about for a way to bring a new Afrocentric curriculum into neighborhood schools, his name immediately came up.

Saturday's lecture was full of rhetorical fireworks, but as school board member Stelios Spiliadis noted, stayed away from ideology. That's a hard act to pull off.

Spadework in Dr. Asante's writings makes it clear that he is powerfully impressed with the tendency of successful ethnic movements to reorder the world in their own images. An example, drawn from his discussion of whether Islam is a valid answer to blacks seeking an avenue away from the cultural exclusions of white Europeans' Christianity:

''Did God or the Bicameral Mind speak to Muhammad in ArabicSince Muhammad was an Arab, I would expect his God to have spoken to him in Arabic as my God speaks to me in Ebonics or Kiswahili. . . .''

In order for blacks to succeed, Dr. Asante concludes, they must also reshape the world in their own image. His focus is on the schools, which he says do a good job of passing on white, European culture but exclude everything else. Criticism can be made of their teaching of useful skills, but every child coming out of America's schools feels connected with the culture of the Greeks and Romans, the discoveries of the Germans and Dutch, the traditions of the French and English. For whites, that is psychologically enfranchising. But this European-only acculturation is deadly to blacks. It either pushes them to reject their own culture and people or to simply give up, feeling irrelevant to history and to modern progress.

As well, this narrow vision leads to a skewed perspective among whites on the place they occupy, vis-a-vis all non-white groups, in the world.

His solution is not to strip the curriculum of the white heroes, scholars and discoverers we honor in the traditional program, but to re-write everything to include in a central way the participation of black Africans. Thales the Greek is regarded as the father of Western philosophy, for instance, but he clearly learned his philosphy in Africa. Thus, Thales' teachers, black Egyptians all, should go into the books, too. And so on, in math, science and language.

He's right, it would radically alter the ways whites as well as blacks see Africa and its sons and daughters. More fireworks are sure to come, as the schools struggle to implement this new vision. Stand by for the sparks.

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