Afrocentric experiment

August 13, 1991

This year Baltimore 5th graders will study African and black American history and culture for the first time as a formal part of the curriculum. Actually, the term "Afrocentric" is a bit of a misnomer, and that could be spreading a misimpression. The aim of reform is not so much to "center" instruction on Africa as simply to include more information about Africa's authentic contributions to world civilization as a regular part of the standard curriculum -- contributions that were systematically denigrated during two centuries of European colonial domination. It was easier to plunder the country if Africans could be portrayed as mere savages with no history worth mentioning.

Correcting that distorted view of Africa's past is one of the stated aims of Baltimore's curriculum reform, and the change should result in a more historically accurate, balanced education for all city students, regardless of race. In a school system that is 80 percent black, such a correction obviously is long overdue.

Yet it would be unfortunate if applying the corrective lens to African history ended up painting Africa's past in such a rosy picture that it obscures its present-day plight. The continent has undergone tremendous upheaval in the past two decades, which have seen civil war kill hundreds of thousands and periodic famines claim millions more. Africa today is burdened by desperate problems -- runaway population growth, an AIDS epidemic, declining food production, widespread human rights abuses and governmental corruption -- that will severely test the ability of its people to endure.

The greatest challenge will be to balance the perspectives of present and past in such a way that students -- especially African American students -- understand both their historical roots and something of their responsibilities to the future as regards the world's second largest continent. If that can be accomplished even in a small way -- and what better definition of "education" is there? -- Baltimore's Afrocentric experiment will indeed have proved a notable success.

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