A curriculum based on truth

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

September 03, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Beginning today, fifth-graders attending city schools will no longer be told that generations of black people were "born" into slavery.

Instead, they will be reminded that all people are born free and that slavery is a condition imposed upon free individuals by the "perpetrators of slavery" through man-made laws.

Also beginning today, fifth-graders will learn about the ancient African kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay and about the learned men and the great universities of Timbuktu.

They will listen to, and contemplate the intricacies of jazz music and gospel music and scat singing.

They will consider the African roots of rap and they will ponder the many wonderful ways African sculptors chose to depict the world they lived in.

And the city's fifth-graders will be asked to react to and discuss questions such as the following, "Some critics of segregation argue that its main purpose was the racist aim of giving whites a group of persons against whom they could feel superior. If so, what does that say about how superior [whites] really feel deep within themselves?"

Yes, today is the day city schools launch their experimental Afrocentric curriculum. The new curriculum begins with the fifth grade this year and will spread up and down to all students over the next three years.

All of this is not without controversy, of course. Critics fret that an impoverished urban school system whose students do so poorly on standardized tests, whose students drop out at record rates, and who enter the work world so poorly prepared -- such a system, they say, should not squander its paltry resources dredging up trivia about African accomplishments.

But school officials argue that the inclusion of accurate information about Africa and about the contributions of Africa's people to our society should pay off in the long run with the enhanced self-esteem of city students and, ultimately, with enhanced academic performance.

I think city educators are right. But only if they can infuse the truth into the curriculum without flinching.

Last year, you could have walked into any school in the city and seen pictures of famous black Americans plastered on the walls. Teachers and principals pleaded with their children to think well of themselves. The city's mayor, a man of African descent, went from school to school hoping that his own successes would inspire the young.

Yet, last year, as in years past, thousands of city students dropped out of school, or used drugs, or got pregnant, or chose personal goals so low that society would have considered them failures even if those goals had been achieved.

"The black community," said psychiatrist Maxie Collier at a health conference here a few weeks ago, "is in a state akin to clinical depression."

This is particularly true of the young.

Obviously then, putting black faces on the wall is not enough to build self-esteem in black children.

What might work, however, is precisely the kind of curriculum-wide approach city educators have prepared; an approach that portrays Africans as important actors on the world stage as opposed to history's victims.

And we cannot flinch.

Beginning in the 17th century, the peoples of Europe launched a centuries-long war against the peoples of Africa. This war, this dynamic between the two peoples, shaped and continues to shape our society today.

This war resulted in the African diaspora. It resulted in the systematic attempt to ignore or denigrate African contributions to science and culture. It resulted in slavery, colonization, segregation and discrimination.

The peoples of Africa fought back by clinging to their heritage, by fighting for freedom and equality, by excelling in science and culture with or without recognition. And sometimes, it must be conceded, persons of African descent "surrendered" and sank into the clinically depressed state, the kind of lethargy and self-destructive behavior described by Dr. Collier.

All of this is implied in the materials recommended by the curriculum task force committee. But how much of this do we dare to teach? Couldn't the unvarnished truth make black children bitter or angry, maybe even filled with hate?

A good teacher can deflate bitterness and defuse hate. And anger, properly directed, can be an effective antidote to clinical depression.

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