WAS Cleopatra black?
That question, posed recently on the cover of Newsweek,
encapsulates the raging debate over multicultural education in America. Mainstream academicians say the movement mangles history. Aggrieved minorities and women claim that history texts are full of glaring omissions, cultural stereotypes and misrepresentations of their histories.
These accusations ring true to me as an African American. I grew up in the District of Columbia and am Hugh B.Priceold enough to have attended segregated schools and witnessed the onset of integration. In the newly integrated schools of the 1950s, we were taught one version of the Civil War -- the Southern version. Of course, there was another version of the war that we weren't taught. And those contrasting versions clearly were the product of conscious decisions by historians, textbook publishers and school teachers.
I was an adult before I learned that Aleksdandr Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas were partly black. No literary anthologies in my high school or college courses mentioned those facts. This pattern of denial and duplicity helps explain the deep-rooted suspicions among minorities and women about the accuracy of history taught in schools.
It is even necessary to present all history as settled truth? Where there is sharp disagreement, for example, between traditionalists and Afrocentrists over the ethnicity and contributions of Egypt, why not pose the contrasting positions to students as propositions to be studied? Teach them how to use primary sources, weigh evidence, critique arguments and form their own views.
Those aspects of my early education that did pay homage to African-Americans made a huge impression. We were taught that Ralph Bunche, the American statesman, won the Nobel Prize for bringing peace to the Middle East in the late 1940s; that Charles Drew discovered blood plasma and saved the lives of many American soldiers in World War II; and yes, that Jackie Robinson had integrated major-league baseball.
In other words, we learned that blacks were of value to society, whether others thought so or not. It's impossible to overstate the impact of this individual and collective self-confidence on our will to succeed in school and beyond.
We may argue that instilling self-esteem isn't the province of schools, but we delude ourselves if we think there isn't a link between self-esteem and achievement. Or that the nexus between schools and well-functioning families hasn't done this all along for white children. If schools are to succeed for the millions of minority children who lack support at home and in the community, then educators must fill this void.
Multiculturalists also challenge the melting pot metaphor. It is said that most people who have emigrated to the U.S. over the years have arrived expecting to become unhyphenated Americans. The trouble is that the melting pot still excludes many minorities and women. It took decades of marches and lawsuits to eradicate official segregation. Yet housing and employment discrimination persist.
Growing economic hardship may lie at the heart of today's ethnic tensions. How can we expect millions of Americans, a disproportionate number of them minority, to embrace, much less treasure, Western history and values when they're under economic siege?
I wonder whether those who worry that multiculturalism will ruin the melting pot haven't misread American history. Isn't it the opportunity to breathe politically and advance economically that has lured millions of immigrants to our shores? That is the zTC attribute that defines our society, bonds us together and sets our nation apart from others. Were those who preach inclusiveness truly to practice it, then perhaps our collective anxiety about the growing intolerance and insularity in America would, shall we say, melt away.
Hugh B. Price is vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation.
The mosaic and the melting pot
Was Cleopatra black?