History for Human Beings

GLENN McNATT

September 18, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

The biggest problem with ''Afrocentric'' education to my mind is that only black people seem to be getting it. White people need it just as badly. Otherwise they won't know who they are, either.

We are told that everybody should know their own history. That's the whole rationale for introducing ''multicultural'' curriculums in the public schools, as Baltimore has begun to do this year. Eighty percent of the city public school population is African-American. School officials say the new curriculum is needed to correct the omissions, distortions and inaccuracies concerning the contributions of minorities to American and world history. They also claim the multicultural approach will build self-esteem in children by showing them they have a heritage in which they can take pride.

There is something to that. Only a generation ago black children were being taught that African-Americans essentially had no history to speak of. All the names and faces in the textbooks were white. There was hardly any recognition that black people had contributed to the development of this country or that African peoples had any history prior to the slave trade.

The ancient Egyptians and Nubians were portrayed as suntanned Europeans. Even the fact that Egypt clearly was part of the African continent was glossed over with a sort of embarrassed silence that suggested the pharaohs might have been wise rulers but they lived in the wrong part of town. Who could blame a black kid for imagining that Egypt had somehow been misplaced on the map, and that it really belonged somewhere up near France?

When anthropologists began turning up evidence that Africa not only was the birthplace of civilization but of the human species itself, the news was so unsettling that many people rushed to embrace all kinds of pseudo-scientific nonsense, from ''creationism'' to the bizarre notion that humanity's beginnings stemmed from some prehistoric visit by extra-terrestrial aliens. For such people, almost any explanation seemed preferable to the idea that something good or valuable could have originated in Africa.

Now geneticists believe they have traced the human DNA trail back to a single woman who lived in the African savanna some 200,000 years ago. This primordial African ''Eve'' was literally the ''mother of us all'' -- the common ancestor of every living human being on earth today. If the scientists are right, then everybody is black, sort of.

There's no need to labor the point, though. What's important is the recognition that the history and contributions of African peoples have been systematically denigrated and denied by the standard texts, a consequence first of the need to rationalize the evils of the slave trade, and later to justify the denial of political and social rights to the bondsmens' descendants. Since only human beings can live in history, denying that the African had a history was a way of denying the humanity of African peoples.

The various multicultural curriculums are an attempt to redress this historic dehumanization and restore to African-American children a sense of belonging in the common human enterprise. Inevitably there will be false starts and wrong turns along the way. There will be demagogues, both black and white, who seek to exploit the issue for self- aggrandizement. But eventually the effort will bear fruit, intellectually and morally, for those who have been thirsting so long in the desert.

The problem is that white Americans have been nearly as much victims of the dehumanization of the African as have blacks themselves. Not for nothing did Abraham Lincoln call the American Civil War a trial imposed by God as atonement for the sin of slavery. White Americans can no more understand their own history without understanding the history of African-Americans than they can deny African-Americans' humanity without denying their own. Perhaps that's just another way of stating the old saw that the only way the white man can keep the black man in the ditch is if both of them stay in it.

If a multicultural curriculum is needed in Baltimore to correct the distorted view of history that robs African-American children of their self-esteem, the need for it is no less among white children in Baltimore County. They also need to be relieved of the burden of false history, lest they grow up believing the diminished possibilities of blacks do not diminish their own. It is a familiar truth but worth reiterating that those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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