An Afrocentric curriculum won't make students better

October 13, 2001|By Gregory Kane

MAKE BALTIMORE'S school curriculum Afrocentric, some folks said in light of the recent revelation about the performance of city students on functional math and reading tests, and our youngsters will fare much better.

Yesirree, just make the subjects black enough and black students, simply by virtue of being black, will snuggle right up to them. Their interest will be piqued, and they will settle down and study as they've never done before.

The proposal assumes, as such things do, certain facts not in evidence and poses questions that have gone unanswered. What magical quality about being black will make an Afrocentric curriculum in this city successful? And what exactly does an Afrocentric curriculum do for city students who are white, Asian, Hispanic and Native American?

The idea is a foolish one and, as if to prove its silliness, a group of black students gathered Thursday on the Inner Harbor docks that led to a replica of the clipper ship Amistad and - unwittingly but fervently - howled in protest of it.

In clear Ebonics, one girl - the loudest and most bilious of the bunch - resolved not to get on the boat. Others griped about the heat (it was a soothingly mild day), the wait in the line that led onto the ship and the horrible adults who had put them in this situation.

Ms. Loudmouth saw one of her schoolmates depart the schooner. Convinced that she was in for some horrible ordeal, she asked Michael in more mangled language how it went. Michael mumbled an answer. Ms. Loudmouth and her friends giggled when another student alighted from the Amistad and confessed that "I didn't watch anything."

Earlier, the Lippy One had a row with the unfortunate teacher in charge of her group. He told her to come to school with her mother the next day.

It must have been quite a show for the adults in line who were going aboard the ship because they wanted to, who were there to learn about an incident in American and African-American history that would, by definition, have to be part of any Afrocentric curriculum.

In 1839, a group of Africans aboard the schooner Amistad were being taken from one part of Cuba to another. They had been seized in Africa, even though the slave trade had been legally banned since 1808.

The Africans revolted, killed some crew members and forced the others to sail toward Africa during the day. The Africans, ignorant of navigation, knew enough to surmise that since they had sailed away from the sun when they left their homeland, sailing toward it would get them back.

But at night the ship's remaining crew would secretly turn the ship northward. The Amistad ended up just off the shores of Long Island, where it was seized and towed by an American Naval ship to New London, Conn.

The Africans were charged with mutiny, murder and piracy. Their case wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1841 ruled that they were free men and could return to their native land.

African-American actress Debbie Allen tried for years to get this story on film. She finally succeeded when director Steven Spielberg made the movie Amistad several years ago. It died at the box office. African-Americans were unimpressed.

A replica of the original Amistad sailed from New Haven, Conn. earlier this month. The new ship, called the Freedom Schooner Amistad, docked in Baltimore on Oct. 5 after a trip of 2.5 days. It will sail around the country, telling the story of the Amistad, the revolt led by Sengbe Pieh - also known as Joseph Cinque - and the anti-slavery struggle waged by abolitionists both black and white.

Ms. Loudmouth couldn't have cared less.

"How's everybody doing?" volunteer Katie Wyatt said, greeting the group.

"What time we get off this boat?" Ms. Loudmouth responded. Further probing by Wyatt revealed Ms. Loudmouth was with a group of eighth-graders who answered with blank stares when Wyatt asked what the Emancipation Proclamation and Middle Passage were.

Earlier in the day, Dennis Courtland Hayes, the general counsel at the national office of the NAACP, tried to arouse a large group of high school students from their stupor when he gave a lecture on the Amistad trial at Baltimore City Community College.

The students visibly fought off boredom as Hayes spoke. When he finished his lecture and asked for questions, the proudly uninquisitive bunch sat in silence. When nonstudents in the audience asked questions, the students responded with fidgeting and moans.

Their body language and attitude said it all: Spare us from learning, even if - and probably especially if - it's about something Afrocentric.

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