Last summer, as a guest on WOL-AM radio's Cathy Hughes show, D.C. school Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins called his plan for African-centered teaching "the centerpiece of our reform." It was the first time he gave the idea such clout -- and the first hint of how political it was to become.
By last Friday, hours before the school board voted to fire him, an angry Jenkins spoke again on Hughes's program, this time to tell listeners he was being ousted because the board wanted to destroy his Afrocentric plan.
"They don't have any notion of letting this program continue," Jenkins told Hughes. Later, he and Hughes discussed how it was not a "coincidence" that the board was dismissing him just as he was interviewing candidates for a new school system job, assistant superintendent for Afrocentrism.
The comments rallied his supporters, but they only sealed his fate with the board, which last year approved $750,000 for an African-centered education effort that has not yet been precisely defined or introduced in classrooms.
In casting himself as a martyr to the Afrocentric cause, Jenkins has left a trail of tension over an issue that had been a topic of academic debate but now seems destined to be one of the most volatile subjects facing the D.C. school system. Two years ago, the idea barely received any attention. Now, it may substantially change how the city's 81,000 students are taught.
"There's no question it's now very political," said board President Nate Bush (Ward 7). "The board's position has been clearly distorted. In the last week, the public has been led to believe we don't support it."
Educators in many of the country's largest cities, and in Washington's suburbs, are now assessing Afrocentrism, often defined as a move to purge bias in books and curricula that show Europe as the cradle of Western culture. To some, it means giving students a larger sense of African history and the achievements of African Americans. To others, it means offering proof that Egypt was where civilization dawned -- and that Egyptians were black.
In the District, the issue is now in the hands of William H. Brown, a veteran school official filling in for Jenkins while the board chooses his successor. Board members say erasing the turmoil that surrounds the Afrocentric plan will be one of his most delicate tasks. Because interest in Afrocentrism is new, its educational value is not yet clear; but the board may find it difficult to retreat from it because of Jenkins's tactics.
Jenkins seized the idea last year, partly as a drive to improve student self-esteem and lower the city's dropout rate. Until his fight with the board this summer, it was one of many of his projects. Afterward, it was his top priority. Some close to Jenkins say he saw Afrocentrism as a way to shape his legacy. Others say he used it as a shield to save his job.
"I had the sense that at first Dr. Jenkins had a superficial understanding of this," said Russell Adams, chairman of Howard University's African American studies program. "I think he got much more involved because he thought there was political leverage in it."
Anthony Browder, a close adviser to Jenkins who directs the Institute of Karmic Guidance in the District, which promotes Afrocentrism, said that last year Jenkins told him that he did not know much about the movement or its purpose in classrooms.
But Browder soon had him speaking with leading Afrocentric advocates and, in Browder's words, "his interest evolved dramatically."
"Dr. Jenkins's life has been changed," Browder said. "And the change is not because he was fired. It's because his eyes have been opened."
This fall, a small but vocal Afrocentric group, Operation Know Thyself, became Jenkins's most vocal ally. Soon, what he once described as "multicultural" education became -- at least in his public statements -- exclusively "African-centered."
Still, Jenkins had not revamped curricula to put more formal emphasis on the achievements of black Americans or on African contributions to civilization. He had said that first he wanted to retrain the city's 6,700 teachers to understand Afrocentrism better.
Other school systems pursuing multicultural education, such as Portland, Ore., require students to write essays about what cultures around the world have offered to subjects such as math, science, literature and art.
The District, which has electives in African American history but no requirements, is at least a year away from that kind of move.
As superintendent, Jenkins worked on creating a top position, at an annual salary of nearly $70,000, to manage the Afrocentric plan. That's something other school systems have done, and it seems one seed of his demise was planted there; some board members object to the idea because they do not want money for the project to be spent on bureaucracy. Advocates such as Browder, though, say that not creating a structure to help make Afrocentrism permanent "guarantees its death."
With his job in jeopardy last week, Jenkins offered that dispute as evidence of board apathy toward Afrocentrism. He rallied Operation Know Thyself to his defense, then made his only public comments on Hughes's radio show.
There were few other places he could turn. In his two years on the job, Jenkins, a D.C. native who spent three decades in the school system, had not won the support of most D.C. Council members, Mayor Marion Barry, or Mayor-Elect Sharon Pratt Dixon. He also had lost the confidence of former superintendent Vincent E. Reed, a mentor who had urged the board to hire him.
On the radio, as Hughes urged listeners to remove their children from school in protest, Jenkins repeatedly said his trouble with the board, which has eight black members, was due to its anger with his Afrocentric project. The board adamantly denies it -- but Jenkins's tactic has put more pressure on its members to describe what they want students to learn.
"Afrocentrism didn't have anything to do with it, but it's much more of an issue now," said William Simons, president of the Washington Teachers Union. "I think the board's committed to it, and we're going to hold them to that."