The response to a pair of recent columns on Afrocentric education suggests at least three possibilities: 1. I did a poor job in stating my reservations. 2. The readers who disagree with me are misguided. 3. I was wrong.
On the chance that the first alternative is the correct one, let me try once more. First, I had hoped to make clear the distinction between two categories of proposals. One would include the history and cultural contributions of African Americans in our classroom accounts of American history and culture. The other would replace the emphasis on the European antecedents of the American culture with a new emphasis on African culture. The first, though too little practiced, is no longer controversial. I simply do not know people who dispute the notion that black Americans are too often the invisible men and women of American history; that they are too often discussed as problems in the nation's history rather than as contributors to it, and that this neglect demands correction.
It was the second view that concerned me. I expressed my doubt of the proposition, increasingly heard, that neglect of African culture in classrooms accounts for the academic difficulties of black American children. And it seemed obvious to me that whatever the value to black children of learning about ancient African cultures, their success in America requires that they learn to cope with the American culture.
But what of the role of ethnic pride in the self-esteem that is necessary for learning? The assumption of many advocates of Afrocentrism is that black children cannot think well of themselves unless they are taught they are descended from the builders of the pyramids, the developers of language and mathematics and tool technology, the founders of human civilization; that they cannot have pride in themselves unless they first have pride in their African origins.
I suspect the opposite is nearer the truth. If you don't believe you amount to much, you're not likely to have much interest in learning about your antecedents. A dispirited black child is as likely to be confirmed in his low self-opinion by much of what is going on in present-day Africa as to be uplifted by what happened in ancient Egypt. If, on the other hand, you think you're pretty wonderful, you may be interested in learning how such a wonderful person came to be.
As it turns out, nearly all the advocates of Afrocentrism will acknowledge that they had achieved a good measure of academic success before they discovered Africa; that it was curiosity triggered by their success that got them interested in learning about Africa rather than the other way around, and that the overwhelming source of the self-esteem that produced their academic success was their own families.
Even if I'm right about this, isn't it possible that immersion in the cultural contributions of Africa could help to engender pride in prideless black children? I grant the possibility, but it doesn't seem all that likely: no more likely, for example, than that black children discouraged by their own dismal circumstances will overcome that discouragement if they are taught about Nat Turner, Charles Drew or other heroes, scientists, inventors or academics. They need to know about these contributors to the American culture -- and so do white children. But I doubt there is any academic magic in knowing about them. And I think that at least a part of the push for Afrocentrism is a search for academic magic: some button of ethnic pride, some lever of unique learning style that can be activated to transform discouraged and academically uninterested students into scholars.
Of course, let all children learn about the contributions of the great variety of cultures to the culture we call American; let them also learn about the ancient cultures of their people, at least so long as it does not substantially reduce the time available for learning how to cope in present-day America.
But it seems to me black Americans who have achieved some success in this country owe it to black children to tell them how they did it. We need to talk to them about those magic moments when we discovered white people had no lock on intelligence, when -- and by what means -- we learned we were bright and capable and what was necessary to translate that potential into success. It may be that success can be reached by a different route than worked for us, and Afrocentrism may well be one possible route. But that's speculation. All we can really know and share is what worked for us.