It takes note of a long-neglected heritage, and it makes educational sense. When a lot of people, especially white people, hear the word "Afrocentricity," they feel threatened, nervous or both. They shouldn't.
To say that a particular school system or a particular university should be more Afrocentric in its orientation is simply to say that a school system or university that is predominantly African-American should infuse its teaching and learning with cultural and intellectual emphases that reflect the identity and heritage of its dominant constituency: African Americans.
But it does not mean that a particular school system or university should ignore or belittle the heritage of other peoples who have their own stories of struggles and triumphs. Nor does it mean that being Afrocentric excuses a school system or university from teaching its students the basic skills and knowledge they need to succeed in an increasingly complex world. There is, after all, no such thing as "black physics" or "black mathematics" or "black computer science."
In higher education, to take the area I know best, there have always been institutions that reflect and relate to particular constituencies. Brandeis and Yeshiva place a strong emphasis on the culture and experience of the Jewish people. Notre Dame and Georgetown acknowledge their Catholic roots. Vassar and Barnard have long been devoted to the empowerment of women. West Point and the Naval Academy obviously have strong ties to the nation's military establishment. Each of these institutions has its unique flavor, reflecting its unique constituency, and this flavor infuses its teaching and learning. Students of these institutions receive a solid grounding in whatever academic disciplines they choose to study alongside that special something.
No one accuses these institutions of advocating or practicing cultural separatism or of being propaganda mills. But when advocates of Afrocentricity speak of infusing a curriculum with an orientation that reflects the heritage of people of African descent, all too often that is just what happens. Those making this accusation themselves could face an accusation: of ignorance, ignorance of the rich tradition of special interest institutions in this nation. Indeed, there is nothing "radical" about culturally specific education at all. It is as American as Mom and apple pie.
I speak as one who attended and am now president of an institution that was "Afrocentric" long before the word came into vogue.
As a Howard University student in the '60s, I never took a course in "Afro-American History" or "Afro-American Literature" or anything with a similar title. But in each discipline within which I studied, my teachers made sure we students knew about the contributions African Americans made to the discipline and the impact of the discipline on the lives of African Americans. This fit comfortably alongside our teachers' primary mission -- to make sure we mastered the tools of the discipline, thus providing us with a solid foundation for further education and advancement.
Although we students didn't verbalize it this way, my teachers at Howard were "Afrocentric," and they were passing on that "Afrocentric" legacy to us. And yes, their efforts did build up the self-esteem of the young black men and women who sat in those classrooms. But their efforts enriched the lives of Howard students of other racial and ethnic backgrounds who sat in those classrooms as well.
To regard Afrocentricity simply as a means to help African-American youth feel "good about themselves" is to take the narrow view. The key measure of Afrocentricity's validity is that it makes educational sense.
Whether in elementary school or a university campus, students in this nation need to know about the heritage and contributions of people of African descent and of Asian descent and of Latin American descent as well as people of European descent. An education that views the European heritage as central, and, by assumption, superior, and that views non-European heritages and peripheral, and, by assumption, inferior, is a deficient education. For it fails to prepare our youth for the reality of a world that is increasingly interdependent and a nation that will increasingly be composed of non-white peoples or, the preferred term these days, "people of color."
Afrocentricity isn't about exclusion. It isn't about kente cloth adornments and leather map-of-Africa medallions, although these certainly add verve to one's wardrobe. Afrocentricity is about inclusion, and that is something all people can understand. It's also why, I believe, we'll be hearing about Afrocentricity for some time to come.
The writer is president of Howard University.