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Education crisis: Afrocentric vs. Christocentric

Black Christian educators in America's cities who face formidable external obstacles--gang violence, family breakup, a drug culture--are faced with a resurgent philosophical challenge: &quotAfrocentric" education. That worldview seeks black unity along racial lines, in stark contrast to what Christian educators in the city emphasize: unity in Christ. As Black History Month begins, WORLD reports on two inner-city efforts that place Calvary above country.

Issue: "Fighting Cultural Ebonics," Feb. 1, 1997

Several dozen neatly uniformed third graders march single file through Seattle's infamous drizzle, headed to the school cafeteria. They're happy and boisterous, yet perfectly behaved. Two boys at the front of the line hold open the glass doors while the others pass through one by one. Suddenly, though, one little girl breaks ranks. She runs, arms outstretched, toward a man just emerging from his car in the parking lot. Ten seconds and one big bear hug later, she's back in her place, disappearing into the cafeteria.

It's a fairly unremarkable scene, except for two things: The bear-hugger is the principal of this school--not a position that normally elicits an outpouring of positive emotion. What's more, given the school's location, most people would expect this principal to maintain order with security guards and metal detectors, not smiles and hugs and pats on the head.

Despite its rather elitist-sounding name, Zion Preparatory Academy isn't in one of Seattle's tony suburban neighborhoods or island enclaves. Indeed, it seems worlds away from all that's typically Seattle. Visitors to Zion can't see the Space Needle from the school's campus; gangsta rap is more popular here than the city's native grunge rock; and even Starbucks, Seattle's seemingly ubiquitous coffee house, hasn't penetrated this part of town.

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What has penetrated this multi-ethnic urban neighborhood, thanks to Zion, is discipline, personal responsibility, high academic standards, and the gospel of Christ. In a part of Seattle where family breakdown is even worse than the nation's abysmal average, children find a loving family at school. An unusually high proportion of teachers at all grade levels (Zion goes from preschool to eighth grade) are men, two of them former professional football players. They often become father figures for children who lack one at home. Teachers call the children &quotDear." Children call the teachers &quotBrother" or &quotSister," followed by a first name. In all that it does, Zion tries hard to create the atmosphere of a big, strict Christian family.

The family concept is often found in education these days; it's just the Christian part that's normally missing. In many urban public schools across the country, black children are taught to identify themselves primarily by their skin color and to unite against white oppressors. In Oakland, for instance, the school board recently resolved that black students should not be &quotsubtly dehumanized, stigmatized, discriminated against, or denied" by the oppression of standard American (i.e., white) English. The resulting brouhaha over Ebonics captured the nation's attention and drew the wrath of even nontraditionalists like Secretary of Education Richard Riley.

But while Oakland's Ebonics resolution may have gone too far for most tastes, other, equally radical strategies have been quietly introduced into urban school systems around the country. &quotAfrocentric immersion programs" attempt to build a universal black family identity by convincing black students of their forebears' greatness. Thus, according to educational psychologist Asa Hilliard, one of the pioneers of this approach, &quotAfrica is the mother of Western civilization," the true source of science and philosophy--though white historians later bestowed this honor on Greece. Likewise, African explorers crossed the &quotEthiopian Ocean" and reached America long before Columbus did.

Other Afrocentric educators have claimed that many famous artists, including Browning and Beethoven, were actually Afro-Europeans; that Africans invented birth control and carbon steel; that they levitated around the pyramids; and even that Napoleon deliberately shot the nose off the Sphinx so that its face could not be recognized as African.

Despite intense criticism from respected academics across the political spectrum, such Afrocentric approaches have been adopted by many of the nation's leading school systems, including those of Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C. And once adopted, they can be almost impossible to dislodge, as Leon Todd discovered. Mr. Todd, a black member of the Milwaukee school board, recently accused the schools of &quotteaching ... fiction as history" and recommended that the Afrocentric curriculum be dropped. In the outcry that ensued, some parents demanded that Mr. Todd be ousted and threatened a recall if his resolution passed. Someone even firebombed his home, causing about $1,000 in damage.

Clearly, supporters of Afrocentric education can be religious in their defense of the approach. Indeed, the very rhetoric of the movement often has religious overtones. One leading Afrocentrist, for instance, has called it &quotthe centerpiece of human regeneration." Around the world, he claims, people of African descent &quotrespond to the same rhythms of the universe, the same cosmological sensibilities.... Our Africanity is our ultimate reality."

Nonsense, says Zion's principal and champion hugger, Doug Wheeler. Although &quotBrother Doug" does encourage his teachers to find positive black role models for the children and to counteract negative media stereotypes, ultimate reality is not Afrocentrism, but &quotknowing who we are in God. When you know your meaning, your purpose and your direction, other background noise doesn't take away your identity. The only thing we have control of is to raise our children in the fear of God."

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