Implementing afrocentricity: connecting students of African descent to their cultural heritage.

Author:Traore, Rosemary


I am a white, middle class female who was changed forever by my experiences on the African continent. Having been born and raised in the United States, and educated in its parochial schools, I knew only what I was taught about Africa through my reading and my familiarity with media representations about the African continent and its people. My own education took a distinct turn when I became a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic. Direct experience confirmed for me that when the European historians compiled the story of Africa they told it from their own perspective, filtered through the lens of long-standing colonial domination of the African nations.

According to Eze, for example, among the titans of the Eurocentric grand synthesizers of world history, "Hegel himself had declared the African sub-human: the African lacked reason and therefore moral and ethical content" (Eze 1997: 9). In Enlightenment Britain, David Hume (1985/1777) held similar, but less prominent, notions about the superiority of Europeans. 1 History texts, as recorded by European authors, introduced a distorted version of the African worldview and all that is African. Only through close reading of some hard-to-find works by authors of African descent was I able to discover that for their own economic gain, and for the glorification of their own homelands, the colonizers demeaned and denigrated Africa and Africans in order to exploit the natural and human resources that were originally in abundance in Africa. Rodney, for instance, challenges one of the fallacies of the official Eurocentric version of history when he remarks that it is "an act of brazen fraud to weigh the paltry social amenities provided during the colonial epoch against the exploitation, and to arrive at the conclusion that the good outweighed the bad" (Rodney 1972: 206).

What I came personally to realize was that the Eurocentric lens that was the principal vehicle of my understanding about Africa had long since been clouded over with distortions, misrepresentations, and lies. I began to search for a new way of understanding that would encourage a more positive perspective about the people of Africa whom I had come to know and cherish for their humanity, grace, and endurance in the face of nearly global disregard. As a distinct theoretical perspective, Afrocentricity was a welcome anodyne. Afrocentricity has been an evolving way for revisionist theorists to deconstruct the Eurocentric version of the history of African people. For many years, thanks to the work of Akbar (1998a, 1998b); Asante (2007, 1991, 1990, 1988); Dei (1994); Hilliard (1998); Karenga and Carruthers (1986); Keto (2001, 1995, 1994); Madhubuti and Madhubuti (1994); Myers (1998); Nobles (1991); Shujaa (1994); and Tedla, (1995), Afrocentricity has been re-characterizing and re-contextualizing the history of people of African descent. These authors, among others, have argued for the efficacy of Afrocentricity on the basis of its benefits in explaining what heretofore has been referred to in Eurocentric research as "deviant" behavior among people of African descent. Through the lens of Afrocentricity, the very same behavior can be seen as a positive attribute, a hallmark of the unwillingness of persons of African descent to abandon their rich cultural heritage despite centuries of oppression through slavery, economic distress, and exploitation of the indigenous resources by the wealthier societies of Europe and America.

Even though many are beginning to recognize the importance of Africa, African philosophy and African history, "the fundamental antagonism of Whites toward Africans, be they on the continent or in the diaspora, has not altered over time" (Harris 1998: 17). Harris encourages research that will shed light on the history of Africans and African Americans such that they can redefine themselves in light of their true history. He argues that one can only be free in the Afrocentric context when one is knowledgeable about who one is, and from whence one has come. It is certain that mainstream media, today, is not the best history teacher of an Afrocentric perspective, nor, indeed, are many of our schools (Harris 1998: 15-25).

Afrocentricity as Competent Challenge to Eurocentricim

Beginning with DuBois (1986/1903), followed in close alignment by Woodson (1990/1933), writers have been building the theoretical foundation for the Afrocentric worldview compiled from the best of the traditional thought of African civilizations. They have relied on ancient texts and on the oral tradition of African cultures, which have existed since the beginning of civilization. Diop (1974) set the stage for the current blossoming of Afrocentricity in his groundbreaking work titled The African Origins of Civilization: Myth or Reality. Many others have argued for Afrocentricity on the basis of the existence of an African worldview, and Abarry (1990), Gyekye (1995/1987), Jahn (1989/1958), Kershaw (1998), Mbiti (1969), have helped to delineate the elements of an African worldview.

As a theoretical framework and methodology, Afrocentricity is crucial to understanding persons of African descent because it is primarily through the Afrocentric lens that the ideas, values and experiences of people of African descent can be understood. For most of history, Africa and Africans have been defined and presented through a Eurocentric lens. Most research conducted on Africa was European-centered. European values were used to evaluate Africans and Africa. As Asante has remarked, "Africa was seen as marginal, uncivilized and on the periphery of historical consciousness" (Asante 1990: 119). Europeans justified colonialism on the basis that Africans were savages who had not learned to conquer their environment. The missionaries helped promote the racist imagery of Africans as uncivilized and in need of salvation.

Co-existence predominates in the Afrocentric worldview in which men and women are meant to live in harmony with their environment, not willfully conquer or dominate it. An African worldview is rooted in the wisdom and spirit of the ancestors and committed to living in harmony with the earth and with every living creature. In contrast with the European view that the material and the spiritual can be separated, the African sees no distinction between these realms. One cannot exist without the other and should not be viewed in isolation. The colonial view that the world had to be conquered, dominated, controlled is antithetical to the African worldview. For the African, it is the responsibility of the entire community to respect nature and work together for the common good, not the individual's gain. From this perspective, education is seen as a tool for community development, not personal enrichment.

Competing World Views in Action in American Schools

There are four elements to Afrocentric theory which clearly distinguish this approach from the Eurocentric perspective, and which, when properly implemented, could have a dramatic influence on the general climate of learning for children of African descent. These four elements are: 1) the general distinction between rugged individualism and the Afrocentric respect for community; 2) the distinction between the liberal democratic "all men are created equal" ethos, which has always been an aspirational myth more honored in the breach than practice, and the Afrocentric emphasis on respect for one's elders in the community; 3) the valorization of "progress" in all things scientific and economic, as an inherited right of some redoubt, and the Afrocentric emphasis on the interconnections and interdependencies between all humans; and 4) the pragmatic, commonsense view of the cosmos as expressed in "humanism" as opposed to the Afrocentric's reverence for the spiritual.

The clash between these competing worldviews about Africa was personified for me in the experience of some newly arrived students from the African continent who encountered strained relations with their peers at one predominantly African American high school in the United States. In this school, as in other American classrooms, students of African descent were inundated with insidious stereotypes of Africa and Africans, stereotypes that have been passed...

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