Ku Komena Nyundo: The Africana Studies Effect.

Author:McDougal, Serie


The emergence of leadership among the Luba people of Central Africa is associated with metamorphosis and transformation. The divine leader of the Luba must undergo a ceremony called Ku Komena Nyundo, the beating or striking of the anvils. The symbol of striking an anvil was chosen because a leader was believed to undergo transformation the same way that a Blacksmith transforms raw metal into tools and instruments for communities. Like the vast diversity of traditional African rites of passage, this custom is grounded in the thinking that personal transformation (spiritual/development of consciousness) is linked to the wellbeing of society.

Among the Luba and many other societies, adults were sometimes initiated into what are known as societies of secrets which maintained the harmonious functioning of society by producing people with specialized skills to provide essential services (Imhotep, 2009). These societies maintained and advanced specified ancient cultural knowledge and traditions. The training received was typically based on a moral and spiritual foundation (Hilliard, 1997). The knowledge they acquired had to be kept confidential so that it stayed in the hands of those who were trained to use it responsibly and efficiently (Imhotep, 2009). Initiation into these societies generally followed the same general format of transformation, including separation, testing\teaching, and reincorporation. Successfully undergoing a series of difficult initiation processes allowed individuals, to enter and advance to higher ranks within these associations (Muller and Ritz-Muller, 2000). Successful initiates joined these non-hierarchical, professional castes, often associated with professions that were vital to the community, such as iron smelters\blacksmiths, stonemasons, woodcarvers, engineers, farmers, warriors, sages, herbalists, and diviners (Imhotep, 2009; Williams, 1987). Because racism is endemic to institutions that deliver key services in the United States, personal transformation is critical because it may influence social transformation. Additionally, transformation is often important among populations for whom the status quo is oppressive.

This article examines the effects of courses in Africana Studies (i.e., the culturally and historically grounded study of peoples of African descent for the purpose of higher level functioning and liberation) on student success and degree completion. This phenomenon is known as "the Africana Studies effect," a phrase created to represent how important Africana Studies courses and degree programs are to graduation and advancement of students as well as the universities they attend. The question this study seeks to answer is to what degree Africana Studies has actually had a transformative impact on Africana people, communities, and institutions of higher education.

Education plays a role in this culture of transformation, and in some very important ways, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have played a critical role in educational transformation. The successes of HBCUs are, in part, due to the fact that they generally provide Black students with same-race role models and supportive and nurturing environment, serving them by providing mentorship, research opportunities, and guidance through college to professional life (Stovall, 2005). Overall enrollment rates for Black students in post-secondary institutions have steadily increased over the past 40 years; increasingly outside of HBCUs (Beasley, Chapman-Hilliard & McClain, 2016). However, despite demographic shifts, Black students' six-year graduation rates remain at nearly 40% compared to approximately 60% for all students (Beasley, Chapman-Hilliard & McClain, 2016). This is in large part due to the fact that the American educational system has not been sufficiently attentive to the unique needs of its Black students, particularly at institutions where Black students are underrepresented, including but not limited to, Predominantly White Institutions (PWI) (Carey & Allen, 1977).

Consequently, Black students have a more difficult time than White students at PWIs (Carey & Allen, 1977). Black students at PWIs sometimes see themselves as isolated academically and socially (Carey & Allen, 1977). However, since 1968, colleges and universities across the United States have experienced the growth of Black Studies (hereafter referred to as Africana Studies) (Karenga, 2010). Moreover, the discipline is grounded in the principles of academic excellence, social responsibility, and cultural grounding (Karenga, 2010). The present study is an investigation of the overall impact of Africana Studies courses on African American/Black students at a University on the west coast of the United States. Because of the challenges that Black students are confronted with on campuses where they are underrepresented, it is imperative that university administrators, faculty, and Black communities be able to draw on empirical research about culturally responsive solutions.

Africana Studies departments are key constituencies in efforts to enhance Black student success, given that they are pedagogically focused on studying the lives and cultures of people of African descent. Moreover, compared to other departments on college campuses, Africana Studies departments often have the highest percentages of Black faculty on campuses where Black faculty are underrepresented. Because of these and other factors, a failure to engage in the systematic study of the impact of Africana Studies on students, particularly Black students, can leave universities and other key actors ill-informed and underequipped to meet the needs of Black student populations.

Existing Literature

This review of scholarly literature surveys existing research on the structure and impacts of culturally relevant pedagogy on Black students, the unique challenges that Black students face on PWI and HBCU campuses, and what is known about the impact on Africana Studies of student thought and practice (known as the Africana Studies effect). A limited number of studies have been conducted measuring the impact of culturally relevant pedagogy on Black students at the middle and high school levels. Investigations reveal the impact of culturally relevant pedagogy on Black students' perceptions of themselves and their possibilities. Lewis, Sullivan & Bybee (2006) conducted an experiment examining the effect of a school-based emancipatory intervention on the psychological and behavioral wellbeing of sixty-five eighth grade African American adolescents. They randomly assigned participants to either receive the experimental intervention or a regular Life Skills course (the control condition). The experimental intervention included a curriculum that covered African/African American History and Culture; Building Cohesion and Communalism; African Rituals and Practices; Enhancing Interpersonal Skills & Inner Strength; Putting Theory into Practice; Student Leadership and Activism; School and Community Partnerships; and Positive Behavior. After a semester, the intervention had led to increased communalism, belief in the value of their African and African diasporic heritage, and motivation to achieve (Lewis, Sullivan & Bybee, 2006). Investigations like this demonstrate the impact of a range of culturally responsive tools on students' self-perceptions. However, the effects of culturally relevant pedagogy go beyond shifts in values.

Some investigations have focused on particular components of culturally relevant pedagogy, such as texts. For example, Rickford (2001) examined the impact of culturally relevant texts and found that they increase student enjoyment, interest, and motivation, thus improving students' performance in reading comprehension. Results indicated that despite conventional wisdom, students who are poor readers may still engage in higher order thinking (Rickford, 2001). Rickford found that, when they have the opportunity to learn through culturally relevant literature and adequate scaffolding (through strategic questioning), they demonstrate original and critical thought (Rickford, 2001).

How might culturally relevant pedagogy affect students who are already achieving highly? While underachievement is a frequent subject of study among Black youth in education, high-achieving Black students remain under-researched. However, Carter (2008) examined the embodiment of a critical race achievement ideology in high-achieving Black students. She conducted a yearlong qualitative investigation of the adaptive behaviors that nine high-achieving Black students developed and employed to navigate the process of schooling at an upper-class, predominantly White, suburban public high school while maintaining school success and positive racial self-definition. Based on an analysis of interview data, participant observations, and field notes, Carter (2008) concluded that students' conceptions of race and how race operates in their daily lives informs their constructions of achievement beliefs, attitudes, and self-definitions and informs their racialization and deracialization of the task of achieving. Carter's (2008) findings indicate that students with strong racial and achievement identities may develop a critical race achievement ideology and enact resilient, adaptive behaviors in racially challenging contexts and that enhances their abilities to meet and overcome diversity. However, higher education environments expose students to more complex environments.

African American College Student Experiences

Most African American college students attend Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) or schools where they are underrepresented. It is critical to understand colleges and universities as reflections of larger society. At PWIs, Black students often encounter a racially hostile institutional subculture, which is an extension of anti-Black racial hostility in the country and...

To continue reading