The last ten years has witnessed increased support for Afrocentric (race-based) pedagogy for black American education. The adoption of race as a pedagogical foundation is obsolete in the global context. Furthermore, throughout history, race has been socially and politically constructed to justify racial distinctions and oppression. While such pedagogy may serve a purpose for angry, subordinated and alienated blacks in the United States, it is intellectually constricting and narrow when applied in the global context. Because the Afrocentric perspective is too narrowly constructed to capture the essence and complexities of the human experience, this paper discusses the need and strategies for reformulation.
Globalization has been identified among the major dynamics of change in 21st century history. Although few doubt its reality, many are very apprehensive of its broader implications for human interactions. Responses to globalization have consequently been mixed. Many are apprehensive of its perceived economic and political threats to the livelihood of millions of workers. Others dread the political implications of a world order in which the leading industrialized European nations exercise inordinate control and influence. But there are those who welcome globalization as a force that would lead inexorably to greater human interdependence and interactions, with the attendant shrinkage of spatial distance and separation. Enthusiasts foresee and predict the imminence of a global civilization—”a discrete world order with shared values, processes and structures”(Cohen, 1997:155). Globalization thus portends a world economy, greater international migrational pattern and the eventual disappearance of “permanent settlement and the exclusive adoption of the citizenship of a destination country.” Global cities would emerge from “intensification of transactions and interactions between the different segments of the world,” and the “de-territorialization of social identity challenging the hegemonizing nation-states’ claim to an exclusive citizenship a defining focus of allegiance and fidelity in favour of overlapping, permeable and multiple forms of identification”(Ibid.157).
The essence of globalization is the expansion of the spatial parameters of human encounters. This expansive development affects profound transformation in the hermeneutics of human experience as we come to emphasize interactions, impacts, exchanges, and shared experiences; values that render the rigidity, isolation and insularity of a racialist worldview problematic. Globalization entails acknowledging engagements, contacts, interactions and encounters, as key historical dynamics of human development; forces that have hitherto been overshadowed by negative responses and reactions to the destructive and negative characteristics of the encounters. There is a widespread belief that the world is becoming one global village, and that technology is breaking down and shrinking spatial distance and barriers, with the implication that as we get to know more of each other, and as we interact more, we are inexorably led to discover that commonalities, shared experiences, rather than differences, define the human experience. This expansion in the parameters of human encounters is deemed pregnant with hegemonic implication that would render the global system one of unequal relationships. In other words, many perceive the specter of a ‘colonial situation’ within this global framework, where European/super-power dominance would constitute an ever-threatening force to the survival of weaker nations and peoples.
Historically, a colonial situation has always produced a culture of alienation derived from the deliberate utilization of education as a weapon of domination. Over time, the demise of political hegemony has always induced a strong distrust of dominant education, and inspired calls for a liberating pedagogy to combat and counter the hegemonic ethos of metropolitan education. Liberation movements in Africa, and the freedom struggles in the United States involved mobilization of education as a veritable weapon of undermining the structures of hegemony. Amilca Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B. Du Bois and Walter Rodney—all adduced strong philosophical and pedagogical models, or revolutionary ideologies for social transformation. They were all preoccupied, in different historical contexts, with the search for the most appropriate pedagogical weapon of struggle. This search for a liberating pedagogy is often conceived either within the confines of culture (as evident in the works of Cabral and Rodney) or, race/ethnicity. Both Cabral and Rodney advanced culture as the medium of re-structuring education into a tool for the critique of mainstream, hegemonic education, and for eventual liberation (Rodney, 1969; Cabral, 1972, 1980; Handyside, 1969).
History has shown that oppressed and subordinated groups often invoke “liberation pedagogy.” This pedagogy has come in the form of revisionist critique of prevailing body of thought—as was the case in the United States, with the struggles for Black Studies—and for the intellectual recognition and legitimacy of the historical and cultural heritage of blacks (Hine, 1986; Meier & Rudwick, 1986, Hall, 1999). This was also the case with post-colonial African historiography. In both the United States and Africa, the emergent intellectual tradition served to correct the misconceptions and fallacies of a dominant tradition, and moved toward creating a holistic body of knowledge that more accurately depicts and represents marginalized and indigenous people’s historical experiences.
Induced by this rejection of mainstream academic culture, and suspicious of multiculturalism, many blacks began to move toward exclusive race-based black liberation education (Shujaa, 1994). The black education experience in the United States has been through three distinct stages—from outright denial of access to education (exclusion), to segregation, and finally to desegregation (Brown versus the Board of Education). Brown was supposed to end segregation in education, create an integrative educational culture, one in which the hegemonic and exclusionary ethos of the past would be replaced by a non-hegemonic inclusionist culture. This goal would have inspired the faith and confidence of blacks in mainstream education and culture. But this did not materialize. Instead, Brown provoked resistance, as efforts were made to frustrate its implementation, and prevent inclusionist culture. American education thus retained its essentially hegemonic character, even as it tried to shed the trappings of hegemony. In terms of percentage, black school dropout rates remain high relative to that of whites. Relatively few blacks make it beyond high schools to college, and proportionally even fewer make it through college. Even for the few that graduate, there remains the critical issue of the relevance of the education attained due largely to the realities of unemployment and under-employment. Many have therefore questioned the very essence and relevance of the education received by, and available to, blacks through the mainstream public school system (Shujaa, 1994). The perception of education as an arm of oppression and hegemony persists. This has provoked calls for a new liberation pedagogy; one deemed directly relevant to the needs and aspiration of blacks, and that reflects the black experience, and provides solutions to the seemingly intractable problem of black marginalization (Asante, 1991, 1992; Akbar, 1984). In other words, many are searching for education that is both emancipating and empowering. In this search, they have turned to race-based pedagogy, one that is deeply situated and rooted in the black historical and cultural realities. Afrocentricity has emerged as both a consequence and dynamics of this search.
This search for a more holistic and representative pedagogy has historically emerged in response to the use of education and knowledge as hegemonic tools, sometimes through the outright denial to blacks of access to education and knowledge, or due to blatant misrepresentation and disregard of their historical and cultural heritage. Throughout human history, dominant groups have generally sought to use education as a weapon of domination. As many scholars have established, the black experience in the United States has been an object of this practice. It was this situation that inspired the scholarly responses of Woodson, Du Bois and many others, resulting in the Black Studies movement of the 1960s. It was precisely this situation that gave rise to the composition of a unique Afro-American history, projecting it from its earlier instrumentalist and applied phase, to the more recent functional /integrative, and Afrocentric genres (Hall, 1999; Hine, 1986).
The movement for Black Studies, which was born of alienation from, and distrust of, mainstream American education, inhered strong faith in the necessity and efficacy of a distinct black American narrative, one tailored to the specific needs of blacks. Although black American history, and the broader Black Studies, have become recognized and institutionalized, many remain distrustful of mainstream American education, questioning its relevance to the upliftment and advancement of blacks. Some black scholars continue to regard education in the United States as a culturally skewed and hegemonic institution, which bears only superficial and remote relevance to, and reflection of, the black American experience. Haki Madhubuti powerfully articulates this lingering distrust of mainstream American education. According to him, “In America people of African descent are caught between a hurricane and a volcano when it comes to the acquisition of life giving and life sustaining knowledge. Too many of our children are trapped in urban school systems that have been ‘programmed’ for failure…” (Madhubuti, 1994:1) He finds a profound difference between ‘going to school’ and being ‘educated,’ a distinction that has become a central motif of black cultural nationalist thought (Ibid. 3). This explains the skepticism of many black parents and intellectuals, who do not see the public school as designed for the education and elevation of blacks. “Using the United States as a social context,” Shujaa perceives the dominance of a “conceptual model that links the process of schooling to the preservation of existing relations of power within the society.” (Shujaa, 1994: 14). He insists that the “values and concepts that shape school curricula are determined by the dominant class, and bear little resemblance and relevance to blacks. Education is missing for blacks because the unique cultural values that are the seed of empowerment are not theirs but those of the dominant class…” (Ibid.14-15). To counteract this, he advocates African centered schools. (Ibid.16).
Madhubuti echoes the pessimism of many black intellectuals; a disposition demonstrated by the movement for the adoption of Afrocentric curricula for black Americans. Molefi Asante, Maulana Karenga and other scholars of the Afrocentric genre view the United States as:
…a hegemonic society, in which the relatively powerful members trace their ways of thinking, their philosophical foundations, and their canons of knowledge to the cultures of the Western Europe. These people, over the generations, have used societal institutions and resources to glorify their Western European cultural heritage while, at the same time, devaluing through processes of omission, distortion, and misrepresentation knowledge centered in the cultures of others in the same society who do not trace their origins to western Europe. (Ibid.31).
Some scholars interpret this as a twin process of mis-education and ‘dis-education.’ The first is characteristics of the black middle class whose education never resulted in meaningful elevation. The second refers to the black masses who seemed forever sentenced to a life of ignorance. (Caruthers, 1994: 45). There is therefore a fundamental challenge of determining and controlling perspectives that are offered in schools (Gordon, 1994: 62). Consequently, an increasing number of black American parents are home-schooling their kids, or sending them to private, or to exclusively black schools that provide instructions in Afrocentric education, variously referred to as—Independent Black Institutions or Independent Neighborhood Schools or Black Independent Schools (Shujaa, 1994:362). The underlying goal is to initiate Afrocentric curricula and education for blacks, and to re-direct their education and socialization away from what is perceived as the Eurocentric focus of mainstream education, toward an African centered education: one that is deemed more potentially elevating, and empowering, both culturally and psychologically.
The continuing search for a culturally relevant education for the advancement of blacks has intensified calls for independent black schools, that are run and staffed by, blacks for exclusively black students, and with curricula designed and taught by blacks. This represents a strong move in favor of race and culturally jingoistic, ethnocentrically conceived, and exclusivist education for blacks. Oba T’Shaka puts it poignantly, “the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement of the sixties ushered in the movement for independent black schools. This movement was the programmatic reflection of the cultural revolt of the sixties, which stressed black identity, Black power, and a relevant black education.” (Tshaka, 1990: 167) Furthermore, he contends:
The movement of the sixties taught black people that a relevant black education could only be achieved when blacks gained control of their education through the development of black studies programs on college campuses; through the community control of the public schools in black communities, and through the organization of independent black schools, which were controlled by the black community. (Ibid)
This development has been particularly strong in the post-civil rights era, especially in the aftermath of the Reagan-Bush onslaughts on the gains of civil rights. The political and economic arenas have nurtured slow but steady circumscription, and erosion of avenues of opportunities for blacks. This is most evident in the shrinkage of the educational concessions and considerations represented by affirmative action. The repeated attacks on affirmative action have resulted in the foreclosing of numerous educational and economic opportunities for blacks; most pronounced in such states as California, Texas and Florida. Many perceive these attacks as indicative of a determined effort on the part of whites to consolidate their hegemony based upon the curious assumption that race no longer matters. The nullification of race thus obliterates traditional justifications for the special concessions and considerations hitherto given blacks in acknowledgment of past inequities. This perception, rightly or wrongly, further deepens the suspicion of multiculturalism in education. Some view multiculturalism as baseless intrusion of political and cultural /race-derived issues into what should otherwise be a neutralist academic culture. Others see it as a ruse designed to lure blacks into a false sense of satisfaction while maintaining in tact, the essentially Eurocentric and hegemonic character of education. The latter see in the composition and nature of the multicultural curricula a reflection of the culture of the hegemonic power structure. The move is toward permanent splintering or racial bifurcation of education induced by distrust of the mainstream.
The need for a distinct black pedagogy and epistemology seems justifiable within American society and polity, given historical and persistent distrust of mainstream education, and onslaughts on affirmative action, and the conviction of many that mainstream education does not adequately and accurately reflect and represent the experience of blacks. In the global context, however, such race-based pedagogy becomes constricting, limiting, and extremely problematic. If indeed, globalization is effecting de-territorialization, shrinkage and circumscription of the political authority of the nation state, if national boundaries are becoming almost superfluous, as humans grow closer and are compelled to confront commonality and convergence, as opposed to distinctiveness and separatism, then the adoption of race-based pedagogy itself becomes problematic. What the adoption of race-based pedagogy does is replicate exactly the hegemonic model that blacks are criticizing and challenging; one historically and traditionally based on race, and skewed culturally in favor of the white dominant class. Many critiques of Afrocentricity see it as the extreme opposite of the Eurocentric pedagogy that it purports to reject.
Paulo Freire describes a situation where those struggling against oppression often end up adapting values and strategies of their oppressor, becoming themselves oppressors or sub-oppressors. Though they may be aware of being dominated, yet “their perception of themselves as opposites of their oppressor does not yet signify engagement in a struggle to overcome the contradiction; the one pole aspires not to liberation, but to identification with its opposite pole.” (Freire, 1992: 30). In the case of black America, there was a strong move to reject the epistemic logic of the oppressor. However, the paradigm that evolves bears strong resemblance to the culturally and racially skewed epistemology of the oppressor (Ibid). This identification is a kind of curious and problematic one in that it is unintended and born of alienation from, and an attempt to disown, the hegemonic ethos of the dominant academic system. Consequently, what emerges is a paradigm based on race, just as the dominant pedagogy of the oppressor was heavily dependent on race. That is, there emerges an equally hegemonic pedagogy; one that asserts and affirms or essentializes particularistic ethos and culture, that are deemed in conflict with those of the dominant group; and one which is often conferred superiority through claims of originality and preeminence.
Instead of developing a transcendence of the existentialist contradiction at which, “the reality of oppression has already been transformed,” resulting in a pedagogy that “ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy for all men in the process of permanent liberation” (Ibid. 40). the oppressed (in this case blacks) seek still a culturally skewed and equally hegemonic paradigm. Instead of what Paulo Freire envisages, that is, the possibility of a pedagogy of liberation that unites both oppressor and oppressed on the basis of consensus on these ethos that are not racially and culturally skewed and hegemonic, what emerges is a segregationist paradigm that recreates and repackages the myths “created and developed in the old order.” Advocates of race-based pedagogy believe that the ole myths have not been adequately expelled, but rather have somehow been dispersed under different code words and euphemisms. This is what legitimizes a race-based pedagogy, hence the increasing ascendance of Afrocentricity. The fundamental problem is that Afrocentricity, based on race (an artificial sociological construct), and ethnicity (which sustains an ill-defined and imprecise construction of identity), renders the issue of the cultural base of the Afrocentric education even more problematic as it is based on an oversimplification of an otherwise complex African culture and ethnicity. In other words, a major problem of Afrocentric education and pedagogy becomes its very lack of depth in ‘African’ cosmology, for what is represented as ‘African’ is often a narrow and poor replica of the original.
Perhaps a fundamental problematic of a race-based pedagogy such as Afrocentricity is the very concept race itself. First, the fact that race is a social and political construct; strongly suggests inherent artificiality of any racially derived pedagogy. Second, there is the daunting challenge of ascertaining precisely what constitutes ‘Blackness’ in the United States. These complex and problematic issues complicate the issues of representation and relevance that are central to Afrocentricity. If adopted widely, as many advocate, such race-based educational pedagogy may not be that useful, even within the confines and parameters of a ‘Black Atlantic,’ or ‘Black Diaspora,’ world. Recent scholarships underscore a very complex, overlapping, and often culturally conflicting, spheres of black diasporic experiences; experiences that are culturally complex, and not necessarily racially homogeneous (Hine & McLeod, 1999; Ackah, 1999). Furthermore, such race-based education is severely constrictive in a global context, in which the human historical experience is defined as one of interaction, exchange and shared experiences. In what constitutes a self-critique of Temple University’s “curriculum, pedagogy, and ideological perspective,” Joyce A. Joyce, the current chair of Temple’s African American Studies Department, concedes that graduates of the program lack adequate training for understanding the complexities and nuances of a globalized context. As she puts it, “I am aware that many of our students do not understand the constant repetition of words/concepts such as binary opposition, essentialism, postcolonial theory, poststructuralism, new historicism, sign, signifier, pluralist, reify, self/other, hypertext, intertextuality, decentering, deconstruction, etc.” (Joyce, 2000)
Globalization requires that people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds will need to come to grips with radically new complexities and complementarities of the human experience. Such awareness will not be advanced by a pedagogy that emphasizes race and ethnic exclusivity. Race has historically mandated awareness of distinctiveness, whether in a hegemonic or subordinate context. It emphasizes dichotomy, conflict and negative historical encounters; often elevating those negative encounters into absolute constructs of human encounters (i.e., black-white as absolute and incompatible), thereby foreclosing possibilities of discovering and appreciating commonalities. Each of the phases in the human historical drama of black America---Slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Civil Rights and Post-Civil Rights--- represents complex historical dramas that engaged personalities from different racial backgrounds. Furthermore, each represents aspects of a complex global experience of encounters and interactions at different historical times and spaces. In all these historical epochs, an absolute and essentialist affirmation of race would foreclose the possibility of discovering and highlighting first, the complexity of the encounters, and second, the very artificiality of race itself as a defining construct. Take slavery in the United States for example, undoubtedly one of the most racially configured in history, yet, many whites were implicated in several efforts to undermine the institution. The same could be said of Jim Crow. Although race again was the defining essence of Jim Crow, if the entire episode is viewed as part of a historical continuum, rather than an isolated phase, race becomes problematic as a distinguishing element. Many whites were involved in the struggle to end Jim Crow in the United States. The same applies to the Civil rights movement. The martyrdom of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and the efforts and sacrifices of several other white students in the freedom rides and marches underscore the problematic of an essentialist projection of race.
Globalization undoubtedly has its problems. On a more general level, there is the openly expressed concern over, and at times violent reactions to, the economic implications of globalization; that is, the domineering status of wealthy nations, and multi-nationals, relative to the disadvantaged position of smaller and weaker nations. The specific issue, however, for the Afrocentrists is the perception of globalization as a vehicle for Eurocentric cultural hegemony. But there are those who see in the drama of ‘unequal encounters,’ and discoveries that globalization entails, positive elements that would facilitate understanding and appreciation of the cross cultural, and interactive nature of the human historical experience; resulting in the acquisition of better knowledge of each other, and greater appreciation for each other. The adoption of a race-based pedagogy would only impose unnecessary limits on the possibility of participating actively in, and benefiting from, the expansive parameters of human encounters. There is no doubt that many of the atrocities and manifestations of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ that currently inform human encounters, may likely be tampered by a global context that facilitates greater mutual appreciation and respect among humanity.
Many advocates of race-based pedagogy for black Americans, however, remain apprehensive of both globalization and multicultural education. Neither, in their judgment is completely reassuring. Yet, acknowledging the legitimacy of their concern does not diminish the likelihood that something positive could result from greater human encounters. Consequently, the response and solution to the educational/pedagogical implications of globalization does not lie in a race-based education, but paradoxically in the very multicultural framework that many Afrocentric scholars still object to. There is need for a genuine and truly multicultural education that would inspire faith and confidence across the racial, ethnic and cultural lines. How we achieve this entails two mutually reinforcing processes. First, acknowledging the interactive, transforming, complementary and complex character of the human experience, and second, instituting a multicultural education that reflects and acknowledges the contributions, however minuscule, of every ethnic, racial and cultural group to the march of human civilization and progress. This is the appropriate pedagogy for the global age. All sides need to set aside their misgivings and jointly develop a viable multicultural system. Despite its shortcomings, the goals and objectives of multiculturalism are compatible with the global trajectories of the new millennium, for it seeks to imbue students with a broadened historical and cultural horizon, through providing insights into the historical and cultural worth and relevance of other cultures and peoples.
The first step, at least from the Afrocentric epistemological perspective is provided by C. Tsehloane Keto in his book, Vision, Identity and Time, in which he proposes a more integrative and flexible reformulation of Afrocentricity, such that it leaves room open for accommodation or rapprochement with other perspectives. His reformulation is based on the recognition that no single perspective can claim absolute monopoly of knowledge, but that all perspectives contribute to enriching a common pool of knowledge (Keto, 1995). This reformulation, without compromising the African centeredness, opens up the possibility for a consensus on a paradigm that could command respect and recognition across racial and cultural/ethnic lines. According to Keto,
An Afrocentric paradigm therefore asserts itself in the study and reconstruction of the past in two ways. First, it establishes the continent of Africa as the primary historical core area or center on which to build narrative about, and to undertake the analysis of, the experiences of peoples of African descent in Africa itself, Eurasia, the Americas and elsewhere…At a more inclusive dimension, the African centered perspective that emerges from the Afrocentric paradigms seeks to interpret and understand global events by infusing into the ‘recognized’ conventional guidelines extrapolated from the experience of the ‘East’ (Asia) and that of the ‘West’ (Europe), those additional ingredients whose history is traceable, in part or in whole, to the African experience. (Ibid. 22)
In Keto’s analysis, Afrocentricity becomes, “a vital contributor to a holistic approach in the study of the world and its heterogeneous people.” (Ibid)
Underscoring the global and multicultural compatibility of Afrocentricity, Keto writes,
The concern about the humanity of all people is (or should be) an essential value element in the cosmovision that undergirds an African centered perspective. It is based on a holistic approach towards all persons and a holistic premise of the world and the universe in which we exist. The historical pain of oppression should not blind anyone to the central principle of respect for all humanity as a guide to theories of interpersonal relations and the study of the human past. (Ibid. 23)
If Afrocentricity is indeed compatible with multiculturalism, if it is reformulated to align with other perspectives, then, a major obstacle is cleared for a more representative and truly multicultural and multifaceted perspective that mirrors the interactive, complex and complementary character of the new global reality. A major challenge, however, is achieving a consensus on multiculturalism. Many, on both sides of the debate, perceive multiculturalism as a hegemonic paradigm. This only underscores the complexity of the problem. We may never achieve a consensus on a universally acceptable paradigm. Does this mean then that we have to contend ad infinitum with conflicting pedagogical philosophies? I hope not. While we may not be able to come up with a consensus on the universal, we can still be able to agree on the limitations of a race-based pedagogy. No race or people went through history in isolation. The human historical drama entailed encounters, cultural exchanges and transformations. A viable and productive pedagogy is one that reflects this multi-level process, and educates people to view themselves as part of a larger and broader human family and experience; one that inculcates greater knowledge of, and appreciation for, each other’s unique roles and contributions. Keto’s reformulation of Afrocentricity is a step in this direction.
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