This topic requires us to ask a question first, not just the obvious question of “What is an African centered education,” but what is required is posing the even more profound question: “an African centered education for whom and for what purpose?”
I do not presuppose that a hypothetical African centered education is in and of itself of major value unless we know whom and what we are speaking about as both the subjects and the objects of that education, and unless we are clear on what is the purpose of such an education. My contention is that audience and purpose are the two least discussed sides of the African education triangle, whose third side is the content or curriculum of African centered education. Except for a brief comment at the end, I will focus on the questions of identity and goals.
The dominant society Euro-centric educational modality presupposes that their education system is good for everyone, and if not good for everyone in the abstract, is de facto required of everyone over whom they have dominion, which is a large percentage of the world. Second, the dominant society presupposes that their education is a requirement of civilization. Unfortunately, many of us who reject Euro-centric educational information often adopt Euro-centric educational methods and philosophy. We presuppose that audience is not a major question and that a dominating intent is a given.
In addition to defining African centered education in terms of philosophy and curriculum, when we address this issue of African education it seems to me to be important for us to also clarify who the “we” of African education is and what is our purpose in obtaining an African centered education. Answering those two concerns, i.e., the identity of the audience and the intended goal of achieving education will enable us to realistically define “African centered education” grounded in the context of functionality rather than abstracted into the context of rhetoric and fantasy.
Let us first, then, consider the question of the identity of our audience, which, of course, presupposes, that we identify ourselves. First of all, my concern for Africa is defined by, Africa the people, and not simply Africa the land. Wherever we are and whatever we do, taken in its totality, that defines what Africa is.
Our ancient civilizations are important but they are not the sole criterion. Indeed, to the degree that our traditional life did not enable us to withstand the blows of the empire, to the degree that our traditional gods did not enable us to reject the missionary impulses or at the very least incorporate the new god into our beliefs rather than having the new god dictate the rejection of our traditions, to the degree that our traditional values and beliefs collaborated with the European invaders, to that same degree I suggest there are African traditions which, at best, need to be modified and, perhaps, even ought to be discarded.
My first position is that I celebrate people and my second position is that I am critical not just of my historic enemies but also I am, and indeed must be, self critical. I do not buy the myth of race, the myth of racial universality, the myth of dualism, this is, a thing, a person, an action is ipso facto either good or bad, and is not subject to transformation nor contextualization. I believe in the traditional African dialectic, which recognizes that everything is contextual and all things are capable of transformation.
There are no African countries in Africa. Each one of those countries is European defined entities which, at best, are administered by Africans, and usually Africans who are European educated. In fact, the concept of Africa as we speak of it is itself a European concept, a bundling together of various peoples and beliefs under a racist label to facilitate colonialism. There will be no true African nationalism until the nation states of Africa are redesigned to facilitate the development of African people rather than be maintained as a leftover form of colonial domination, forms which were established to serve the interest of English, French, Portuguese, and to a lesser extent German and Belgium colonizers.
What is an African? Is this a racial definition? Is this a cultural definition? Is this a political definition based on historical relations of the last five or six hundred years? Are mixed blood Africans, any less African than those who are unmixed? It is not our way to exclude. The first task of an African centered education is to help us define what being African is. I believe that Africans, and all other people, are defined by color, culture and consciousness.
Color is a racial definition, race in the sense of breeding population, a group of people with common genetic roots. I also believe that rather than create sub-categories and breakdowns to the point of absurdity. We should acknowledge quite simply a normative standard. For me, African is inclusive. One can racially claim Africa if some (although not necessarily all) of one’s ancestors are racially African and if one chooses to continue that racial identity. My qualifying “and” quite simply recognizes that if a single person who is racially African decides to dissolve him or herself into another group, be they Asian or European, then, over generations, the individual’s Africaness will cease to be an issue. In fact, my caveat is that color is not an individual definition but is a group and generational definition.
Culture is a way of life, again defined by normative or group standards. The culture one exhibits is the culture that defines the person. We can learn, understand, and relate to many different cultures, but in the final analysis it is our social living which determines which culture we are. Most human beings are born into a culture, but it is also possible to adopt a culture, and over generations become native to the adopted culture.
Consciousness is the critical element, particularly in the context of liberation. We must be aware of our people and culture, accept our people and culture, and immerse ourselves in our people and culture. Awareness means more than simple experiencing. Indeed one can witness and not understand, just as one can understand without being a witness. The best is to both witness, that is, experience, and to understand, that is, critically reflect on the culture. Given the reality of colonialism and neo-colonialism, it is impossible to be African in the modern world without being socially conscious of what it means to be African, what racism means, what colonialism means. To be African is to be self-reflective.
Finally, on this question of relevance, my basic contention is that in order for an African centered education to be meaningful it needs to be focused on development. If an African centered education does not specifically address itself to the needs of our people then it has failed to be relevant to the struggle although it may have great relevance to individuals in their quest for tenure, for promotions, and for political office. As Sonia Sanchez so eloquently noted a number of years ago in evaluating a position put forth by some well meaning brothers, we should respond to all advocates of ungrounded and non-contemporary Afrocentricity with this phrase: “Uh-huh, but how does that free us!”
How does that free us is precisely the question to ask -- especially when we are clear on who “us” is. I am not interested in joining any atavistic, nostalgic society that knows more about what happened four thousand years ago, four thousand miles away than it does about what happened forty years ago within a four mile radius of where we meet today. The purpose of calling on our ancestors is to sustain life in the present and insure life in the future, and not simply nor solely to glorify the past.
I reiterate the need to be self critical and the need to be grounded in the lives of our people. Far too many Afrocentrics are petit bourgeoisie professionals who are based at predominately Eurocentric educational institutions. Far too much of the focus of contemporary Afrocentrism is on the long ago and far away. Where is the community base? Where is the focus on the needs of the community? To a certain extent, much of what we see in some narrow Afrocentric theorists is an attempt to compensate for years spent suffering under the constant and withering intellectual onslaught of formal education teaching Black professionals that Black people are intellectually inferior. After one has invested so many years in academe, one sometimes spends an equally inordinate amount of time researching to prove to Whites that Black people are not only as smart as Whites, but indeed that we were the world’s first smart people. “Uh huh, but how does that free us?”
The issue is not about proving anything to Whites. The issue is meeting the needs of our people, being grounded in our people. Furthermore the inordinate amount of energy devoted to the study, praising, and admiration of African kings and pharaohs displays a serious sense of inadequacy and disdain for the common woman and man. What difference does it make to me how smart the leader was if the majority of the people are kept in ignorance? I don’t care how intelligent and spiritually refined the royal order was. What were the conditions, relative level of educational achievement and qualitative life of the people who were like you and I? Tell me about the lives of the masses, what we didn’t and what we did. Let us learn from our mistakes and build on our achievements in the context of building serious social relationships among ordinary people rather than this almost mystical interest in kings and things.
The upliftment of the masses does not mean that our task is to turn our brothers and sisters into “junior Europeans.” The upliftment of our people does not mean that we are trying to civilize anyone, or to teach them how to wear business suits and ties, or to show them how to pay taxes and speak properly. In fact, it means quite the opposite. The upliftment of our people means securing and returning to the hands of our people the power to define and determine our own lives. Upliftment quite simply means to end outside domination and exploitation, and to reintroduce our people as the subjects, the makers and shapers of their own destiny.
In order to fulfill this mission, the petit bourgeois, the professionals, the educated, will have to physically and psychologically reintegrate themselves into the day to day life of the people who they hope to uplift. They will have to speak to and with working people about an expanded sense of the world and our ability to actively participate in building the future. Additionally, they will also have to listen to and respond to the concerns, aspirations, and ideas of the working people. In short they will have to be organizers who both bring information and skills to serve our people as well as receive sustenance and inspiration to keep on developing. In short, we are talking about the particular (the professional) and the general (the people) engaged in a dialectic of self-development and self-empowerment that neglects neither and enriches both — properly speaking a European language is not a prerequisite of this process.
How come many Black intellectuals can’t or choose not to sing, dance, or perform our music? How come we don’t write about our music, do serious studies of our music which are detailed and insightful rather than non-serious miscellaneous general platitudes? If our music is so important how is it that in practice we devote so little attention to the study, documentation, and propagation of Great Black Music? How come we don’t advocate the economic control of our music in terms of our own actual participation in the dollar and labor investment in the development of recording companies, distribution companies, production companies, and critical journals?
If we are truly African centered, beyond listening to watered down versions of our music on the radio and owning five or six records, how come our personal libraries are so lacking in recordings, not to mention books on and about, our music? How come we are becoming experts on and conversant in Egyptian hieroglyphics but ignore our music? Could it be that we are not as African in the day to day expression and understanding of our culture as we talk and dress like we are?