African Traditions, Educate to Liberate

My African-Centered Education Experience

Years ago, a well respected educator, activist brother and local charter school founder and I got into a heated, rather public debate about what constitutes an authentic African-centered education (ACE). As one might expect, our exchange was fiercely personal (driven by our own unique worldview), revelatory in its degree of discontent and sadly, the polarizing effects of our verbal sparring endures even today. At the time, I was both a product of an independently founded African-centered school (1970s), as well as a proud educator within a modern (then 1990s) African-centered institution, which is admirably still in operation in 2018. It is safe to assume that I was an admittedly fierce proponent of the vast diversity and value of an African-centered education. Given that my colleague was in the process of leaving a sister school to establish his own innovative, proudly themed ACE institution, I expected there to be greater commonality on our collective definition of what an ideal African-centered school offers and its empowering impact on its Black students. What I did not expect was for an experienced African-centered educator to cast aspersions on my passionate fervor and to openly negate the merit of my own distinct, academic background by arrogantly asserting “You went where? That was NOT an African-centered school!”. Well my dear brother, I begged to differ back then during the course of our legendary debate, and not much has changed today. The only distinction is that in writing, I am typically more thoughtful and explicit than my fiery Aries personality compels me to exercise in verbal communication; thus, I am now eager to provide ‘receipts’ for my earlier assertion with vivid, case illustrations of my own multifaceted, African-centered education experience.

In a nutshell, based upon my own educational background prior to becoming a teacher at Detroit’s nationally renowned Malcolm X Academy (MXA), I recognized that any institution could potentially offer a rich, fulfilling African-centered knowledge base and experience – without ever having to ostensibly classify itself as African-centered. This is true particularly provided that the all-inclusive educational focus is consciously and deliberately grounded in the Black students’ differentiated academic, social, cultural, and environmental framework of needs. Despite my impassioned argument, my colleague proceeded to soundly berate me for my ignorance of what he deemed to be the most indelible component of an African-centered educational experience: the public labeling and intentional structuring of a school as a viable counter to the traditional, albeit Eurocentric, public school. In other words according to my colleague, in order to be deemed an ACE prototype, the founders and curriculum must have been granted a sort of universal, ‘hotep-anointed’ stamp of authenticity to operate under the auspices of what (the select and extremely well-read) Black nationalist community deemed as sufficiently worthy of the ACE moniker. While there is obvious merit to community investment and anointment, in my fiercely opinionated way, I still believe that despite the absence of any formal validation and status – a chosen number of exceptional, tailor-made schools, I.E. Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit (NTSD), represented an authentic African-centered educational experience for all enrolled students. Further, based upon more than a decade of experience at Malcolm X Academy, as one of the founder-anointed ‘Master Teachers’, I am similarly inclined to believe that select, independent school institutions have the capacity to morph into intentionally enriching, ACE environments via a prescriptive set of ingredients which intentionally place the Black child at the epicenter of the learning experience.

In terms of my beloved alma mater, Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit, co-founders George and Carmen N’Namdi established the institution in 1978 not as a calculated African-centered school in the modern sense, but as a living testament to the short and meaningful life of their youngest child, Nataki Talibah. Following the tragic, untimely passing of their 14-month old daughter, the N’Namdi’s implemented their sound and collective vision of how their other three children (and essentially entire generations of Black children like my siblings and I), should be educated. It was their Revolutionary decision to focus NTSD on “thinking globally” and creating a place where “the African American child could view themselves as the norm”, which rendered my unique academic foundation as thoroughly affirming, infinitely rewarding, and indisputably African-centered. In the empowered ACE tradition, even the name of the school is reflective of self-determination, self-love and allegiance to historical significance, as Nataki (Nah-TAH-kee) means of high birth and Talibah (Tah-LEE-bah) translates as a seeker after knowledge. Thus, the school’s name (originating from Central Africa), equally represented an important tribute to the African tradition as well as an expression of proud aspiration, centered in an authentic African-centered educational experience. Marked by its innovative curriculum inclusive of a consistent promotion of the knowledge of our African origins and the potential of our inherent genius, NTSD offered a most memorable and idyllic African-centered school experience without necessarily attracting controversy for their admittedly unique approach to education. For nearly 20 years, NTSD operated as a small, private and extremely unique cultivator of the various un-tapped talents and genius of Black youth in the city of Detroit. Among the positive, non-traditional practices embraced by NTSD, the school was featured in the New York Times in February, 2005 for “having practiced transcendental meditation twice daily for years” with a documented record of positive implications and results. According to Mrs. Carmen N’Namdi, “Given the enormous stresses of today’s world, children, like adults, need to learn how to rest and relieve tension.” It was not until 1995, that NTSD morphed from its humble beginnings as a small, private institution with an impressive roster of the children of conscious, educated Black professionals into a larger, public charter school under the authorization of Central Michigan University. Although the remarkable school closed its’ doors permanently in 2016, as an apparent casualty in the systemic dismantling of the entire Detroit’s public schools system via state control and years of ’emergency mis-management’; Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit will eternally command an impressive legacy of innovation, and excellence in education with African students as the prominent nucleus of its’ 36-year formula for academic achievement and success – Asé!

Within Detroit’s historic Malcolm X Academy, led by its nationally esteemed founding Principal, Dr. Clifford Watson, there was always an intentional African-centered purpose and plan for the school. This paradigm deliberately countered the norm of America’s mis-educated Black students, especially that of the endangered Black male. The proud history of this institution and its’ continuing legacy still in existence today, demonstrates that the city of Detroit was truly visionary and Revolutionary in pedagogical innovation. However, the MXA narrative is equally synonymous with a documented struggle to implement African-centered education “By Any Means Necessary”, because the school only exists because of a remarkable ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. Deborah McGriff, then the Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools (DPS), noted in a 1992 New York Times article that, “As a school district we are committed to African-centered education, not only in the (African-centered) academies, but to infuse African-centered concepts across the entire curriculum.” This outspoken, courageous commitment to making African-centered education accessible for all students, particularly the documented majority of Black children educated in the city of Detroit, had the capacity to dramatically turn the tide of the widespread mis-education of Black students in Detroit. However in the end, ACE is embraced by an overwhelming number of Blacks and feared by an equal number of Whites, thus the potential implication of such an objective ultimately positioned an inescapable target on Dr. McGriff’s brief leadership tenure at DPS. The successful struggle to establish MXA also notably popularized the creation of countless, African-centered schools both within and outside Detroit. It can be argued that the entire era of the historic relevance of an African-centered education movement, stands as an enlightening testament of the power of self-determination on the part of Black parents taking control over their own children’s academic success. The African-centered school movement, successfully ignited in the city of Detroit with legendary independent institutions like Aisha Shule’/W.E.B. DuBois Academy, and exemplary public school models like Malcolm X Academy, ultimately expanded to include ACE institutions in: Atlanta, Cleveland, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Oakland, and Washington. The enduring legacy of Malcolm X Academy is that it is a purposeful, proud and unapologetic African-centered institution erected in the face of unprecedented vitriol and White Supremacist hatred.

Contested from its inception, MXA suffered incomprehensible evil repercussions from the unrepentant White Supremacists living in the racially segregated community of Warrendale, MI. In daily scenes eerily reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement led school integration efforts of the “Little Rock Nine” of 1957, a heavy police presence patrolled the borderline-suburban Detroit, Malcolm X Academy location. Imagine the poignant visual of helicopters circling overhead and racist, White residents shouting vile epithets, “I don’t want ni”*#@. in my neighborhood!” and “Go home!”. Despite this madness and the mentally, physically taxing distress accompanied with my early years teaching at MXA, I can attest that within the coveted sanctity of our high-performing, academically rigorous and nurturing school environment, we collectively achieved an ideal African-centered educational experience. While the internal environment offered an academic nirvana, the external scene was that of a virtual war zone. Vandals regularly spray painted swastikas on the school; residents threw rotten eggs at our beloved, uniformed K-8 children and at school buses; the most brazen racists even fired guns into the school and regularly threatened, lobbied and/or protested against the presence of an all-Black school in ‘their’ self-appointed, segregated Detroit neighborhood.

One memorable morning, while en route to MXA with my well-respected female colleague (we caught two buses daily, at the break of dawn and walked several blocks through the neighborhood, to reach the MXA campus), we came face-to-face with a wild eyed, cursing racist who aggressively jumped off their porch upon seeing our approach on foot and proceeded to ‘sick’ their rabid, barking dog on both of us. Resisting the urge to run, we simply stood firm as we had discussed in advance the various ways to defend ourselves against the potential for unsolicited acts of violence. With my colleague’s steely gaze, and our dual symphony of loud, unafraid and equally profane voices we proceeded to warn the resident (and the entire neighborhood), that in no uncertain terms “both you and your possessed canine mutt, will meet your definite end on this morning, if you don’t back the fuck up!”. The resident slowly retreated, whereupon we proceeded to the MXA campus to report the harrowing incident to administrators and the male volunteers on site (who regularly patrolled the school’s a.m./p.m. commute). Without hesitation, the well-dressed, unarmed men promptly separated into three groups, accompanied by our founding principal: one faction opted to remain on site, another drove through the neighborhood in search of signs of potential danger and a third group walked through the surrounding area and specifically surveyed the residence at the origin of the threat, as a means to ensure the future safety of any/all potential MXA staff, students. Needless to say, we never personally encountered additional threats of violence from neighborhood residents. Thankfully, to the credit of a cadré of hundreds of Black parents, national community activists, local city officials and the mighty F.O.I. of the Nation of Islam, an ever-present, strong base of support volunteered to ensure the safety of all original MXA students and staff, on a daily basis. It is noteworthy that the hate-filled White residents of Warrendale did not limit their historic racism to hate-filled rhetoric, petty vandalism and repeated threats of physical violence. Some affluent residents and attention-seeking White feminist organizations even went so far as to obtain legal representation to thoroughly investigate the school and to repeatedly challenge its’ African-centered curriculum, male-dominated enrollment and for such nonsensical offenses as a refusal to pledge allegiance to the American flag (á la Colin Kaepernick), in opposition to the daily recitation of a meaningless pledge which never applied to the freedom of African people in America. At MXA we opted instead to recite our own academically affirming school pledge every morning: “We at Malcolm X Academy, will strive for excellence in our quest to be the best. We will rise above every challenge with our heads held high. We’ll always keep the faith when others say die. March on till victory is ours: Amandla!” The featured image, depicts my own MXA Social Studies classroom early in my teaching career and offers a brief yet revealing snapshot into the powerful portrait of the disciplined, high expectations driven, and overwhelming purpose-filled identity of an African-centered education experience. An Education Week reporter regarded my classroom poster devoted to freeing political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal as suspect, but also concluded “In a city with three full-fledged African-centered academies and 18 other schools with African-centered themes of one form or another, Malcolm X is the feisty granddaddy of them all”. This is an accurate depiction of a legacy of resounding relevance in African-centered education, for which many educators, parents, and grassroots activists are immensely proud.

In retrospect, as spirited as the earlier-referenced debate was re: the specific formula that constitutes a genuine African-centered education, it is highly likely that there are no right or exact components . . . merely a difference of opinion as it relates to the overarching, moral code of ACE. Though it admittedly took far too long, I am now able to recognize (in my 40s), a conclusion I could not calmly communicate (in my 20s), which is that the merit of an atypical African-centered education is likely as varied as the student and teacher products themselves. In any case, based upon my own unique educational biography as both a student and teacher within equally enriching and unique African-centered school setting(s), I am comfortable in outlining what I feel to be the most obligatory components of such an idyllic, potentially transformative and inherently rich African-centered school experience. Namely, African-centered educators must be willing, competent and well-versed in supplementing the curriculum, to reflect the vast African contributions to humanity, as this is (often intentionally), omitted from the universal and overwhelmingly Eurocentric academic curriculum. In addition, a cross-curricular focus upon African history must be deftly weaved into the instructional norms of every core subject area, as a means to promote the ideology that excellence in education is the norm for people of African descent, rather than the exception. There must be an intentional, academically rigorous and strategic focus upon STEM and the Arts, given that Science-Technology-Engineering-Math, are disciplines which were mastered and largely revolutionized as a result of the significant body of inventions, research study, and developments of African people. This offers an obvious counter, to the American mis-education fueled tradition of an overwhelming focus upon arts, humanities, trades and athletics for Black students. This also challenges the common narrative of the natural service, employee ranks and athletic prowess of Black children, while negating the presence of our equally significant intellectual genius and nurturing our natural entrepreneurial capacity. The diversity of the African-centered school’s leadership and staff should aptly reflect the school’s enrollment and the rigorous professional development plan must immerse educators in the ‘best practices’ of African-centered classroom management and teaching, learning (which differs from that of traditional schools, overwhelmingly aligned with an aggressive school-to-prison pipeline). Finally, African-centered schools must place the unique needs, learning styles and agenda of the Black child at the center of all educational decision and should aggressively embrace a year-round school calendar, as a viable attempt to level the academic playing field for America’s unique demographic of oppressed, Black students.

The diversity of my own lifetime of African-centered school experiences, cultivated intimate family-friendly environment(s) inclusive of an immersion in African history, a natural, unspoken pursuit of universally high expectations, an individually affirming disciplinary code of conduct, a school community village reflective of unconditional love and healthy doses of: self-love, purpose, esteem, inquiry, research, discovery and critical thinking to empower lifelong seekers of knowledge and notable leaders among those of African descent. This is the intended goal of similar African-centered education institutions. Current principal and veteran educator of the now merged Paul Robeson/Malcolm X Academy, Dr. Jeffery Robinson concludes “We’re teaching our children to have full pride in their heritage, to learn and incorporate that heritage into who they are, and into the adults they will become. And most importantly, once they receive an education, they are duty-bound to come back and give back.” ~ Asé

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