Afrikan-Americans Educate Their Own

Black and white photo of Black woman helping Black child, seated at desk, write

Bernard M. Hermann

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 3, "Growing Up Southern." Find more from that issue here.

Few Afrikan-American women have enjoyed the luxury of staying at home to “raise the children” on a full-time basis. Many more have instead sought affordable child-care arrangements to enable them to extend their education or enroll in job training programs, as well as to work. 

But as more parents go into the job market, as the rate of teenage pregnancies increases, and as an increasing number of single parents find themselves the lone providers for their children, the waiting lists for day-care centers grow longer. Meanwhile, the cost of quality day care spirals upward. Given the staggering unemployment rate among Afrikan-Americans (14.2 percent overall and 36 percent for Afrikan-American youth) and the widening earned income gap between whites and Afrikan-Americans, day-care cost increases are particularly devastating for Afrikan-Americans. 

The fact that most day-care centers do not meet the particular needs of Afrikan-American children and families presents as great a problem as that of finding day care at all. Federal policies exacerbate the problem by placing limited emphasis on parent input or on training parents to work in the centers. Many government officials and day-care providers proclaim their commitment to pre-school education related to the child’s family, community and culture. Yet Afrikan-American families most often encounter programs whose treatment and misunderstanding of their culture and aspirations do Afrikan-American children a grave disservice. 

Most day-care programs are based on theories and models developed largely by white educators and psychologists. All too often, standardized I.Q. and language examinations still form part of early childhood assessment, even though many of these tests have been proven inaccurate and culturally biased. More importantly, these methods have lowered teachers’ motivation and their expectations for Afrikan-American youth. 

A recent Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) publication, entitled “The Lasting Effects After Pre-School,” states: “Head Start programs were initiated in the hope that changing children’s attitudes and abilities would be instrumental in extracting them from poverty.” In other words, this multi-million dollar program was based upon the premise that Afrikan-Americans are themselves the primary cause of their own poverty. This is a classic case of “blaming the victim,” and is just one of the assumptions held by the dominant society which directly or indirectly affect day-care programming. Other such assumptions relate to Afrikan- American language (that it is simply broken English), family structure (that it is characterized by broken homes or illegitimate children), child-rearing practices (that they are too harsh), concern about community improvement (that it is lacking), and the ability to make constructive decisions about their own condition (that it doesn’t exist). Much too often these are reflected in the centers’ teaching methodology, organizational structure and curriculum or program design. Too few centers are organized to include parents as program planners and decision-makers. 

Analogous to the agonizing forced separation of family members inflicted upon Afrikan-Americans during the chattel slavery experience is the separation (alienation) which this society and its educational institutions — including day care centers — require low-income Afrikan-American parents to endure. Think of it — a low-income Afrikan-American child is taught (and required to act as if) the values, language, behaviors and fears of his/her parents and relatives are wrong. His or her community is directly or indirectly depicted as a malignant cancer (called the ghetto, the slums, the projects, etc.) from which escape is a must. These conclusions about Afrikan-American culture and the changes to be made most often are not decided nor directed by Afrikan-Americans themselves. Nevertheless, they are transmitted in day-care programs to Afrikan-American children. Afrikan and Afrikan-American history and culture are excluded. The use of European-American texts and materials forces Afrikan children to experience heroism, intrigue, humor and fantasy through the eyes and words of white Americans. And most centers teach nothing of what it means to be of Afrikan descent in this racist society. 

For example, many Afrikan-American parents follow a West Afrikan tradition of deleting the “th” sound and replacing it with a “d” (as in “dis” for “this”) or “f” (as in “Souf instead of “South”). They usually continue to use these Afrikan-American linguistic substitutions even after their children have eagerly shared their most recent English lesson — “Mama, my teacher said that we supposed to say ‘that,' not ‘dat.’” The result is alienation. The children are made to feel ashamed of their parents’ language. The parents, although joyful that their children are receiving a “good education,” feel helpless and angry as they become subtly isolated from their own children. Parents hear the society’s negative views of them, their communities, their Afrikan race and culture uttered innocently through the lips of their own children. The accompanying pain makes poignantly clear the failure of the educational programs in most traditional centers, as it emphasizes the historically oppressed condition endured by Afrikan-Americans in this country. 

In the teaching of language, how much more wholesome it would be to teach Afrikan-American children their community's expression of their Afrikan culture — including linguistic responses to the English language and oppression — as well as standard English as a second (but not optional) language. Children could then learn to use the language appropriate to a particular setting rather than being forced unwittingly to promote European cultural dominance. How much more affirmative of the family and motivating to the child it would be to solicit from parents family customs, folk tales, songs and history and incorporate this heritage into the formal lesson plans. To do less is to drive a wedge between children and their pasts and to divide them from significant portions of themselves. Many Afrikan-Americans believe, further, that education suitable for Afrikan-Americans depends less on equal access to any kind of pre-schooling or public education offered and more on the character and quality of the education received. Asa Hilliard III, dean of the school of education at San Francisco State University, has compared the instruction currently provided by traditional early childhood educational centers with the training of sheep dogs. In an article published in the Black Child Advocate entitled “In Loco Parentis or Retrieving Responsibility,” he concludes that Afrikan-Americans have accepted “training” for education and as a result often become “living, breathing, highly skilled, quite intelligent robots. ... As black people in America at this very moment we continue to pay a terrible price for what is happening to the minds of our children.” 

Afrikan-Americans have traditionally challenged the education prescribed by the dominant society. The increasing expressions of outrage and the forming of alternatives for Afrikan-American education represents a revival of a similar movement which reached its apex in the early nineteenth century. In 1838, Afrikan-American activist M.H. Freeman prefigured today’s discussion of the effect of oppression and self-concept: “Our oppressed condition in this country has rendered us deficient in the first essentials of true manhood — self-respect. Thus in early childhood the circumstances that surround [the Afrikan-American youth’s] parents and the treatment received from the community all tend to diminish his respect and reverence for them, hence to deprecate his respect for himself.” 

While Freeman drew connections between formal and informal education and oppression, one of the revolutionary giants of that period, David Walker, specifically criticized the superficial instruction that white teachers and schools provided Afrikan children. In his Appeals to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), he illuminated the fact that the goal of white educators was to create in Afrikan-Americans a servile mentality and behavior. Walker advocated that Afrikan-Americans should educate themselves: “Remember to let your aims, your labour, among your brethren and particularly the youth, be the dissemination of education.” Acknowledging the self-hatred prevalent among Afrikan-Americans, he advised this cure: 


Never mind what the ignorant ones among us say, many of who when we speak to them for their own good, and try to enlighten their minds, laugh at you, and perhaps tell you plump to your face, that they want no instruction from you or any other Niger and all such aggravating language. Now if you are a man of understanding and sound sense, I conjure you ... to impute their actions to ignorance, and wink at their follies, and do your best to get around them some way or other, for they are your brethren; and I declare to you that it is for your own interest to teach and enlighten them. 


Walker proclaimed that the goal of Afrikan-American education should be to achieve freedom from oppression by any means necessary and to establish an independent nation of Afrikan peoples. In the same spirit, free Afrikans, opposing the quality of education their children were receiving in Boston’s integrated public schools, removed their children in the 1820s and established schools in local Afrikan-American churches. 


The revival of this critical and independent thrust during the last 15 years has resulted in new definitions of educational goals and “basic skills” for Afrikan-American youth. A curriculum minimally suited for Afrikan-American children of any age should include much more than the traditional cognitive skills; it should direct the children toward answering questions relevant to their lives as Afrikan-Americans and to their goal of liberation from racial, economic and cultural oppression: questions like where did we come from; what is happening to us; who are we; how can our condition be changed; what is my goal; and who am I. 

Afrikan-American community leaders, educators and parents are advocating community control of existing day-care centers and schools. They are also establishing independent schools to educate their children about their own history, present struggle and future aspirations. 

The Federation of Child-Care Centers of Alabama (FOCAL) advocates community control of educational resources in Alabama. FOCAL encourages independent planning at local levels and provides both technical and resource assistance. Through FOCAL, Afrikan-American community groups are forging educational goals and programs appropriate to their children and establishing standards which guide both teachers and parents. Organized in 1972, FOCAL exists today as a statewide federation of community-controlled day-care center operators and advocates. Through the Federation Update (its bimonthly publication), FOCAL’s 650-plus members keep abreast of national and state child care legislation, child nutrition, CETA programming, new or continuing issues in early childhood education and program development. FOCAL members serve on policy-making groups, testify before national and state legislators and speak before groups and organizations concerned with children. For more information, write: FOCAL, P.O. Box 214, 3703 Cleveland Ave., Montgomery, AL 36101. (205)262-3456. 

“We Believe”   


That with fundamental resources Black and low-income leaders can organize and educate themselves, strategize and work together at all levels for the development and control of their community and: 

1. That low-income people do in fact have a very real interest in their community and in community improvement. 

2. That low-income people can and should make decisions about programs that affect their community and their personal lives. 

Six months after FOCAL was organized, a conference was held in Frogmore, South Carolina, to develop a “National Black Educational System.” The emerging group of 28 people — representing 14 independent schools across the nation — committed themselves to organizing “the many independent educational institutions presently in operation into a uniform pattern of educational achievement, devoted to correct political objectives and dedicated to excellence.” Towards this end, they formed the Council of Independent Black Institutions (C.I.B.I.). 

Like FOCAL, C.I.B.I. provides resources and technical assistance at little or no cost to community groups interested in Afrikan-American education. C.I.B.I. maintains a Teacher Training Institute and an Afrikan Teacher Corps. The Teacher Training Institute is designed to develop “dedication, discipline and dependability” among teachers while also outlining correct ideology, curriculum content and teaching methods. The Afrikan Teacher Corps consists of Institute graduates who agree to serve C.I.B.I. for one year in an assigned location. According to C.I.B.I., “Our schools are training and educating our children to become revolutionaries, leaders and workers for our people.” For more information, write: C.I.B.I., National Executive Office, P.O. Box 232, Oberlin, Ohio, 44074. (216)775-8715. 

C.I.B.I.’s member schools and other independent black schools advocate and practice financial as well as ideological independence. The hardships this philosophy engenders are real, and are amplified in these times of inflation and unemployment. However, a significant number of Afrikan-American parents feel (as did their forebears in nineteenth century Boston) that the freedom and the educational results merit the sacrifice. Most independent Afrikan Free Schools are located in the North and West, but several exist in major Southern cities. These include the Learning House in Atlanta, the Black and Proud School in Jackson, Mississippi, and the Ahidiana Work/Study Center in New Orleans. 

Although no two schools are exactly alike, they all oppose traditional Western approaches to education, which have created a gulf between ideology and technology or academics. “We are convinced,” asserts Ahidiana’s Kalamu Salaam, “that it does make a difference whether the computer programmer is political or apolitical. Therefore, our goal is to develop technical competence and academic excellence among politicized people.” 

Atlanta’s Learning House, now a decade old, seeks to “politicize” its little people by teaching them about the true nature of America and the true needs of Afrikan people. The center has initiated new rituals appropriate to Afrikan-American struggles. For example, at birthday celebrations, the “honored” children help prepare the vegetarian meal for the celebration. They present something they have learned or created during the past year and make a pledge for something they wish to accomplish in the coming year. 

At Ahidiana the familiar nursery rhymes give way to songs designed to help the children think about their identity: “Are we tables? No! Are we backwards? No! Are we Afrikan? Ye bo (Kiswahili for yes) — Are we negroes? No! Are we. . . .” 

The teachers also shun traditional workbooks, posters and text materials; instead, they create their own. Ahidiana currently prints and publishes two books: Who Will Speak For Us?/New Afrika Folk Tales, and Herufi: An Alphabet Reader. The teachers have written a teaching manual and plan to publish it within the next year. Hand-made posters teach that A is for “Afrika,” B is for “build,” and C is for “create.” Multi-colored flash cards illustrate indigenous Afrikan geometric shapes and what they mean. 

All these schools are vegetarian and put great emphasis on nutrition. The children at the Learning House grow a back-yard garden. Parent-teacher Amoye Wa feels that this experience teaches responsibility and inspires confidence and independence in the children. To encourage a similar diet at home, Ahidiana sponsors vegetarian cooking workshops and readily responds to parents who say, “My child says he wants some avocados, but I don’t know how to prepare them.” 

In addition to nutrition workshops, the schools instruct parents in various aspects of Afrikan-American child care. They are encouraged, and in some cases required, to participate in certain aspects of the school’s program. Getting parents to participate is easier in these schools than in many traditional centers, for these parents have already made the conscious decision to take an active hand in their children’s education. They often teach on a full-time, part-time or substitute basis and volunteer to do other work. Without this strong support from parents, the schools would have a hard time maintaining high staff-child ratios and low tuition ($75 a month at Ahidiana, $130 at the House). 

Even with this support, staying solvent and sane is quite a task. But parents and teachers believe that Afrikan-American parents who educate their own children will witness a new clarity in their own perception and planning. At Ahidiana they say, “Our struggle to educate our children has led us to assess our history and conditions, develop a rationale and ideology to guide our present course of action, and finally to project a vision of our future development.” For more information about these schools, write: Ahidiana Work/ Study Center, P.O. Box 3472, New Orleans, LA 70177. (504)949-8891. Or: The Learning House, P.O. Box 11192, Atlanta, GA. (404)752-5195. 


Due to increased occupational specialization and over-reliance on so-called “experts,” parents rarely find or forge the clarity of purpose or direction in evidence at Ahidiana. Too many Afrikan-American parents surrender their responsibility to shape their own lives, plan their own future and educate their own children. Too often this responsibility falls to “experts” whose values, attitudes and actions represent only subtler versions of their slaveholding forebearers. Even more burdensome for Afrikan-Americans is the loss of know-how and the resulting dependence which accompanies parents’ inactivity. However, the tide may be turning; it is becoming increasingly evident that Afrikan-Americans who have long pushed for self-education are being joined by increasing numbers of others. Some of these parents pressed for integration to achieve good education for their children, but are now dissatisfied with the results: the decrease in community control of schools and day-care centers, the decline in their children’s overall achievement levels and the racist values stressed in the public school and traditional day-care systems. More and more parents are pondering the relationship between education and oppression. And as more Southern Afrikan-American parents reject capitalism, racism and sexism as avenues to the good life, the search for and framing of alternative postures of living and learning are bound to increase.