There are African words on the wall. Books by African-American authors in the cabinet. Posters of notable African-American scholars on the walls. But much of what makes this an African-centered classroom is what happens when teacher Welia Dawson and her students are breaking down a poem by the English poet Rudyard Kipling.
This poem called “If” — written in the form of advice from a parent to a son — is part of the required school district curriculum. But as her students are talking about how perseverance is a theme in the poem, Dawson relates it back to another poem — this one written by the African American poet Langston Hughes.
“In ‘Mother to Son,’ isn’t she saying the same thing to her son?” Dawson asks the students in her all-male English language arts class at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, before taking the conversation to a deeper and more personal level.
“That’s something that as African American males, you need to realize,” she tells the sixth-graders. “Life for you is not going to be easy. That’s why you have to strive or work even harder to prove to the world what you’re made of. You don’t give up when times get hard.”
Schools like Paul Robeson Malcolm X, with its African-centered approach to education that is built around the notion that black children need to understand their history and culture to succeed academically, made a Detroit a leader and spurred districts in other parts of the country to replicate the approach. The school’s principal, Jeffery Robinson, is among those hoping to see a resurgence of African-centered education in the Detroit school district, something he believes could boost achievement in the struggling district.
“This is an opportunity for Detroit to return to some innovation and some pioneering that it once embarked upon at the onset of African-centered education,” Robinson said earlier this month during the first of a series of six professional development sessions that he hopes will be the start of that resurgence. Robinson has spent much of his 28-year career in African-centered schools — both as a teacher and as a principal.
“African-centered education is part of the positive legacy of DPS,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “It’s important to our reform to preserve and expand the principles of the philosophy because it empowers our students to better understand who they and who they aren’t.”
The professional development sessions are attracting veteran African-centered teachers like Dawson, as well as those who teach in traditional school settings.
Catena Alexander is one of them. Alexander, a special education teacher at Fisher Magnet Lower Academy, came to the first session hoping to learn ways to incorporate some of the practices with her kindergarten students.
She already has a long history with African-centered education. Her youngest daughter attended a charter school that used that approach, before Alexander even became a teacher.
“Their entire approach to education is entirely different,” Alexander said. “It gave my daughter a different sense of pride. It gave her a different sense of self.”
Back when her daughter was attending Nsoroma Institute, a charter school that has since closed, the city of Detroit had well over 20 African-centered schools. The school district alone had 13, but only two remain — Paul Robeson Malcolm X and Garvey Academy.
Robinson said he’s hoping that attendance at the training sessions will demonstrate interest among teachers.
“What we’re trying to do is work with [Vitti] to train teachers in what I truly feel has been missing and is key to turning around our test scores,” Robinson said. “By and large, our children have not seen themselves in the curriculum. The curriculum doesn’t reflect their lived experiences.”
At the district level, Vitti said there’s a need to strengthen the African-centered focus at Garvey “so it can offer another model for school reform as” Paul Robeson Malcolm X does. Vitti said he hopes that effort will increase enrollment at Garvey.
And the expansion of professional development, he said, is being done “to improve instruction and relationships with students in non African-centered schools throughout the district.”
PHOTO: Lori Higgins
A cabinet in Welia Dawson’s classroom at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy is decorated with African words.
During the first of the six trainings sessions, held earlier this month at Robinson’s school, several dozen attendees heard from Chike Akua of the Teacher Transformation Institute. Akua has been working with Paul Robeson Malcolm X staff for years already.
“Our children are brilliant,” Akua told the audience. “But many of them are in schools or school systems where they’re seen as a problem, rather than as people.”
Meanwhile, he said, black youth grow up in a society that has “gangsterized and criminalized young black males,” and “objectified and sexualized young black females.”
“Most of our children have not been exposed to the best of our culture. They’ve been exposed to the worst of our culture.”
He defined African-centered education this way:
“The process of using the best of African culture to examine and analyze information, meet needs and solve problems in African communities.”
And he outlined 13 essential elements of African-centered education, including placing Africa, African people, and African points of view “at the center of all things studied. In other words, it makes what we learn relevant and responsive to our needs.”
Akua said putting African points of view at the center is important because “most of what we learn in standard American curriculum … places us at the margins or in the periphery.”
Dawson, the teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X, has taught in traditional school programs and African-centered programs. She prefers the latter because the approach promotes close connections between students and teachers.
PHOTO: Lori Higgins
Teacher Welia Dawson gets a hug from a student near the end of a recent class lesson. Dawson said the African-centered approach at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy helps build better connections with students.
Teachers are referred to as “Mama” or “Baba” — African terms for mother and father. And like some mothers, Dawson is a tough disciplinarian in the classroom. But it’s also clear she knows her students well. As she was providing directions for an upcoming assignment with the girls in her English language arts class, she noticed one girl looked upset.
“The look on her face, her eyes, I knew something wasn’t quite right,” Dawson said. So she stopped in her tracks, and addressed the issue. The girl eventually left the classroom to see a counselor, but came back minutes later with a different attitude — beaming brightly later in the class when she was the first student to figure out the answer to a question that had stumped the rest of the girls in her class.
“You are given an opportunity to be more than a teacher,” Dawson said. “You are given the opportunity to let children see you as a person. You get to know them, you get to know their family. Any teacher can do that. But that’s what’s practiced at our school. That’s what’s expected at our school.”
When Dawson was talking to the boys about perseverance, she kept hammering home the importance of perseverance. She then related it back to a speech they had recently read in class, in which the speaker urged them to question how they would be remembered, to be the best they can be, and to not accept being average.
“For African American males, that’s a motto you need to get up in the morning saying to yourself,” Dawson said.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
“We may call ourselves African Americans but we are truly disconnected from Africa. I say WE because I’m not excluded! I thought ‘my people’ came from South Carolina … but this heritage was only a small part of my people’s journey that began in Ghana, a place that had kings well before Europe had theirs.”
These were the words of American actor and director Michael Jai White, who visited Ghana towards the end of 2018.
He and over 40 African diasporan celebrities took part in “The Full Circle Festival”, designed to attract visitors to Ghana. The list included Idris Elba, Boris Kodjoe, Naomi Campbell, Anthony Anderson, and Adrienne-Joi Johnson. During the visit, Akwamuhene Odeneho Kwafo Akoto III, the Akwamu Paramount Chief, enstooled White as Chief “Oduapong” meaning “Tree with strong roots that does not fear the storm”.
The Ghana government invited the celebrities as part of the “Year of Return, Ghana 2019”. The initiative involves a year-long series of activities. These include visits to heritage sites, healing ceremonies, theatre, and musical performances, lectures, investment forums, and relocation conferences. The aim is to promote Ghana as a tourist destination and investment opportunity.
This year marks the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in Jamestown in the US. The Year of Return represents an effort to “unite Africans on the continent with their brothers and sisters in the diaspora”.
In support, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said:
We know of the extraordinary achievements and contributions (Africans in the diaspora) made to the lives of the Americans, and it is important that this symbolic year – 400 years later – we commemorate their existence and their sacrifices.
In commemoration, numerous visitors are traveling to Ghana. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will also conduct the Jamestown (Virginia, US) to Jamestown (Accra, Ghana) Memorial Trip.
Ghana is number 4 on CNN Travel’s 19 best places to visit in 2019.
African diasporans as “returnees” dates back to Ghana’s immediate post-independence period. Shortly after independence in 1957, President Kwame Nkrumah invited many well-known African diasporans to assist with nation-building. These included Julian Bond, Martin Luther King Jr., George Padmore, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Leslie Lacy, Muhammad Ali, and W.E.B. Du Bois.
In the 1990s, President Jerry Rawlings initiated heritage tourism based on the transatlantic slave trade and Pan-Africanism. Ghana’s coastal forts and castles became integral to heritage, tourism and development strategies. Events included the Pan African Festival of Theatre and Arts (PANAFEST) and Emancipation Day. All were dedicated to the promotion of Pan-Africanism and attracted African diasporans, notably African Americans.
As part of the nation’s 50th independence in 2007, President John Kufour partnered with the Discovery Channel and launched “Ghana – The Presidential Tour”. He introduced “The Joseph Project” that targeted middle-class, Christian African-Americans.
The forts and castles remained center stage. Additional plans included the development of commemoration gardens, DNA projects, and sponsored tours. It also involved developing an interfaith center at Assin Manso, where captive Africans had their last bath before being transported onto the slave ships.
President John Atta Mills continued with heritage tourism as a means of development. In 2009, the most high-profile African diasporan tourist and pilgrim, US President Barack Obama, visited Cape Coast Castle.
In 2015, President John Mahama sought assistance from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation for the forts and castles, and further development of heritage tourism.
Over the years, successive governments have also offered opportunities such as granting citizenship, dual nationality status, tax exemptions, and land grants to diasporans to encourage returnees.
Since Alex Haley’s 1980s popular novel and television series, Roots, African diasporans engaging in “heritage tourism”, “roots tourism” or “pilgrimage”, travel to Africa as tourists and pilgrims. This blurs the distinctions between travel, tourism, and pilgrimage.
African diasporans visit the forts and castles as the material embodiment of death, violence, and subjugation during the transatlantic slave trade. They are the sites where captive Africans forcibly departed the continent to be trafficked through the Middle Passage and enslaved in the New World. Interpretations over the histories told at these sites are frequently contested.
Diasporans also visit other sites such as Manyhia Palace in Asante that represent the glorification of an African regal past.
In 2018, Ghana secured $40 million from the World Bank to develop heritage tourism. It is hoped this will stimulate economic development.
Yet, ongoing debates view heritage, tourism, and development in various ways. Some view it as exploitative and destructive, replicating and perpetuating colonial forms of domination and structural underdevelopment. Others view it positively. A few remain ambivalent.
An act of reclamation
The Year of Return 2019 remains deeply embedded within a capitalist culture that engages with a complex set of practices, discourses, and meanings.
Commercialization of the “return” requires the saleability of the history of the transatlantic slave trade for African diasporan consumption.
Herein lies a painful irony: the commodification of heritage directed at African diasporans is based on a system that was once the commodification of people, through the transatlantic slave trade.
Descendants of the enslaved of the past are the heritage tourists and/or pilgrims in the present.
Still, constructions of Africa have always been central to African diasporic imaginaries. White’s comments resonate for many African diasporans. For many diasporans, the “return” symbolises an act of heritage reclamation. Africa is viewed as the motherland. It is considered a source of black resistance, pride and dignity.
For Africans and African diasporans such as White, knowing heritage pasts are important. But it remains to be seen how this will translate into critical and sustained engagement to realise the potentials for transforming heritage futures.
When African American businessman Robert F. Smith declared during a Morehouse College commencement speech that he would pay off the student loan debt of the entire 2019 graduating class of about 400 young men from the historically black school, he provoked a frenzy. Footage of the jubilant graduates immediately went viral, with an outpouring of hot takes on what the news meant.
On top of paying tribute to his ancestors, I see this generous act as an extension of the underappreciated heritage of African American philanthropy that began soon after the first enslaved Africans disembarked in Virginia in 1619.
The West African people put into slavery brought cultures of giving and sharing with them across the Atlantic. In 1847, for example, enslaved Africans in Richmond, Virginia, donated money through their church to Ireland’s potato famine relief efforts. I believe that their ways of looking after others and pooling resources to survive forms the basis of giving by African Americans today.
Despite the toll that four centuries of slavery and discrimination have taken on black earnings, African Americans regardless of their economic status have long given generously of their money and time.
I have written extensively about the historical roles of black women as the creators, innovators and purveyors of African American philanthropy. In my forthcoming book about Madam C.J. Walker, the early 20th-century black entrepreneur philanthropist commonly known as the first American self-made female millionaire, I’ve documented this history through her gifts and those made by her peers – other black businesswomen and leaders of clubs.
Countless other black women, from all walks of life, give of their time, talent and money generously through their churches, clubs, sororities and giving circles – groups of people who pool charitable money for nonprofits they collectively choose to support. Black women also made August Black Philanthropy Month, an international celebration of giving by people descended from Africa.
Smith has said his mother, Sylvia Myrna Smith, set him on a path of generosity. A high school principal, she instilled in him the habit of giving through her annual ritual of donating to the United Negro College Fund to help young people of color gain access to higher education.
A place in history
Smith earned his wealth through technology and finance, and has his own foundation. He has signed the Giving Pledge, through which dozens of the world’s richest people have promised to donate most of their wealth to causes they believe in. But in my view, it would be a mistake to look to the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, the billionaires who created the Giving Pledge in 2010, to understand Robert F. Smith’s philanthropy.
That’s because of the challenges Smith made to the Morehouse graduates benefiting from his gift and his peers as well.
“The liberation of communities we come from depends upon the grit and the determination and the greatness inside of you, using your skills and your knowledge and your instincts to serve to change the world in only the way that you can,” Smith said.
This idea of a responsibility to liberate one’s community links Smith and today’s black donors with those of the past.
Forten and LaFon
One of the black philanthropists in colonial times was James Forten, who was born in 1766 into a free black family in Philadelphia. Introduced to sail-making by his father, Forten apprenticed in the trade after serving on a ship near the end of the Revolutionary War. He became wealthy and a leader in the movement to end slavery.
Thomy LaFon, another early black giver, was born into a free family in 1810 in New Orleans. He grew up in poverty but was a natural entrepreneur who sold food, ran a store, brokered loans and eventually invested in real estate.
Colonel John McKee was born into freedom in Alexandria, Virginia, around 1819 but became indentured at a young age.
McKee ran a Philadelphia restaurant in his twenties. Over time, he acquired a significant amount of property. He provided housing for the black migrants who traveled north to Philadelphia after emancipation.
When he died in 1902, McKee left most of his reported $2 million fortune to the Catholic Church and a school to educate black and white orphaned boys. After decades of disputes, the McKee Scholarship emerged in the 1950s. It continues to help cover higher education costs for many young fatherless men in the Philadelphia region today.
A.G. Gaston was born in 1892 in Demopolis, Alabama, to parents who had been enslaved. He began building businesses in Birmingham in the 1920s. He ultimately owned an insurance company, a funeral home and cemetery, a business college, motel, bank, radio stations and a construction company.
Gaston worked behind the scenes of the civil rights movement to maintain relations with whites while maintaining a reputation as having a non-confrontational approach to ending segregation. In the 1950s, the entrepreneur helped pay the legal bills tied to a court case seeking the admission of African Americans to the all-white University of Alabama.
He regularly donated or discounted the use of his facilities to house civil rights activists and host meetings. When the police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, jailed Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy for protesting in Birmingham in 1963, Gaston bailed them out, along with hundreds more protesters.
When the Alabaman, who was reportedly worth $130 million, died in 1996 he left several provisions in his estate for charity. Birmingham’s A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club is still operating.
With this gift and the rest of his big donations, Robert F. Smith has assumed his place in this philanthropic history, and encouraged other African Americans to do the same.
Nobel laureate Toni Morrison reads during Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert, on Sept. 17, 2005, in New York City. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)
Amid the obituaries and tributes for novelist Toni Morrison, who died last week at age 88; of all the shared emails, texts and calls with friends and present and former students, as I sat with my own grief at the news, one remark of Morrison’s continued to resonate. In a 2015 interview in Essence magazine, she told the story of once being asked on stage how she wanted to be remembered. Morrison said she replied, “I would like to be remembered as trustworthy; as generous.”
At this point an audience member challenged her. “What are you talking about?” a young black woman called out. “You are a famous writer and you want to be remembered as trustworthy?”
Morrison went on to explain to the incredulous audience members that they were thinking of her public self, while Morrison was thinking about how she wanted her family to remember her. “That other thing is all well and good. But there is Toni Morrison and there is Chloe (her birth name). Chloe is not interested in those things.”
This captures for me why Morrison was and remains a powerful influence for so many of us who traffic in religious circles, professionally and personally. Her trustworthiness came through — when you read her words, be it in an essay or a novel, she conveyed the comforting and the uncomfortable truths of making one’s way in a world that harbors ill will against darker-skinned folk, and women-identified folk, and poor folk in radically systematic and relentless ways.
Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison appears at the 18th annual Glamour Women of the Year awards in New York on Nov. 5, 2007. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
She did not absolve her readers from our participation in this deadly spectacle. She held us all responsible for the world we have made and are making. But she insisted that we realize the specific ways in which we participate in it. In my own work, I have been deeply influenced by the mirrors Morrison hands me to look both within and beyond myself.
She did not write utopian visions, then, but held out the possibility that we can be better than we are as individuals and as a nation. If we lived into these possibilities, she implied, perhaps we might find a bit of utopian hope.
She never made reading her easy. One does not rush through her words, and if we are wise, we return to them over time to mine new insights. In this her words function like scripture — truths are there, complex truths that cannot be understood with a soundbite mentality. One must sit with them and the stories she is telling and the insights she is offering. Perhaps there are moments that become holy in doing so.
But what Morrison taught me above all is that the holy is both radically immanent and transcendent. In too much of our religious and theological thought we only focus on the transcendent — at our own peril. What we must also concentrate on is the immanent dimensions of the holy for this is where we sit as living, breathing flesh. This is where we live out the drama of our humanness.
When this drama focuses on black lives, as Morrison did, unapologetically and proudly, we have the tremendous opportunity to know ourselves better in the rich diversity of blackness, and for those who are not black or brown to get a more accurate picture of black lives that matter, and the ways in which we help form the rich tapestry of creation.
With Morrison, we are reminded that we are our stories. When we do not tell them, listen to them, appreciate them and learn from them, we are all poorer souls.
(Emilie M. Townes is dean and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)
President Obama listens to Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Toni Morrison in the Blue Room of the White House, on May 29, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Former Boston Red Sox infielder Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, the first black player on the last major league team to field one, has died. He was 85.
The Red Sox said Green, who lived in California most of his life, died Wednesday at in a hospital in San Leandro, near Oakland; no cause of death was immediately available. The team observed a moment of silence before its game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
“Pumpsie Green occupies a special place in our history,” Red Sox owner John Henry said. “He was, by his own admission, a reluctant pioneer, but we will always remember him for his grace and perseverance in becoming our first African-American player. He paved the way for the many great Sox players of color who followed. For that, we all owe Pumpsie a debt of gratitude.”
A light-hitting second baseman and shortstop, Green brought baseball’s segregation era to an end of sorts when he entered a game against the Chicago White Sox as a pinch-runner for Vic Wertz on July 21, 1959 — more than a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Green joined the team on a road trip and had played nine games before taking the field at Fenway Park for the first time. Green said this year in an interview with NESN, the Red Sox TV network, that he remembered receiving a standing ovation when he came to the plate, batting leadoff.
“It was heart-warming and nerve-wracking,” he told reporters in 1997, when he returned to Boston to take part in ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s debut. “But I got lucky: I hit a triple off the left-center fence.”
Born in Boley, Oklahoma, he moved with his family to California at a young age and met his wife Marie Presley at Contra Costa Junior College. He made his professional baseball debut at 19 years old for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League and was named the California League’s Most Valuable Player in 1955.
The Red Sox purchased his contract, and he attended his first spring training with the club in ’56. He was added to the club’s 40-man roster in September of 1958.
Green didn’t have the talent of Hall of Famers like Robinson and Larry Doby, who was the first black player in the American League. The Red Sox infielder reached the majors as a role player, just once playing more than 88 games, and never hitting more than six homers or batting better than .278.
Green played parts of four seasons with the Red Sox before finishing his career with one year on the New York Mets. In all, he batted .246 with 13 homers and 74 RBIs.
But his first appearance in a Boston uniform ended baseball’s ugliest chapter, and the fact that it took the Red Sox so long left a stain on the franchise — and a void in the trophy case — it is still trying to erase.
The Red Sox had a chance to sign Robinson in 1945, before the Dodgers, and Hall of Famer Willie Mays a few years later; they chose not to, decisions that help explain the 86-year World Series championship drought that didn’t end until 2004. Last year, acknowledging the poor racial record of longtime owner Thomas A. Yawkey, the team expunged his name from the street outside the ballpark.
A few days after Green was called up, the Red Sox added Earl Wilson, a black pitcher. Green said there was an informal quota system that required teams to have an even number of black players so they would have someone to room with on the road.
They were among the few blacks in the clubhouse, the front office or the crowd, Green said in ’97.
“Most of the time it was just me,” he said. “It was almost an oddity when you saw a black person walking around the stands.”
But unlike Robinson, Green said, he received no death threats. “It was mostly insults,” he said then.
“But you can get those at any ballpark at any time,” he said. “I learned to tune things out.”
Green returned to northern California after his baseball career ended and earned a degree in physical education from San Francisco State. He worked as a counselor and coach at Berkeley High School before retiring in the 1990s.
The Red Sox honored him again on Jackie Robinson Day in 2009 and ’12, but he was unable to attend the ceremony in 2018 when his debut was recognized as a historic moment by the Red Sox Hall of Fame.
Upon his return to Fenway in ’97, he noticed that things had improved but still saw work to be done.
“Baseball still has its problems, and so does society,” Green said. “I don’t believe things are that much better in baseball or society. Hopefully, it will be shortly.”
Green is survived by his wife of 62 years, Marie; one of three brothers, Cornell Green, was a star safety for the Dallas Cowboys. He had one daughter, Heidi; his son, Jerry, died last year. He had two granddaughters and four great grandsons.
In the nineteenth century, many American communities and cities celebrated Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, which was usually followed by an oral address or speech dedicated to the celebration of independence and the heritage of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. On July 5, 1852, the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited the Black abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass to be the keynote speaker for their Independence Day celebration. The Fourth of July Speech, scheduled for Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, attracted an audience of 600. The meeting opened with a prayer and was followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence. When Douglass finally came to the platform to deliver his speech, the event took a jarring turn. Douglass told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”
Within Douglass’ now-legendary address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called “probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass’ speeches.”
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
On this and every July 4th, Americans might do well to re-read and reflect on Douglass’ famous message. It challenges us to move beyond the biases and blind spots of our own cultural privileges and consider those around us for whom, as Langston Hughes said, “America has never been America.”
Read Douglass’ complete speech here, and watch actor Danny Glover recite an excerpt from the address below.