Harvard Educational Review
  1. Black in School

    Afrocentric Reform, Urban Youth, and the Promise of Hip-Hop Culture

    By Shawn A. Ginwright

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2004. 157 pp. $21.95.

    In a case study of Oakland, California, sociologist Shawn A. Ginwright examines the process of implementing multicultural educational reform in an impoverished urban community. Throughout the introduction and eight chapters of Black in School: Afrocentric Reform, Urban Youth, and the Promise of Hip-Hop Culture, Ginwright traces the history of Afrocentrism as an intellectual ideology and explores the social and economic factors that led to the implementation and failure of an Afrocentric curriculum at McClymonds High School.

    In the introduction, Ginwright describes the main themes of the book. First, he posits that although Afrocentric educational reform offers a useful alternative to traditional curricula for African American students, it does not adequately address the social ills that plague many urban schools and communities. Second, Ginwright critiques the process that led to McClymonds’s adoption of Afrocentric curricula — a process that privileged middle-class interests over the concerns of the local working-class community. Finally, Ginwright explores how Afrocentric reform might be adapted to better respond to the needs of low-income and working-class youth.

    In Part One, Ginwright traces Afrocentrism from its roots in West African and Egyptian philosophy to its inclusion in cultural and political movements such as the 1960s Black Power revolution. Ginwright defines Afrocentrism as “a set of principles that place Africa at the center of political, economic, cultural, and spiritual life for African Americans” (p. 17) and then goes on to summarize the different schools of Afrocentric thought, as well as some of the criticisms of Afrocentrism, including claims that it is historically inaccurate and culturally chauvinist.

    In Part Two, Ginwright introduces social class as a factor influencing Afrocentric reform. He contends that urban youth identity is shaped by “complex systems of control and containment” (p. 30) that are maintained by urban poverty, class isolation, and racist stereotypes. In response, hip-hop culture provides an outlet for youth to conceptualize their own identities. Given the harsh life experiences of many of these youth, Afrocentrism’s singular focus on race to the exclusion of similar critiques of discriminatory class and gender-based systems is one of the major limitations of this otherwise viable educational alternative.

    In Parts Three and Four, Ginwright turns to the case of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). He describes the economic ebb and flow and the race and class conflicts that have shaped Oakland’s contemporary history. In education, the effects of these upheavals were felt through budget cuts and, in the late 1980s, OUSD was forced to slash millions of dollars from its budget. Continued economic decline spurred talk of closing some schools, and McClymonds High School, with its poor academic and disciplinary reputation, became a prime candidate. However, since McClymonds was the only high school located in West Oakland, the community rallied around the school since it represented one of the few places where local residents were able to exercise community control.

    In Parts Five and Six, Ginwright describes the process by which Afrocentric reform was adopted by the West Oakland community. The Black United Front for Educational Reform (BUFFER) — a network of grassroots organizations and working-class activists that expanded to include professors, attorneys, and other professionals — set out to prove that OUSD was ill equipped to effectively educate Black students. Despite their agreement about the shortcomings of OUSD, BUFFER’s members disagreed on how best to improve educational quality for McClymonds’s students. While many of the group’s working-class members advocated better textbooks and the inclusion of college preparatory courses to match the educational opportunities found in high-performing White schools, BUFFER’s newer members — many of whom were considered “experts” in education and Afrocentrism — pushed for an Afrocentric curriculum that would build students’ cultural identity. After much debate, the “experts” convinced BUFFER to develop a plan in which Afrocentrism would be central, and in March 1992 the plan was approved by OUSD.

    Upon its opening in September 1992, McClymonds immediately encountered challenges. First, the school’s new principal received little information about his assignment and the Afrocentric project planned for McClymonds until two weeks before the start of the academic year. High staff turnover forced OUSD to hire a number of noncredentialed substitute teachers, and a five-week teachers’ strike in November left McClymonds with few stable faculty members. As a result, the school was left with a fractured faculty — many of whom had little vested interest in McClymonds or its new project. In addition, the requirement that all faculty members implement Afrocentric curricula resulted in frustration about the additional preparation that this entailed, as well as the lack of professional development and other support to help teachers transform Afrocentric principles into meaningful pedagogical practice.

    Not only did the project suffer from lack of teacher buy-in, but student and community support was lukewarm as well. Few parents or local community members attended the Afrocentric lecture series sponsored by the school, and McClymonds’s students themselves did not always appreciate the relevance of Afrocentric education to their day-to-day lives. Ultimately, for students and parents alike, Afrocentrism simply proved irrelevant outside of the school context since it seemingly did little to address real-life concerns such as employment, child care, and housing.

    Finally, in Parts Seven and Eight, Ginwright reviews factors that contributed to the failure of Afrocentric reform at McClymonds. Interestingly, he notes that although poor academic performance was one of the primary factors for the initial call for reform, the Afrocentric project brought about little demonstrable improvement in students’ academic achievement. As a result, Ginwright concludes that resources that could have gone to address academic underperformance were diverted to support the middle-class-backed notion that achievement could be attained by students’ reclamation of ancient African ideologies. By contrast, Ginwright contends that proponents of Afrocentrism need a more complex understanding of contemporary youth culture — one that acknowledges the impact of class, gender, and sexuality, in addition to race, as critical factors in students’ educational experiences.

    Ginwright concludes by reminding us that those who are closest to a problem — in this case, the poor and working-class community of West Oakland — are often those best equipped to diagnose and solve it. Accordingly, he encourages educational reformers to reconceptualize their view of the reform process to embrace a more multidimensional and intergenerational approach — one that recognizes youth voices and participation as an asset to any social change effort. Only in this way can reformers understand fully the reality of urban youth identity and culture, and build on the strengths of that identity and culture to promote significant and lasting educational change.

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    Book Notes

    Black in School
    By Shawn A. Ginwright

    Becoming Multicultural Educators
    Edited by Geneva Gay

    A New Look at Black Families
    By Charles Vert Willie and Richard J. Reddick

    Learning to Trust
    By Marilyn Watson, in collaboration with Laura Ecken

    I Am a Pencil
    By Sam Swope