The revolutionary must heed the mind but also sustain the body. So 25 years ago, after long days spent struggling to make ends meet, a group of black parents in their 20s and early 30s would go jogging through the Grand Crossing neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. The parents staffed a tiny African-centered school called the New Concept Development Center, which was housed in a storefront at 78th and Ellis. Their jogs took them past Saint Francis de Paula School on South Ellis, a two-story red brick building near the corner of 79th Street. “As we’d pass that school I would always say to everybody, ‘What we could do with a school like that!'” Haki Madhubuti recalls. “That’d get everybody talking—’How could we obtain a school that nice?'”
Anyone who knew Madhubuti understood this wasn’t idle fantasy. He was too serious-minded to speculate idly: a poet by trade, he once wrote, “There will be no coffee breaks or 3 week vacations in the bahamas / we prepare to retake our minds / like our enemies prepare for war.” And he wasn’t a man to be underestimated. He’d grown up housing-project poor in Detroit, the son of a father he didn’t know and a mother who died from a drug overdose when he was 16. He was 25 when he founded Third World Press, which today counts poet Gwendolyn Brooks among its writers. His breakthrough book, Don’t Cry, Scream, a collection of his poems, was published when he was 27 (and still going by the name Don Lee). By the time he and his wife Safisha created New Concept, he’d already taught at Cornell University and was now teaching literature at Howard University.
Today he’s at work on his 20th book and Third World Press is thriving. Still, Madhubuti doesn’t hesitate when asked his most significant accomplishment. New Concept, he answers, one of only three African-centered U.S. schools dating back at least 20 years.
“The question back then, as it is now, is whether we just act pissed off, or whether we do the hard work of building and creating institutions that change the world for our children,” he says. “We’re not talking about words on paper but creating a world in which children are being anchored properly. I see our mission as nothing less than providing the necessary foundation for a child to deal with the world from a secure and self-aware position.”
For 16 years Safisha Madhubuti served double duty as a teacher and principal at New Concept before leaving to finish her PhD at the University of Chicago. Today she teaches in the School of Education at Northwestern (under the name Carol Lee). Yet she too can point to no prouder accomplishment than New Concept. Two years ago the school held an impromptu reunion that drew roughly 100 former students. “I remember looking around the room with this great pride,” she says. “These were young people who were centered. They are black and love being black. They feel a need in their lives to contribute to the greater world, to make a contribution as African-Americans to their world. They are well mannered. They’re not into gangs and not into drugs. They’re wholesome young people who have big views. They think big, which is what we wanted them to do.”
Six years ago New Concept moved into the school that had fired Haki Madhubuti’s dreams when he ran by in the 1970s. No doubt some will see tragedy in the replacement of a parochial school with an African-centered one. But then, there have been times and places when Catholic schools were seen as papist and anti-American.
Does African-centered education work? Do its graduates go on to take their place among the country’s best and brightest, or are they to be found among the angry and alienated who don’t see a place for themselves in our world? These are questions rarely considered by critics who dismiss it as another example of multiculturalism running wild. But consider the parents sending their kids to what’s now the New Concept School, a private school covering preschool through eighth grade. Currently among its roughly 150 students are the children of a half dozen doctors and an equal number of lawyers (and also the children of plumbers, secretaries, and even a few welfare moms who volunteer at the school in lieu of paying the $3,000 annual tuition). Public school teachers are the best-represented profession among New Concept parents.
“The average dropout rate in the Chicago public schools is around 50 percent,” Safisha Madhubuti says. “There are high schools in Chicago where the dropout rate is 75 percent. I personally cannot name a single child who attended New Concept for even a year who then didn’t go on to graduate high school. Not one.”
Mornings at New Concept start with the “unity circle.” Just before 9 AM, the children and staff gather around a large white circle painted on the worn tiled floor of the gymnasium to recite what might be called the black pledge of allegiance. Shrieks and laughter bounce off the high ceiling as kids ages two to 13 jump and play in place. In the circle’s center, a teacher surveys the room. “Kwame, hang your coat!” she commands. “Ayana, don’t be making a mess!” Kwame immediately goes for his coat. Ayana freezes.
The teacher blows a whistle and raps the floor with a stick. Almost as one, the children fall silent. Arms are folded, backs arched, jaws set. Sneakers and patent leather shoes toe the white line. They’re no longer giggly youngsters but miniature soldiers, purposeful and committed.
“We are African people—” the teacher begins.
“We are African people—” the children respond in the call-and-response fashion of church.
“Struggling for national liberation—”
“Struggling for national liberation—”
This is the way the school day begins at dozens of African-centered schools around the country. “Our commitment is to self-determination, self-defense, and self-respect for our race,” the chant continues. “I pledge to my African nation, to the building of a better people and a better world.” Among the member schools of the Council of Independent Black Institutions these words are known as the National Pledge. Among the race-weary they might be exhibit A in the case against the African-centered curriculum that New Concept has championed. New Concept says its aim is to teach black children a narrative populated by African and African-American heroes and embellished with African rituals, fables, and values. Critics decry African-centered schools as exotic institutions turning out tomorrow’s angry revolutionaries.
The pledge isn’t unusual if one considers the way most children in this country begin the school day—hand to heart, vowing allegiance to a flag. But struggling for national liberation? Shouldn’t these primary school children be struggling to learn their ABCs and multiplication tables? We are African people? Don’t these American children have more in common with the white kid across town than with a black kid in Nigeria?
The dim fluorescent glow and din of hallways lined with dark metal lockers are universal. But the art on the walls of New Concept is decidedly African or African-American—in contrast to the “paintings of skinny white ladies in bustles and parasols” that Safisha Madhubuti recalls from a south-side Montessori school she once visited. A bulletin board honoring the writing of Zora Neale Hurston hangs down the hall from another featuring inspirational quotes from black luminaries. In the decorations an occasional white face appears, such as the wrestler in a University of Illinois recruitment poster. But he’s being pinned by his black opponent.
New Concept sits in a stretch of town where it’s possible to go days without seeing someone white, discounting those in uniform and teachers at other schools. West on 79th Street, below a towering crescent moon and golden star, is Salaam, the Nation of Islam’s flagship restaurant. The Nation’s maryam mosque—its headquarters mosque—stands maybe 20 blocks away. So removed is the school from the mainstream that academics at the University of Illinois at Chicago who oversee the Aban Aya Youth Project—a pilot African-centered curriculum being offered at several of Chicago’s public schools—have never heard of it. Yet this granddaddy of African-centered schools is, at least indirectly, Aban Aya’s inspiration and model.
There are Iyabos and Ajamus at New Concept but also Kenneths and Johnnys. Kids wear T-shirts that claim their African heritage, but also sweatshirts touting favorite Sesame Street characters. Teachers wear kufi hats, mud-cloth blouses, and lapa skirts, but one teacher dresses in a cream-colored silk blouse, a blue blazer, and a matching blue skirt. She wears a scarf that could be described as African or simply colorful.
A book sits on a table in a first-grade classroom: The World Beneath Your Feet. The cover pictures a squirrel chomping a nut; inside are worms, salamanders, and spiders. But to read popular critiques about African-centered education rather than to experience it firsthand is to suppose an animal book must picture creatures of the African plains. At recess the children sometimes play a game called Underground Railroad, which has the girls clamoring to be Harriet Tubman, but sometimes they play hide-and-go-seek. They learn madaraka (Swahili for “responsibility”), staha (“respect”), and ujima (“collective work and responsibility”). But while Swahili peppers the language of the committed Afrocentrist, it’s Spanish that New Concept teaches to its upper-level students. “If we were going to add a second foreign language, I’d push for it to be Japanese,” says Thelma Merchant, a former Chicago public school principal who retired last October as headmaster of New Concept. Spanish and Japanese, Merchant says, are far more practical than Swahili.
African-centered education is a topic that engenders strongly held views even as most people don’t know the first thing about it. Perhaps they’ve heard Wellesley College’s Mary Lefkowitz on the radio hawking Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentricism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History, and shuddered that children were being taught that Plato and Cleopatra were black and that the Greeks stole their greatest achievements from Africa. Or maybe they’ve simply conjured up Louis Farrakhan and imagined children listening to antiwhite rants for six hours every day. Before Lefkowitz, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was the academic Afrocentrists most loved to hate. In his 1991 book, The Disuniting of America, Schlesinger dismissed African-centered education as “history as therapy,” a “feel-good history” that parodies the worst excesses of Eurocentrism. “When does obsession with differences begin to threaten the idea of an overarching American nationality?” he asks between high-minded quotes from Lincoln, Emerson, and de Tocqueville.
For all the attention paid Schlesinger’s book, it’s a mere 83 pages—67 pages once you’ve factored in the 16 pages of Federal Express ads that fill out the work (it was published by Whittle Communications, the company that sought to barter free televisions for the right to advertise inside schools). Ironically, no one took the book seriously outside the Afrocentrist community that Schlesinger roundly criticizes. Mostly the book consists of quotes and anecdotes clipped from newspapers and magazine articles on some of the worst multicultural excesses of our time. “My problem with people like Schlesinger,” Safisha Madhubuti says, “is that instead of an honest and comprehensive argument, they take what they perceive as African-centered thought and African-centered education and reduce it down to its most absurd extreme.”
If anything, Lefkowitz’s book is more simplistic. Her preface to Not Out of Africa declares that she was dumbfounded to learn a few years back that select scholars in the U.S. “denied that the ancient Greeks were the inventors of democracy, philosophy, and science.” Think about that line: as if any one people invented democracy, philosophy, and science. At 175 pages, the book has more heft than Schlesinger’s, but for all Lefkowitz’s impressive-sounding credentials—she’s the Andrew W. Mellon professor in the humanities at Wellesley—it’s surprisingly tabloid in its approach. She boils down the Afrocentricity controversy to a fight over the skin color of Cleopatra and Socrates, and then likens African-centered education to teaching young people a flat-earth theory of the globe.
Yet do they truly teach that Socrates was black at New Concept? No. Or that the Greeks stole their greatest achievements from Egyptians? No. Or that Cleopatra was black? At least one teacher does. Several New Concept parents and even an administrator had never even heard the claim that Cleopatra was black (though more than one joked that the queen of the Nile surely didn’t look anything like Elizabeth Taylor, who portrayed her on the big screen). Most were aware of the debate, but they questioned its relevance to a school geared to preteens.
“How can anyone be silly enough to think that we’re going to offer an education in which children don’t know about anybody or anything unless it came out of Africa?” asks Safisha Madhubuti. “That’s a recipe for failure. We’re not stupid. We want our children to be competitive. We want our children to go on to college and realize their potential in this world.”
“We are preparing leaders and workers—” a teacher calls out.
“We are preparing leaders and workers—” the students respond in unison.
“To bring about positive change for our people.”
“To bring about positive change for our people.”
“I wouldn’t doubt that you can go into Gary, Indiana, or wherever and find some little storefront school that fits the straw-man image of African-centered education,” Safisha Madhubuti says. “I don’t doubt at all you can find it, just like I don’t doubt you can go into the Bible Belt and find Christian fundamentalist schools doing something similar on the other end of the spectrum. But I would argue that this picture does not represent the majority of African-centered schools across the country.”
Savages in chains sold at southern slave auctions. Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, then a single paragraph about George Washington Carver and his peanuts. That’s about all Safisha Madhubuti learned of African-American history at Crane High School in the 1960s. She noticed that the curriculum included not a single word written by someone black—not a novel, not a short story, not an essay, not even a poem. “The University of Illinois was no better,” she says. “In four years as an English major there, never was I assigned a single reading by someone African-American.”
Madhubuti has a soft voice, sweet-pitched and gentle to the ear even as she offers the harshest rebuke. She survived a white guidance counselor who tried persuading her that graduate school and teaching at the college level were beyond the abilities of a black child—though she was an honor student. The inadequacies of her own education served as one inspiration for starting New Concept. Another was her husband, whom she’d met at a poetry reading in 1968. At the time, Safisha Madhubuti was teaching African-American literature at the school that would later come to be called Kennedy-King College.
“Basically Safisha was telling me that by the time a student reached her at the college level it was almost too late,” Haki Madhubuti says. “She felt we needed to start much, much earlier. At preschool. I called her on it. ‘If you’re serious about this, let’s start a school.'” The Madhubutis and fellow activists opened the New Concept Development Center in 1972.
Madhubuti says that his book Don’t Cry, Scream had by that time sold somewhere around 500,000 copies, earning him a profile in Ebony and drawing the attention of scholars at Cornell. People were speaking of this new, raw voice. Why, then, did he devote so much of himself to starting a grade school? “I was obsessed with this question—what happened to us?” he explains. “Why is it that most peoples are in charge of their own destiny, but not us?”
They were young—he 30 when New Concept opened, Safisha 27—and driven by the Black Power movement. They rented an abandoned storefront on Ellis and began teaching a Saturdays-only enrichment program for children two through 12. At the urging of parents, by 1974 the school offered a full-time program for preschool through the third grade. Though the school has never advertised, Haki Madhubuti says that almost from the beginning it had to turn people away. In 1991 New Concept moved into its present spacious building, bought along with the adjoining rectory from the Catholic archdiocese for roughly $1.4 million. Since then the school has added the fourth through eighth grades.
From the start, Haki Madhubuti has served as the school’s main benefactor. He’s written 12 books, including eight books of poetry, and edited or coedited another seven, but New Concept has drained away all his royalties and also his Third World profits. He’s lived off his salary as a teacher—at Cornell, at Howard (which he left citing fatigue over the weekly commute to Washington, D.C.)—and now at Chicago State University for most of the past 25 years. “In all these years we’ve never missed a payroll,” he says with pride.
Don’t Cry, Scream needled black brethren who’d donned double-breasted suits and spoke the King’s English (“the newnigger: / with a british accent / called me ‘old chap’ one day / I rubbed his skin / it didn’t come off”). Currying favor among the black moneyed class who might defray costs at New Concept isn’t something he’s spent any time at. “Our school hasn’t been built on grants or by foundations,” he says. “New Concept was built on sweat and hard labor. Back then we all lived together in a few apartments near the school.” Says Jaribu Kitwana, whose three sons have attended New Concept, “There were less MBAs and college grads [among the parents] when my sons were there. All of us, the parents, worked eight hours a day to make our bills, and then dragged ourselves to school to contribute for several more hours.”
Madhubuti took a snapshot of those early days in a book he wrote called From Plan to Planet, published in 1973. From Plan to Planet reflects some of the excesses of the period. He spells Africa with a k, not a c (in a footnote he dismisses the common spelling as “pollution” the Portuguese and British foisted on blacks), and characterizes Europeans as the world’s “enemy.” Yet Madhubuti is equally harsh in his critique of black leaders who expend so much energy criticizing whites that little is left over for doing something about the inequities they assiduously lay out. Mainly the book reads like a paean to discipline, hard work, and dedication.
“One cannot build a movement on the negative,” he wrote. “One cannot sustain a struggle on the anti. Our fight by definition should not be anti European-Americans but should be pro-Pan-Africanism.”
Tareta Lewis is a 21-year-old senior at Northwestern who attended New Concept in its early days, from the age of two through the third grade. “People have this idea because I went to an African-centered school, I must walk around with my fist in the air talking about black power all the time,” Lewis says. “I was at New Concept in the 1970s, which is a time it would have been ‘then the white man slaughtered the indigenous people’ if it was ever like that. But it wasn’t. We learned the same stuff about George Washington’s cherry tree and Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, except we were also taught about the queens and kings in Africa.” New Concept gave her a stronger sense of herself, Lewis says, allowing her to have healthier relationships with nonblacks. “The truth is I’m close to people of other races [at Northwestern], which is more than some of my fellow African-American students here can say.”
Her words are echoed by Kasimu Godfrey, a classmate who’s now an English lit major at the University of Illinois. “The so-called revolutionaries I know in school tend to be black kids from suburban schools driving nice cars,” Godfrey says. “See, they have no idea who they are. I do. People think an African-centered education builds anger within you, but I think it’s the opposite. Not knowing who you are builds anger.”
“If you’re solid with this African centeredness, or European centeredness, or Asian centeredness—if you know who you are–then you can go among any other culture and learn and share without being absorbed because you don’t know who you are,” Haki Madhubuti says. “That’s always been our underlying motive.”
If anything, world history as it’s taught at New Concept renders whites not as evil but as marginal. Bernice Gardner teaches social studies to New Concept’s upper grades. Gardner logged 34 years in the public schools before moving to New Concept three years ago. One day in class she was teaching the children about the ancient Chinese. Next on the syllabus were the Mayans and Native Americans. “Africa is our starting point, very much like Europe is the starting point in the public schools. But that’s not to say it’s our end point,” says Gardner. She adds that her new school is far truer to the ideals of multiculturalism than any public school in which she’s taught.
As Lefkowitz herself notes, historians don’t know the race of Cleopatra’s grandmother, so Gardner tells her students that Cleopatra’s race is controversial. Her approach might best be described as one-world, we’re-all-descendants-of-Africa-and-Lucy. Yasmeen Brown, the school’s third-grade teacher, is harsher-edged. She grows visibly angry recounting some of the half-truths and lies about Africa that she was taught as a child, and she seems eager to duke it out intellectually with anyone doubting the merits of history as it’s taught at African-centered schools. “Deep down, what I think all the hollering’s about is most white people have a hard time believing that anything useful or productive came out of Africa,” Brown says.
Brown matter-of-factly refers to Cleopatra as black, and instructs her kids that ancient Egypt (which she refers to as Kemet) was a mixed-race culture heavily influenced by the sub-Saharan, dark-skinned peoples of ancient Nubia. This last point has its proponents among Egyptologists of all races, but it’s also given rise to some of the Afrocentric world’s more audacious claims. “Every student of history, of impartial mind,” Marcus Garvey wrote famously in the 1920s, “knows that the Negro ruled the world when white men were savages and barbarians living in caves.”
Posters and fact sheets hanging in the New Concept library depict various African societies dating back to antiquity, such as the ancient Zimbabweans, who left stone ruins reminiscent of those of the Mayans, and the Songhai empire, a thriving culture of scholars and warriors that coincided with Europe’s Dark Ages. “The thing that bothers me is that people act like we’re desperate for things to grab on to,” Brown says. “There’s the kingdoms of Mali and Ghana. And there’s Egypt, which was on the continent of Africa last time I checked. People want to claim that Egypt is white, but I know it was a mixed-race culture. I look at the sphinx and I swear it looks like my grandmother, flat nose, broad lips, same slant to the eyes.
“The bottom line is, to read history books in this country is to believe nothing happened in the world until the white people came along,” she continues. “Everything came out of Europe—nothing came out of Africa. So let me ask you. Who’s being unreasonable? Who’s being paranoid?”
Brown argues these points toe-to-toe. But Safisha Madhubuti prefers to steer the conversation away from a debate that’s more relevant to the intellectual set than to a school charged with teaching kids ages two through 13. “Our focus isn’t on whether Cleopatra, or Socrates, or whoever, is black or white,” she says. “That’s not curriculum. For one thing, we’re not saying everything coming out in African-centered thought is right. For another, the question you need to ask is how relevant is that anyway to our students? Mostly what we’re interested in teaching are values. What are the values of ancient Africa that are useful to us today?” Indoctrination is the favored term among African-centered education’s critics, but as Safisha Madhubuti and others describe it, New Concept’s primary aim is critical thinking. Indeed, the beginning of the school’s student handbook instructs, “Think critically and question everything.”
“African-centered education isn’t about preparing students to go on quiz shows so they get all the questions about Africa right,” says Mwalimu Shujaa, director of the Council of Independent Black Institutions and a professor of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “It’s about teaching children to think critically so they are better able to survive a Western-oriented society that doesn’t appreciate the historic contributions of Africans and African-Americans to the world.”
“I don’t believe in happy-go-lucky multiculturalism,” Safisha Madhubuti says. “To me it’s not about ‘These people did something nice, so let’s tell their story.’ History is much more complex than that. There’s good and bad in any culture. We’ve always tried to be realistic about the way the world operates, and not to take a simplistic view.”
Still, there’s something soft and cozy to New Concept. Affirmations such as the poster insisting “You Are Worthy of Knowledge” share space on the walls with Sojourner Truth and Harold Washington. In one classroom, a four-year-old sits in the corner because, as a classmate explains, “Kwani was being negative.” In another, the children repeat in unison, “I will be strong. I will listen.” The female teachers are all “mama,” the school’s sole male teacher “baba.” Jaribu Kitwana, who has worked in the nonprofit world for most of her working life, has put three sons through New Concept. Her oldest graduated from Morehouse College last year with a degree in physics. Her middle son is a Morehouse sophomore majoring in math and economics. Her youngest son attends a high school for gifted children. “It’s an unusual place,” Kitwana says of New Concept. “It’s not just a school, it’s a community. Kids feel part of an extended family, a wider community.”
Inside these confines Madhubuti is spoken of as the “queen mother.” If so, she’s the stressed-out, overworked variety. In addition to her teaching, she’s executive director of the Bethune Teacher Training Institute, which meets in New Concept’s library. She plops down a canvas bag heavy with books and papers, a bottle of water, and a thick address book held together by rubber bands. With a smile, she says her life has been an endless source of ribbing from a daughter tickled by her overextended professional mother. In conversation, her rhetoric, to the extent she throws around any at all, runs to words like “epistemology” and “pedagogy” rather than “racism” and “oppression.”
“We are not the Nation of Islam,” she says. “We have never taught that the white people are devils. We have never taught children to hate anybody. That would make no sense. We want our students to be successful in this world.” For that reason the school has never championed the Ebonics movement so much in the news earlier in the year. In Oakland, California, school officials argued that the best way to reach black students from the city’s poorest neighborhoods was for teachers to learn so-called African-American English. “Ebonics is a nonissue for us,” Haki Madhubuti says. “Ebonics isn’t even a term we use because we find it insulting. We want our students to learn English as it’s spoken and understood nationally.”
Inside the Chicago public school system, at least 20 schools have proclaimed themselves African-centered because their staffs are supplementing the regular fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-grade course work with Aban Aya’s 20 lessons a year in African and African-American culture and history. Safisha Madhubuti views this as a positive development, but barely so. “We try to teach science and mathematics in broader terms than ‘This is a black mathematician. You should know his name,'” she says. “That’s all African-centered education is about for many people, and though I’d say that’s definitely part of it, it’s only a small part.”
What is African-centered math or science if not a recounting of African-American contributions to these disciplines? Safisha Madhubuti explains that students who have become fluent in the base-ten Arabic system are then taught the base-20 Yoruba system. “What’s important here is that kids learn that a mathematics system is constructed and not given,” she says. “It helps them understand that our current base-ten system was constructed by some people at a historical moment in time. They understand that other people in the world, including us as African people, also created numbers systems that were perfectly workable and useful. It gives a powerful message that people related to them, their ancestors, have made significant contributions.
“To us, this not only gives them a sense of their ancestral heritage, it offers this conceptual ability that separates mathematicians from nonmathematicians. It not only challenges this inherited sense that the concept of numbers and counting was created by white people, it also gives kids a deeper perspective on mathematics. I hear from our graduates over and over again that they have a much easier time with algebra. Because in order to juxtapose number systems, you had to use basic algebraic concepts.”
Tareta Lewis grew up in the inner city, but the stereotype she suggests is of a suburban sorority girl blessed with everything in life. She could be the eldest daughter of the Cosby clan, the Huxtable daughter who went off to college—except in her case mom wasn’t a lawyer but a hospital clerk and dad wasn’t much in the picture. A senior at Northwestern, she figures it’s just a matter of time before she goes to business school to earn an MBA and opens a PR agency. “I love PR,” she bubbles. “New Concept has been my foundation for everything,” she says.
Lewis ticks off the colleges of the classmates she met at New Concept. “Two friends at Spelman,” Lewis begins. “Several at Morehouse. One at Howard. One at U. of I. I’m here, and so is Bomani [the Madhubutis’ middle child], in the engineering school. There’s someone at Princeton. A few people at North Carolina A&T.” She swears she can’t name a single New Concept classmate who isn’t still in school. “A couple of people are at Southern Illinois in Carbondale and a couple are at Columbia College,” she says. “Neither of these may be world-renowned, but they have good programs depending on what you want to study.”
New Concept is not without its failures. Kobie Mahiri, today a sophomore at Morehouse, tells of a pair of kids he knew at New Concept who struggled through high school. One flitted on the edges of gang culture; the other aimlessly floated through school earning C’s and D’s. Kasimu Godfrey, a senior at the U. of I., tells of a New Concept classmate who dropped out of college after fathering two kids. This acquaintance is hardly a failure, however. The last Godfrey heard, he was working a minimum-wage job by day and attending night school to be an architect.
“College was the thing at New Concept,” says Kobie Mahiri. “They were always encouraging us to do well and go on to college. I looked at them [the Madhubutis and other staff] and had to be impressed. They were like pioneers—they were doing something new. It was everything to them to create that same pioneering spirit in all of us, so that when we went out of the world we could make the world better for our children.”.
Salim Muwakkil, a senior editor at In These Times and an occasional Sun-Times columnist, confesses to a knee-jerk reaction against African-centered education. “I find this whole notion of ‘centering’ troubling,” Muwakkil says. “On the one hand, I understand Afrocentricity. Africans, when they were brought over here, were expressly forbidden from connecting to anything from their past. At the same time, they were forbidden from gaining cultural wherewithal within this society. So we had to create ourselves with a sort of pidgin culture, a ‘soul food’ culture. But I also understand the disturbing and destructive role nationalism and tribalism plays in the world.”
Yet his reservations are more in the realm of the theoretical. Muwakkil was active in the Nation of Islam for a time during the 1970s. “My [two] daughters attended the Nation’s school when I was involved in that,” he says. “It wasn’t for very long—two years, maybe three—but I’ll tell you, their heads have been on straight ever since. The thing that amazes me about them is their sense of confidence. They’re both still in their 20s but they’re completely confident in their own capabilities. And I can almost directly attribute that to this experience.
“I’ve seen failures at African-centered schools,” Muwakkil says. “I’ve seen many failures. But I don’t know if the failures in those schools are anything compared to the failings in the public schools.”
A woman who will be called Khani here is a New Concept parent. “My two oldest are twins,” Khani says. “Both went through the public schools. The darker skinned of my children always had the toughest of times. Unlike his brother, he was always put in the slow classes. The classes for the so-called ‘academically challenged.’ Because he was always real smart he always knew what was going on. I’m convinced the hard time this son is having in life has to do with the discrimination he faced in school.”
A couple of years back, Khani quit her office job and returned to school to earn a degree in child development. She’s raising a younger son on her own while working a part-time job, and she volunteers at New Concept twice a week in exchange for reduced tuition. “My youngest son, he’s now six,” Khani says. “He’s very dark complexioned. He has the same spirit and is the same color as the son who’s had so much trouble. Sure, it’s tough making time to do my piece here, but it’s a small sacrifice that’s well worth it. To me, it’s my son’s self-esteem, his ability to believe in himself that’s at stake.”
“People talk about self-esteem but you can’t teach self-esteem,” says former principal Thelma Merchant. “Here children soak it up. They see the images on the wall. They see teachers who care about them and have all this information who are African-American. They see the Madhubutis. They see all of us. They see this institution which black people created and made grow. We don’t have to teach self-esteem here. Just being here a child is saturated with the possibilities for the kind of contribution he or she can make.”
In The Disuniting of America, Arthur Schlesinger argues that the “cult of ethnicity” erodes our national ideal of e pluribus unum—one out of many. “Are we now to belittle unum and glorify pluribus?” Schlesinger asks. “Will the center hold? Or will the melting pot yield to the Tower of Babel?”
When I pose Schlesinger’s questions to Haki Madhubuti, he responds with his own: “Do Catholic schools divide us apart? Jewish day schools? I mean, all these institutions—the Catholic schools, the Jewish schools, the Ivy League-caliber private schools back east—teach their history and their culture and their contributions. That’s normal, that’s expected.
“You’d expect the Jewish schools to teach about the Jewish people’s history and their contributions to this country, to the world. You’d expect the exclusive private schools back east to teach European history and European contributions. But somehow, when we say we want to do it too, it’s radical. It’s dividing us apart. It’s none of these. We’re doing this because it’s what normal people do.”
Madhubuti, 55, is a precise and formal man with the gentle soul of a poet. He’s a strict vegetarian (“if it can run away from me, I don’t eat it”) and yoga devotee who would be rich if he didn’t donate all his royalties to New Concept. One of his more recent books, Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? has never made anybody’s best-seller list, but he claims he’s sold more than one million paperback copies of the work. At $14.95 a pop, that’s $15 million in gross sales—and Madhubuti is both the author and the publisher. “I’ve never wanted anybody to accuse me of profiting off my political work,” Madhubuti says. “The way the progressive community is, you get a clean pair of pants and they’re going to criticize you.”
Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? is now in its tenth printing. Yet despite all his writing, he never seems to merit even passing mention in the occasional pieces about today’s crop of high-profile black intellectuals, such as the articles that appeared a couple of years ago in the New Yorker and the Atlantic. The accord hammered out between Louis Farrakhan and Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, after the FBI arrested Shabazz’s oldest daughter for allegedly planning a hit on Farrakhan, was the stuff of page-one headlines. But missing from the news accounts was the Chicago poet who engineered the peace by getting the two parties together.
“I think Haki is one of the unsung giants of the black community,” Salim Muwakkil says. “Or if not entirely unsung, not sung as loudly as I think he should be. We disagree on some things. But I really respect his tenacity. It’s not the kind of tabloid critique you so often hear. He’s a serious thinker.”
The rectory adjacent to New Concept is a stunning three-story graystone building that could have been airlifted off Oxford University’s campus. It’s now home to Third World Press’s staff of eight full-time and three part-time employees. Madhubuti’s office is the inner sanctuary, an enormous room with a soaring ceiling, stone fireplace, and dark-stained wooden floor that gleams with varnish. The religious icons that would have hung over the fireplace have been replaced by framed photos of Malcolm X, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Safisha. Also by the fireplace is a piece of art that looks African but that Madhubuti says is from Mexico.
He offers a slight, repressed smile when asked about “Afrika” and lines like this one from From Plan to Planet: “We have adopted wholesale the values of the white boy, and in his evil we have out done him.” He looks down, as if excusing himself that old indiscretion from the early 1970s. Claiming Earth, a collection of his essays published in 1995, contains a poem called “White People Are People Too.” An essay in the same book criticizes Farrakhan for his anti-Jewish rhetoric. For several years now, Madhubuti has joined the poet Robert Bly and a multiracial group of around 100 men in a weeklong men’s gathering in the Virginia mountains. “It should be a given fact that everything Black is not right,” he writes in Claiming Earth. “There are many good white people in the world—the problem is that they are in the minority and do not hold power.”
The pillars on which New Concept and other African-centered programs rest are called the Nguzo Saba—seven principles codified in the 60s by scholar Ron Karenga (founder of Kwanzaa) and expressed in Swahili: imani (faith), nia (purpose), ujamaa (cooperative economics), kujichagulia (self-determination), umoja (unity), ujima (collective work), and kuumba (creativity). They’re the foundation of Aban Aya, and recitation from memory is the prerequisite for entry into the Kente Club at the W.E.B. DuBois public elementary school on Chicago’s southeast side. Therein lies the grand irony of African-centered schools and their less intensive spinoffs. Teaching widely branded as too radical is, boiled to its essence, conservative: respect, responsibility, community.
Madhubuti shrugs when asked about this seeming contradiction. How can it be any other way? he asks. “We live in a community where 60 percent of the households are headed by women. There are close to 900,000 black men locked up across the country. You have the dissolution of the black family. At some point that has to be reversed. I don’t know how you do that without teaching basic values and having families involved in the process.
“Kids have to be grounded,” he continues. “They have to be given a foundation that places them in a universe that they too can say we helped create.” He pauses a moment to consider how that might sound. He adds, quietly, wearily, defensively, “I’m not saying we created it. I’m saying we helped create it.”
It’s impossible to say how much of New Concept’s success can be attributed to its African-centered approach and how much to its being a private school with small classes and involved parents. New Concept parents have no choice but to participate in their child’s education; those who don’t are gently asked to find another school for their child. “We’re very quick to call a parent-teacher-child conference whenever there’s the slightest problem,” Thelma Merchant says.
Are there ideological excesses? No doubt. But consider the perspective of Hileria Godfrey, whose son Kasimu graduated from the school in the early 1980s. “Most ethnic groupings in this country have a much greater concept of their history than African-Americans in this country,” says Godfrey, who’s sat on the school’s board of directors for ten years. “Our traditions were broken up when we got here. That’s one of the reasons New Concept is important, so children understand we come from a long line of productive people, positive people, kings, queens, architects, mathematicians, all that stuff. The whole idea that you can do anything that you set your mind to.
“I would like to see history record everyone’s good deeds,” she says. “I’d like to think we do the best job we can giving credit where credit is due. But considering conditions in which African-Americans arrived in this country, cut off from their past and their history, people can understand why maybe it may seem we go too far because we have a lot to pick up and make up for. We’re talking about countering negative portrayals of our people and stereotypes and omissions of facts.
“Maybe things aren’t exactly in balance yet,” Godfrey concludes. “Unfortunately, that’s what happens when you’re a minority in a dominant culture. There may be too much of this attitude that our culture is supreme to counter your teaching that your culture is supreme. But I’d also say we’re doing the same thing every other ethnic group is doing.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Haki and Safisha Madhubuti and Bernice Gardner by Katrina Wittkamp.