Black in School: Afrocentric Reform, Urban Youth, and the Promise of Hip-Hop Culture
reviewed by Marvin Lynn - 2004
Title: Black in School: Afrocentric Reform, Urban Youth, and the Promise of Hip-Hop Culture
Author(s): Shawn A. Ginwright
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080774431x, Pages: 157, Year: 2004
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Shawn Ginwright’s book, Black in School: Afrocentric Reform, Urban Youth and the Promise of Hip-Hop Culture explores Afrocentricity as a political and an epistemological movement and erects an urban political economy as a means to explore the effectiveness of an Afrocentric reform movement inOakland , California . He begins with an historical analysis of Afrocentricity in the United States , and he draws a rich history of the movement by focusing in particular on the political battles that were waged between Black communities and academe. He then addresses the ways in which two main political tendencies grew within the movement: a Marxist or revolutionary nationalist orientation and a cultural nationalist orientation. He points out that Revolutionary Nationalists espoused a Marxist ideology and felt strongly that African Americans, particularly those who are poor and/or working class, would have to engage in a full-scale revolution in order to change class and race inequities. Cultural nationalists, on the other hand, believe that African Americans need to reorient themselves to African cultural mores, values, and beliefs and that by doing so, they can be free from the mental imprisonment that is Eurocentric thought and behavior. As Ginwright points out, the current Afrocentric movement within Black Studies has taken much of its influence from the cultural nationalist movement that began long ago.
Ginwright describes Afrocentricity as “a set of principles that placeAfrica at the center of political, economic, cultural, and spiritual life for African Americans”and “rejects a Eurocentric worldview” (p. 17). He then argues that within Afrocentricity, there are three basic approaches: classical, critical, and nationalist. The classical approach, or what I refer to as an historical reconstructionist approach ( Lynn , 2004), explores the historic roots of the African Diaspora by deeply examining the cultural histories of ancient Eastern African societies. A critical Afrocentricity, on the other hand, borrows heavily from the classical approach but attempts to view African American identity in multi-faceted ways—often connecting culture to race and class and other markers of difference. Finally, Ginwright describes a nationalist Afrocentric approach which calls for complete racial segregration. This approach has gained mass appeal. In other words, Ginwright suggests that this nationalist approach has had the greatest amount of influence on how people envision Afrocentricity and how it has been subsequently utilized.
After describing Afrocentricity as both an academic and political movement among cultural nationalists, Ginwright argues that Afrocentricity is short-sighted for its over-reliance on a monolithic universal notion of African American culture that fails to account for important generational, social and economic differences that exist within the African American community. More specifically, he argues, Afrocentric education has not “adequately addressed the ways that poverty and class isolation impact young people’s lives (p. 27).” Utilizing the work of Marxist political economist, Jean Anyon, he calls on Afrocentric education to incorporate an analysis of the “structural” and the “sociocultural” components of Black urban life. Hip-Hop, he argues, might be an important framework for illuminating the voices and experiences of black working class youth and can possibly serve as a transformative vehicle for bridging cultural, generational, and socioeconomic gaps between black working youth and black middle class adults. In that sense, he brilliantly points out that Hip-Hop can be both a political and pedagogical tool for empowerment because it captures the “emerging worldview” of Black working class youth in urban areas. He does not elaborate on how this approach might be useful in urban classrooms.
Next, Ginwright provides a rich and informative historical account of “Black life” inOakland , California —the site of the study—by chronicling the gold rush era up through the present. He chronicles Black Oakland’s struggle to develop and maintain good schools. He also highlights the significant economic decline that took place in the city as whites fled the area between 1945 and 1960. By 1970 nearly 22% of Black families in Oakland lived below the poverty level. However, he points out that nearly two thirds of Black families in Oakland could be considered middle class. As a result, “ Oakland had two distinct black communities—one poor, and the other middle-class—and each resided in different areas of the city” (p. 43), according to Ginwright. Middle-class residents of Oakland tended to reside in East Oakland and the surrounding suburban areas while the poorer residents resided in West Oakland . The conditions in West Oakland were abominable. Rates of homicide had dramatically increased. The joblessness rate was also high. For Ginwright, this economic and geographic divide is significant and sets the stage for what happens to schools in the poorer sections of the city of Oakland .
Ginwright then shows how conditions in the school mirrored those in the community. He cites the results from an extensive study of the district conducted in the mid 1980’s to illuminate clearly these conditions. The enrollment had consistently dropped over the years, and the dropout rate had gotten considerably higher. The district had abysmal rates of achievement, high dropout rates, unacceptably large classes, as well as corruption at the district level. BecauseMcClymonds High School was“plagued with problems” the school became a target for closure in 1991.
According to Ginwright, members of the activist community inWest Oakland became aware of the possible closing of McClymonds High and began to organize to keep the school open. Specifically, a local activist organization called the Black United Front for Educational Reform (BUFFER) under the leadership of leading Afrocentric scholar, Wade Nobles, was given an opportunity by the District to reform McClymonds High. In short, they were provided nearly half a million dollars worth of additional funding and given the authority to change curriculum, hire and fire staff, as well as chart out a trajectory for the school. The goal then was to transform the school into a “model African-Centered Educational Institution” where teachers would learn to utilize African-centered techniques of instruction to help children meet district and state level requirements. Ginwright points out that after three years, the program did not succeed in raising achievement levels or significantly lowering dropout rates. He regards the program as a failure. He reiterates his overall thesis by pointing out that Afrocentric or culture-centered reform efforts that fail to take into account students’ lived experience ignore important social and economic issues that influence what happens in school.
Ginwright’s argument is like a well-traveled road. As one read it, one cannot help but think “others have traveled this road before.” His obvious deference to Marxism and his disdain for Afrocentricity ignites in me memories of passionate discussions between former members of the Black Panther Party, most of whom were devout Marxists who believed in class struggle against oppression, and the Cultural Nationalists who believed that cultural alienation was the key problem facing African Americans. Ginwright reignites these fires perhaps in the hopes of drawing attention to his work. It is not clear. What is clear is that he has a great deal more work to do if he is going to offer something significant to the educational research community.
Ginwright’s suggestion that Hip Hop has the potential to be transformative is exciting because I agree with him that Hip Hop potentially has much to offer us in the way that we think about schools and the schooling process. Unfortunately, while he offers this as a possibility, he does not provide enough detail about Hip Hop or about how it might be used in schools in order to give us an adequate picture of what he means. I found this to be disappointing since we are in desperate need of new ways to think not only about how to frame the issues that impact marginalized youth but how to teach in the ways that best serve them. I am not stressing practice here. What I am suggesting is that since he utilizes Hip Hop as a key concept in his work, he would do well to not only spend time describing this concept but to help us understand how Hip Hop might have been incorporated as a tool to improve McClymonds High and so many other schools like it across the nation.
Next, we turn to Ginwright’s critique of Afrocentricity. While his critique is clear, he runs the risk of overstating his point by offering the same critique over and over again: Afrocentric reform does not account for class inequalities, therefore it is not effective. This notion, of course, is contradicted by his presentation of Afrocentricity as a multi-faceted movement that incorporates a critique of class oppression. The book turns out to be more of an evaluation of one reform effort rather than an analysis of urban school reform or of Afrocentricity. It is clear that in any reform effort, there are a host of issues including local politics, buy-in from school staff, or teacher turnover—all of which he pointed out were at issue—that can shape the actual effectiveness of the effort. It is not at all clear that African-centered education is at the root of the problem as he claims. As I continue to read and re-read the work of sholars such as Carol Lee, Peter Murrell, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Joyce King, Jacqueline Jordan-Irvine, and Michele Foster who cite ample evidence that the use of culture in urban classrooms improves student achievement, I would be hard-pressed to agree with his premise.
Despite Ginwright’s obvious challenges, I found the book to be engaging and accessible. In that sense, it will appeal to a wide audience, particularly those interested in urban school reform. In addition, this book addresses a timely and important topic in the wake of tumultuous times for urban public schools. No Child Left Behind has left the door open for thousands of schools like McClymonds across the country to be forgotten and literally shut down, leaving communities, most of which are poor and Black or Latino, scrambling to find solutions to their already daunting problems. We need more books that pay close attention to this population.
Lynn, M. (2004). Inserting the 'race' into critical pedagogy: an analysis of 'race-based epistemologies'. Journal of Educational Philosophy and Theory. 36(2), 153-165.