African proverbs and pictures of Harriet Tubman line the hallways at Paul Robeson/Malcolm X Academy in Detroit, one of Detroit’s few remaining schools that uses an African-centered curriculum.
Welia Dawson is teaching a sixth grade class about post-World War II America. Unlike most lessons about that time period that you might hear in a traditional public school, it’s focused on how black people were treated at the time.
“We pretty much take pieces of our African American heritage, of our culture, and try to infuse it into the curriculum,” Dawson said.
In other words, the school teaches from the perspective of African descendants, rather than the Europeans. Dawson says it’s important to do this because nearly all of her students are black.
“It’s making the child the center of their education. Letting them know where they came from, and how things came to be the way they are right now,” she said.
Dawson’s been teaching for 25 years, 23 of those years being in Detroit. Her students know her as Mama Welia.
The titles of “Mama” for female teachers and “Baba” for male teachers are staples of Afrocentric schools.
During the 1990s, Detroit had nearly 20 of these schools.
According to the Council for Independent Black Institutions and Malik Yakini, former principal of the Nsoroma Institute – an African-centered school that has closed down, Detroit had the most African-centered schools of any city in the country.
That was until 1999, when state emergency managers took control of the district. Afrocentric schools were the casualties of many rounds of closures and district restructurings.
Dr. Jeffrey Robinson, the principal at Paul Robeson/Malcolm X, estimates that more than 8,500 seats vanished from Afrocentric classrooms in the past two decades.
Now only three of these schools remain in Detroit: Paul Robeson/Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey Academy, and Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology.
Advocates of Afrocentric curriculums say the city’s black children are the ones who lost the most. Jamon Jordan, former teacher at Nsoroma, says these schools are necessary to really educate black kids.
“Because we live in a world, an environment, a society that is Eurocentric,” Jordan said.
Jordan thinks a Eurocentric school, let alone a Eurocentric society, is inherently white supremacist.
“It upholds the idea that the thinking of whites, the accomplishments of whites and even the lives of whites is more important than the thinking, the accomplishments, and the lives of other people, people of color, including African people,” he said.
Jordan argues Afrocentric education prepares black students to battle white supremacy, and he says it’s best to begin that battle early.
Darius Glenn, a 24-year-old poet and musician, attended Aisha Shule/W.E.B. Dubois Preparatory Academy, one of Detroit’s African-centered schools that’s now closed.
“Reading about Claude McKay in fifth grade and reciting his poem got me into spoken word,” Glenn said.
Glenn says he started out in traditional public schools, but he wasn’t as engaged in learning about people who not only didn’t look like him, but owned people who looked like him.
Glenn transferred to Aisha Shule in fifth grade, and he says it engaged him in ways he hadn’t experienced before.
“Learning about a lot of black folks in history, it definitely can give you a sense of pride and belonging,” he said.
That’s something Ebonee West was looking for.
West grew up in Houston and she says she never felt completely at ease in school. She always felt like she had to explain things to her white friends about her hair, her skin, or her diet.
But her brothers came up in Detroit – where they attended Afrocentric schools. Through her brothers, she saw a better option. One she wanted for her own kids.
West says she’s not your traditional helicopter mom, with tons of scheduled activities and closely monitored screen time.
“But I am a helicopter mom in terms of preserving their spirits. Not letting anything in that I feel like is going to be damaging to them,” West said.
So in 1999 she enrolled her oldest two kids at an African-centered school, as she says, to help them develop a solid sense of who they were, and a pride in who they were before the world could get to them.
“There’s something that can really break your spirit, and damage you in a way that I think is really irreparable,” she said.
Those schools where West sent her older kids are closed now, but she says they were a place where her kids felt loved, comfortable, and safe. West says that’s the best environment for anyone to learn in.