A is for Afrocentric

August 21, 2017

Eric hosts a podcast about Black culture. He went to an HBCU. But when it comes to choosing a school for his daughter, he’s not sure if an Afrocentric education is the right choice.

CREDITS

The Nod is produced by me, Eric Eddings, with Brittany Luse, Kate Parkinson-Morgan, and James T. Green. Our senior producer is Sarah Abdurrahman. We are edited by Jorge Just and Annie-Rose Strasser. With editing help from Vann Newkirk the Second, Blythe Terrell and Jonathan Goldstein. Special thanks to Sonny Bridges, Dilena Brundage and Asthaa Chaturvedi. Engineering from Cedric Wilson. Our theme music is by Calid B. Additional music in the show by Bobby Lord and Takstar.  

Show transcript

Eric: From Gimlet Media, this is The Nod.

Brittany: And you are here with Blackness’ biggest fans. I am Brittany Luse

Eric: And I’m Eric Eddings.

Eric: So I’m about to make a really big life decision.

Brittany: OK.

Eric: And it’s about my kid.

Eric: Heeey

Carla: Hey, say hi dad.

Eve: Hi Dad…

Eric: So that’s Eve, my daughter and my wife Carla. Who–these are people who I imagine you’re familiar with?

Brittany: We’ve met. We’re familiar.

Eric: So anyway that was me coming home the other night, on the eve – if you will – of a big decision.

Brittany: Okay..

Eric: After we put Eve to bed, you know we sat down on the couch, and Carla had her glass of red wine. We got cozy….

Eric: Get close to me. We’re married. We can do that.

Eric: OK. So I mean we we need to put Eve in school.

Carla: We do.

Eric: Okay so, Eve’s two, and this is going to be her first, like, real school experience…. And we’re trying to decide on a preschool.  But the thing is… Carla wants to send her to an Afrocentric school.

Brittany: I see.

Eric: And, OK, look I know what Afrocentric school is supposed be like, you know, centering the Black experience, talking about Black history in a more substantive way. And don’t get me wrong — I have a LOT of problems with the that way most schools like, center white and european experiences. But — that said — is an Afrocentric school definitely better?  Like, in my head, the details of what happens there are fuzzy. Like is it a lot of storytimes about Ancient Egypt mixed in with some Kente cloth? It just seems like a bunch of people trying to teach my daughter what it means to be Black.  And I have a lot of feelings about that.

Brittany: mmm.

Eric: By biggest one being… I don’t really trust other people to do that.

Eric: I’m not gonna lie. It’s hard to be like – I don’t want my child to have a strong you know foundation of blackness. I want her to grow up steeped in white supremacy and you know all this other stuff. But like… You know, everybody’s idea of like integrating blackness into an educational conversation isn’t the same… Like you know what I’m saying… there are people who are quote unquote pro-Black who still look at certain depictions of Blackness as problematic.

Carla: There are a lot of really toxic ideas surrounding… respectability politics… you know, the pull your pants up.

Eric: Yeah. And I feel like the Blackness in our home is very like all inclusive Blackness.

Carla: It’s pretty broad.

Eric: It’s very broad. And I just want… I want… I want her to grow up not not demonizing aspects of her blackness.

Carla: Mmhm.

Eric: And like – do – you not share that same fear? Like –

Carla: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s hard to, even now, even though she’s still so young, it’s hard to delineate where my desire for what I didn’t have stops and where my desire for what she could have starts. And this is something that I obviously feel very strongly about because I didn’t have it.

Um so yeah I went to very white schools K through 12. I don’t feel like I graduated with a very strong sense of like who I was as a Black woman, as a Black person in general…

There was no black girl magic. You know I had a lot of the – I don’t want to downplay it – but a lot of the typical like self-hate of like oh I’m too dark. You know I had a lot of issues with my hair and like it really fucked with my head for a very very long time and it just didn’t feel uplifting or –

Eric: – supportive…

Carla: — supportive in the way that I really really needed. I kind of had to get kind of to get there on my own.

Eric: I do get what she’s is saying. It’s part of the reason I went to an HBCU. Doing that really helped me to understand my own Blackness and our history and doing that was just so so important for me.

Brittany: mmhm.

Eric: But still, like, I had a lot of logistical questions about how exactly all of this works.

Eric: Mhm. I’m curious as to – why that starts at like 2… like and maybe this is my own ignorance about like early childhood development or whatever but I know I want her to be able to count. Like I know I want her to able to… you know, maybe like read her ABCs… Also just don’t know what she’s supposed to be able to do? So like with the culture stuff, I think that would sound even better if she was in like second grade. You know what I’m saying?

Carla: I mean I said all of that hopefully implying that yes ABCs, 123s like…

Eric: [laughs] Are also on the table.

Carla: Yeah… is definitely important.

Eric: So… after this conversation with Carla like my head was swimming with questions. Like… Eve is a little kid. She needs repetition and simplicity. And lessons around Black history and culture can get really complicated. You can’t really put Jim Crow history on flashcards. Like you need nuance. You know?

Brittany: You can’t really distill that

Eric: Yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard. And do I really want to put the responsibility of teaching our daughter about race in someone else’s hands?

Brittany: Mm.

Eric: So I decided to do the thing that I usually do with big decisions….

Brittany: What you made a spreadsheet?

Eric: Yes actually, I did actually I did make a spreadsheet. But (laughs) after my conversation with Carla, I also went into research mode, I, you know, did some reporting – I called up experts, and people who went to Afrocentric school to just answer some of my questions. So I began my quest for answers by calling Imon.

Brittany: Like our best friend Imon?

Eric: Yeah. She went to Afrocentric school when she was little …

Brittany: [laughs] I’m very curious, VERY curious to hear what she had to say.

Imon: Hello?

Eric: How you doing Imon?

Imon: I’m doing ok. I’m doing ok.

Eric: I wanted to ask her like: what it was like learning about Blackness at the same time as you learn about your ABCs?

Imon: I remember counting to 100 in Swahili…

Eric: Can you still count to 100 in Swahili?

Imon: No.

Eric: Do you know — how high can you count? Can you count to five?

Imon: No I don’t remember any of it…

Imon: And I felt like I remember reading when I went to public school. At Afrocentric school I don’t remember what I learned.

Eric: Mmhm.

Imon: I feel like kids at that age you know should be focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic… And like, you have not lived enough to be burdened and saddled with these ideas and these notions about your racial identity…

Eric: Mhm.

Imon: Reading comes first, and knowing your numbers. You don’t need to know the Swahili version of your numbers, like that’s not gonna help you.

Eric: So this kinda gave me some pause. Learning Swahili is awesome, you know growing up ‘Jambo means Hello’ was one of my favorite books…  

Brittany: That’s a great book.

Eric: It’s a good book.

Brittany: It’s a great book.

Eric: And like I don’t think that’s the only thing they were doing but I’m a little nervous that the focus might might be more focus on learning cultural things than learning like the core, academic things she’s supposed to learn at that age.

Brittany: Mmhm I feel that

Eric: But I didn’t want to just rely on Imon’s experience, so I needed to expand my sample size. And I’d heard Carla talking about her friend Marien, that she went to Afrocentric school, so I reached out to her, and she had a much more positive connection to it.

 Marien: We did the Wiz as our school play.

Eric: Wow.

Marien: Yeah, and I was the standby to play Dorothy… and then…

Eric: Still counts…

Marien: No no no cuz then with a little mojo and some you know rain dances, little other Dorothy got sick the night before…

Eric: Wow. Look at God.

Marien: Look at God. Just blessing with the flu, lord yes! So… I was like I am Dorothy… Don’t even, I’m gonna ease on down this road, and you’re going to follow me.

Eric: real talk, I would probably be sitting up there, bawling like a baby. Seeing all these little black kids singing the Wiz?

Marien: Yes! You know it can feel forced if you see a little Black kid playing a part that is for white people… like them feeling the need to have that performance and giving the children something to work for and making it be a black production… Like I don’t know that I would have gotten that at another school..

Brittany: The Wiz is one of my favorite movies and I always wished that my school could have done it because I was obviously deep in the theater which explains a lot. But um –  

Eric: It does actually.

Brittany: But they never could – there weren’t enough black people. It’s crazy when you’re a kid you’re so starved for some sort of image like that. So like to do a production of the Wiz that is exciting and that is adorable.

Eric: Yeah I mean it’s cute but  Like a lot of that didn’t really become important for me until high school… You know? And we’re talking about really, really young kids.

Brittany: Yeah.

Eric: Like for some people like Marien, it really really matters… but for others like Imon… you know it was too early for her to get it…Ok so at this point, my research is all anecdotal. But now, I’m feeling like i just need some facts…

Brittany: Mmhm.

Eric: So I actually put my questions to someone who I would consider an expert, Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards. She’s a developmental psychologist and a professor at Duke University.

Keisha: I look at how we develop. I look at it and not only from a racial and cultural perspective and see how race and racism affects your life but also how it affects your life differently at different developmental stages.

Eric: Are you the person that all your friends go to for this information?

Keisha: [Laughs] Yes, yes, yes, yes. I get a lot of calls and emails and text messages that start with am I crazy or… dot dot dot. Am I supposed to act a fool? [Laughs]

Eric:  Dr. Bentley-Edwards – the good doctor if you will – she cut straight to the point like kids start to understand color and race at very specific ages.

Keisha: Babies recognize that there are color differences. For African-American children at around three years old, that is when you know that it actually has a meaning. Even if you can’t process and have a conversation about it, you start to know that there is something different about my skin and it means something… it means something to the broader world.

Eric: Honestly, I…  just thought I had more time until we had to actually like deal with that. Like all that stuff Carla said about self-image — whether Eve is proud of her skin tone, her hair — all that stuff starts really soon.

Brittany: Mmm.

Eric: And Dr. Bentley-Edwards told me it’s like even more important than I thought.

Keisha: A high racial identity is related to higher academic achievement. So that means that the higher your racial identity is, so the more proud you feel of being a Black person or how you see yourself as a Black person… Those folks tend to also do well in school. But it can’t just be proud to be Black and put a Kente cloth on…There has to be strong academics and learning and social development as well.

Brittany: That makes sense to me. If you’re feeling self-conscious, you’re going to be focusing on that and you’re not really gonna be focusing on school.

Eric: Yeah, I mean it makes sense to me too. And like if you run with that logic, it seems like Afrocentric school would definitely make kids less self-conscious…

Brittany: mmhm.

Eric: Like that they would come out being really proud of their Blackness. So in theory… Afrocentric schools for the win, you know? Case closed

Brittany: Case closed! Wait is the episode over?

Eric: It is not. But the thing is… I know from experience that there’s more than one way to be “proud to be Black.”    Like growing up, I learned a lot of stuff I thought was a part of what it meant to be Black… that I later realized was just kinda bullshit.

Brittany: [laughs] Yeah.

Eric: I mean like I grew up thinking it was my job as the Black man to lead my household and my people out of the darkness you know?

Brittany: Oh I know.

Eric: So this actually came up… I was talking to someone else I know who went to Afrocentric school… our friend Jordan.

Brittany: I love Jordan.

Eric: How did they teach you about your role as a man in relationship to women?

Jordan: Chivalry was extremely important there. So the man was the protector and made sure that we looked out for the women in the school. I’m a gay male. I mean there was times where I was maybe corrected for my like feminine traits. Like I didn’t start dancing until I was at high school. But if I had wanted to dance I’m not really sure it would have been embraced because it was kind of just like all the women dance and then all the men drum.

Brittany: That’s cra—So Jordan is an amazing dancer and I know he’s been passionate about for a long time and that’s crazy to think that at such a young age that if he had wanted to pursue something that he actually turned out to have a really big talent for and really big love for… he wouldn’t be able to pursue it.

Eric: Exactly… like this is what I DIDN’T WANT out of an Afrocentric school. Like if Eve wants to drum, she’s going to drum…

Brittany: She will.

Eric: So that was bad. But I also realized from talking to Jordan that like one bad experience doesn’t just negate the entire idea of an Afrocentric education. Like Jordan – for the most part – really loved his school… especially compared to the charter school he went to later.

Jordan: One of the things that I didn’t experience at Afrocentric school was the issue of skin tone. I’m extremely fair-skinned. Like people wonder if my dad is White. I never had any comment made to me, it was never really an issue, it was just like you know – you – they really embedded in you that Black people need just support one another and to not be distracted by you know creating issues with one another.

Brittany: That is really cool.

Eric: Right? You know like I want I want Eve grow up you know and like see another Black person and be like ‘I want to help that person. You know I want to support that person.’

Brittany: Yeah.

Eric: Like I’m just there for them. Like THAT, that to me feels awesome.

Brittany: So… are you like sold on Afrocentric schools NOW?

Eric: Well of course not… [laughs] And part of it is because.. Um….

in the time that I was doing all this, Carla also had just wanted me to actually just go straight to going to visiting an Afrocentric school.

Brittany: [laughter]

Eric: She didn’t quite have all this in mind.

Brittany: She didn’t have all this in mind.

Eric: But now I feel like I know enough to like walk into an Afrocentric school and like honestly judge them fairly.

Brittany: You know, Carla loves you so unlike me she’s not going to roll her eyes she’s probably just going to smile and go with you someplace. But I just want to let you know that you did way too much. [laughter]

Eric: I like to think that I put in extra effort, you know? But I don’t think that’s a… in school there wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Brittany: It wouldn’t be a bad thing. And this is your child. So I’ll let it pass.

Eric: Thank you

Brittany: But Jesus Christ.

Eric:  After the break, I put away the spreadsheets… and get schooled.

[Break]

Eric: Welcome Back! So I told Carla that I was finally ready to go visit an Afrocentric school. And after a little bit of searching, we actually found one close to us. So one morning before work, we hopped on a bus and headed over there… I was making a lot of little random jokes.

It still seems like we’re about to walk into this mythical land, you know, of like … like I feel like the building is gonna be like a pyramid…

[bus stop dings]

Carla: Do you see a pyramid?

Eric: No, it’s not a pyramid… it’s like a brick building.

Carla: It’s nice.

Eric: When we first walked up, I actually felt the wave of somewhat of relief because they had a sign posted that said that they were closed for Malcolm X’s birthday. And I was like, whoa, okay, maybe they see history like I see history.

Eric: Gotta recognize the important holidays. Alright, I’ll press the button

Eric: So we press a button and they like buzz us in. And so we walked in… And to the left there was this amazing picture of the Obamas, like it looks like, regal.

Carla: A beautiful family portrait of the Obamas… 

Eric: Right at the front door!

Eric: Then we walk into the actual daycare, which is just like massive room. At that point you hear this chorus of kids in the background.

Director: Say hi guys! They have a two year old too.

Eric: It’s a very comforting sound to just hear like kids at play.

Eric: And Black history was everywhere.

Eric: I see you’ve got the Black History month sign. Is it Black history month every month?

Admissions Director: All year! We celebrate Black history all year. We have innovators who were born all throughout the year. We want to learn about those people all throughout the year too because is important for our children to know about their culture and the people who created things that you didn’t even think about like a shoe or a refrigerator or the traffic light is just something that we’re always going to talk about with them, so we want to make sure it’s infused in the lessons too.

Eric: There was a spot where a bunch of kids had colored pictures of Shirley Chisholm, and that I mean you know, that’s really dope. You know, there were drawings of Martin Luther King.. and Malcolm X’s glasses

Carla: And there’s a little picture of Malcolm X attached to each one. And they say Happy Birthday Malcolm X.

Admissions Director: So friday is Malcolm X’s birthday, so we definitely wanted to celebrate him. And we are always doing art, so we figured why not his glasses… which are one of the most iconic things about Malcolm X [laughs]  

Eric: I want some green frames!

Eric: So, there was a very nice woman, head of admissions. She came up to us and it felt like talking to your auntie and that was really nice.

AD: So this is our babies, our twos. This group they learn mostly through song and play, because at two years old that’s really what they can take in and that’s the best way to try to work with them and try to reach them.

Eric: I’d heard people describe pieces of this. You know, “Oh, we learned Swahili,” And actually being in the environment and seeing how those things happened in a real setting made me understand that like, Oh, you can teach the history and the culture AND the learning at the same time.

AD: You can see them learning about their culture and being able to repeat things about their culture in a natural fashion, it’s just natural. We want them to be confident in their culture and their background… So they go do whatever they want to do in the future… no matter where you are… and what you’re gonna do….

Eric: And when we heard about all the activities she could do….

AD: We do… I always miss one. Yoga, chess, Swahili, African dance class, we have an optional African drumming class, when you’re older you can do violin…

Eric: Everything was available to everyone… You know like… the boys were gardening…  and Eve could drum AND dance…

Eric: So I’m looking around this classroom…And this is a classroom that I couldn’t have even DREAMED of as a kid… You know, and I start to realize that like…  maybe I can trust these people. Like maybe this is the right thing for Eve.

Eric: I mean everybody tells you that you can’t do everything right. And you hear that, but you immediately disregard it. Because, like, I look at her and I see her as an opportunity to like… to create a happy person. And you want to do everything possible to make sure that this person is happy and grows up and is just excited about their prospects for the world and their future. And it’s tough, because at that same time you know all the ways it can go wrong.

Eric: There’s everything from the smallest mistakes where she has a bad day, to she might not be prepared for the difficulty that is inherent in being who she is. And you see all of those possibilities in almost every decision.

Eric: Them participating in teaching her how to be Black was scary. And now, it’s now comforting because there is a level of trust there now. Like I understand what they’re trying to do. And now that I’ve decided that this is something I want for Eve… like I can let go of some of my own experiences. This is a thing I’ll have to get used to doing over and over again.

Eric: I’m excited for her to walk in there and see all the stuff on the wall and her figuring out what she wants to go play with or manipulate first. You know, to see that moment of hesitation, cuz she always has kind of… has this moment of like, hmm, do I trust this? She is her dad’s child  but then she’s like, okay THAT, I’m going for that.

Brittany: You know what’s the thing I keep thinking about now that you guys have decided that you you’re going to send Eve to an Afrocentric pre-K is like, what are you guys going to do to prepare yourselves? Because like have you ever considered the fact that like one day Eve’s going to come home and just be way more woke than you guys? Like, she’s going to come home, like start the revolution like …. Maybe they like teach her how to wrap her head in school. She’ll come home one day like I no longer subscribe to the hairstyles of the white man. She might get you guys on liberation-based veganism. We don’t know.

Carla: That it’s a very, very high possibility.

Brittany: Mmm.

Eric: Carla is a little more open to that than I am.

Carla: I know that’s going to be the next campaign.

Eric: Do you not want me to have any joy?

The Nod is produced by me, Eric Eddings, with Brittany Luse, Kate Parkinson-Morgan, and James T. Green. Our senior producer is Sarah Abdurrahman. We are edited by Jorge Just and Annie-Rose Strasser. With editing help from Vann Newkirk the Second, Blythe and Jonathan Goldstein. Special thanks to Sonny Bridges, Dilena Brundage and Asthaa Chaturvedi. Engineering from Cedric Wilson. Our theme music is by Calid B. Additional music in the show by Bobby Lord and Takstar.  

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