Twenty years ago this week, I began writing an academic piece that would lead to my dissertation topic, doctorate and first book Fear of a “Black” America (2004). It was a topic that I’d fall in and then out of love with. Ironically, I pursued this topic because of my academic experiences in Humanities at Davis Middle and Mount Vernon High School. The topic was multiculturalism, and more specifically, multicultural education, and how to achieve this kind of curriculum reform in K-12 education. Just writing these words makes me feel both young and naive at the same time.
This whole quest started with a girl. Actually, with the young woman “Another E” (see “The Power of Another E” from April ’09 and “Beyond the Asexual Me” from last month”). She wanted to put an article together for publication, in response to what was then a major controversy involving research into the revision of New York State’s social studies and other curricula. The New York State Department of Education had given a committee the task of figuring out how to make the state’s K-12 curriculum more inclusive and representative of the state’s tremendous racial, ethnic and other forms of diversity.
By the end of September ’91, it would produce A Curriculum of Inclusion: Report of the Commissioner’s Task Force on Minorities: Equity and Excellence. But that deliverable was far from my mind when, tired from my weeks of near starvation post-graduation that April (see “Sometimes Starvation” from May ’11), I reluctantly said okay to working on this article.
Now here I was, minus the young woman in whom I no longer had an interest, now working on a piece that had become more academic than either of us had originally intended. By the time I’d written my first words on multiculturalism, I’d already learned the names Leonard Jeffries, Asa Hilliard III and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. I’d read articles from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal about Jeffries’ name-calling, Schlesinger’s incredulousness about calling slaves “enslaved persons,” and about the committee in general getting along like hyenas tearing at a dead wildebeest.
If I’d been just a tad bit smarter, I would’ve done an investigative piece and called and emailed the people on this task force. I would’ve asked them to divulge to me what they would eventually tell the world about their dislike of each other and of anything “multicultural,” which was in quotes for them. For Schlesinger, multicultural was the equivalent of bad ethnic studies or a kind of Afrocentrism that blamed Whites for all that has ailed America and the world for the past 500 years. For Jeffries, it was a racist attempt at appeasing Blacks and other groups of color while maintaining the main theme of Whites on top.
Although this is an oversimplification, it’s not by much. There really wasn’t anyone from the task force, the
NYS Department of Education, or anyone who spoke on the Himalayas-out-of-a-termite-mound controversy over a more inclusive K-12 curriculum without taking one of those two views. That’s what interested me the most. Schlesinger, and eventually, folks like Diane Ravitch, Mario Cuomo and others completely against revision that even approached cultural pluralism, versus Jeffries, Hilliard and others arguing beyond what they called a White multiculturalism.
I didn’t have the capacity at that stage of my life to see myself as a writer or a journalist in any way. Just two years removed from the end of my mother’s marriage to my now idiot ex-stepfather, I only saw the piece that I’d turn into a Master’s research paper, doctoral thesis and first book as an academic exercise, one where I found the philosophical middle. I hadn’t a clue as to how to make myself part of the Ground Zero issue of the first seven years of the ’90s, the Culture Wars.
But I did have one experience that provided unique insight into multiculturalism and the arguments made by scholars and pols on all sides. Six years in Humanities in Mount Vernon, New York’s public schools. A place where cultural diversity and how to deal with it within the curriculum was the elephant in the classroom. Some teachers and classes addressed it, and many didn’t, to the detriment of what was a solid program, not to mention me and the others who were my classmates.
Either way, I saw more issues of diversity crop up where a multiculturalist approach would’ve been helpful all during my time in Humanities, including with my kufi and my Hebrew-Israelite years. It was a missed opportunity, one that I unconsciously wanted to address with my research of and writing on multiculturalism.