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American History, Black Americans

BLACK history deserves wider appreciation and understanding in public schools. Blacks have always known this. In past decades, as a matter of conscience and historical truth, many whites have agreed. Historian Page Smith notes that, despite cruel hardships, blacks in the US have preserved a sense of soul: ``... in some strange way the soul missing in white America has been preserved as a common legacy in black America, as though black America might give white America the soul that had been lost in the unimaginable rigors'' of taming a wilderness. All Americans - black, white, Hispanic, Asian - should know the story of African-Americans. Much progress has been made in this direction.

Yet this progress should not blithely sanction the increase of a questionable new brand of history - ``Afrocentrism.'' Taught mainly to young blacks, often instead of US history, Afrocentrism suggests early African civilizations are the hub of world history, and even Western civilization. For example, many Afrocentric teachers argue that Socrates developed his logic and thinking in early Egyptian mystery cults. Such teachings are heavily discounted even by sympathetic scholars.

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They ought to be given the same kind of critical analysis by curriculum coordinators in public schools. The argument that black youths need to feel empowered by a history centered in Africa falls apart if that history is distorted or incomplete. It ironically leads to separate and unequal schooling.

Public-school and college curricula are under attack for being too ``Eurocentric'' - for teaching the history (and, implicitly, the identity) of the US as being mainly derived from Europe. Some of this critique is fair. ``Europe'' (as though it were monolithic) should not be taught as an ethnic ideal. However, it is true that the roots of America's most important political contribution to the world - the Constitution and Bill of Rights - are in Europe.

Renewed nationalism in other lands points to the uniqueness of the American experiment. Equality, not ethnicity, should be taught as the primary US principle. Lincoln wrote in 1838: ``Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe ... be taught in schools.''

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