SIGNITHIA FORDHAM felt betrayed when she started observing "Capital High School" in inner-city Washington.
"How could you not value what our foreparents sacrificed so much for?" she wanted to cry out to the students at Capital, a virtually all-black school where Fordham, who is black, would observe student life from 1981 to 1984.
What the Georgia-raised cultural anthropologist found -- and what drove her to shed "buckets of tears" in the early months of her study -- was a culture that placed greater value on group solidarity than on academic success. Achieving at Capital High was thought to be a sellout to the white world.
Her thesis has been a controversial one. But Fordham, now on the education faculty at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, found another debilitating force at Capital High: the low academic expectations of its students, expectations held even by the school's black teachers.
The students were in internal warfare, fearful of being cut off in their own community, fearful of being accepted and honored in the "other" -- the dominant white culture -- but anxious to bust the stereotypes of inferiority.
That was 15 years ago. Fordham soon overcame her disappointment, reminding herself that she was an observer, not a judge. Now she's adapted her doctoral thesis into a fascinating book about her observations at Capital High. "Blacked Out: Dilemmas of Race, Identity and Success at Capital High" (University of Chicago Press) is a scholarly work, but it's refreshingly lacking in gobbledygook, and it has dramatic tension that makes it read almost like a novel.
Fordham spent a year and a half just getting permission to use Capital as a case history. It's a real school, with its name and the names of its cast of characters fictionalized. Fordham doesn't believe things have changed in urban education since her Capital High study earned her the doctorate in 1987, and one suspects Capital High could as well be Southwestern or Northern or Northwestern or Walbrook or any other black urban high school in the 1990s.
There was Rita, beautiful, brilliant, loud. "She would get right to the door of failure," Fordham said, "but she would never open it, because failure would be a reflection on her as a black person. She couldn't do that."
There was Katrina, the school valedictorian the second year of Fordham's study, who did everything she could to avoid black stereotypes and in the process became "riddled with ambivalence and uncertainty." In some of the saddest moments of "Blacked Out," Katrina's parents gave her no encouragement and took no pride in her achievement.
Males at Capital High had even stronger internal conflicts than females. High-achieving boys found it harder than girls to protect themselves from the "psychic violence" of their society, Fordham said. And the majority of underachievers at Capital simply didn't try. "If you don't try, you don't fail," said Fordham. "It's a kind of avoidance."
Teachers at Capital experienced the same conflicts, Fordham said. They wanted to do the best they could, she said, "while at the same time trying to minimize the students' perception of them as the enemy."
Mr. McGriff, the principal, "did his very best. He was totally committed to making African-Americans achieve, but regrettably his efforts imploded, and he was caught in the spiral. Like the rest of us, he had to live two lives concurrently, one in the black community and one in the other."
Fordham's thesis has been hotly debated. Some say she exaggerates. The "nerd," they say, is shunned by all races. But Fordham insists there's a difference. The "brainiacs" at Capital High, she said, were thought to have excess brain power. "The most admired scholar at Capital was admired because he seemed to succeed without much effort. A nerd is a white person who is always working, always studying, always into books."
Since her four-year study and long period of writing, Fordham has accepted Capital High as a "blessed part of my life." Now that she's back after a teaching stint at Rutgers University, she's applying for research funds to renew her study.
"I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to tell a different story about what's going on in the African-American community," she said.
UMBC relocates retriever statue
The University of Maryland Baltimore County has moved a bronze statue of a retriever -- the school mascot -- from an obscure location behind the gymnasium to a prominent spot in an attractive new plaza at the main entrance to the Catonsville campus.
The nearest conspicuous feature on the plaza, just a few paces away, is a fire hydrant.
Pub Date: 5/12/96