Americans focus on Africa; Heritage: For many black people, celebrating their culture is not limited to one month in the year.


Before instruction begins each weekday morning at Edmondson Avenue's New Era Education preschool, youngsters sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing," commonly referred to as the black national anthem, and pay homage to African ancestors by offering libations.

They learn to count -- in English and Kiswahili -- using images of zebras and elephants. They make construction-paper African masks and celebrate African-centered holidays instead of Christmas and Halloween.

These 2- to 5-year-olds are among the youngest participants in a thriving national culture called Afrocentrism.

In nearly every facet of life, African-Americans in Baltimore and across the country increasingly are living and doing business in a black way: More and more, they take up black studies in college, have Afrocentric weddings, educate their children in the philosophy and organize vacations around black history sites. For many, it is as simple as incorporating African phrases into everyday speech or using greeting cards adorned with black faces and African motifs.

While Black History Month, this month, often inspires African Americans to renew their focus on Africa and its people, for many, Afrocentrism is not an occasional pastime -- it is a year-round way of living.

"Ninety-nine percent of what you see in this culture is from a white perspective," says Michelle D. Wright, who publishes "Natural Alternatives: An Afrikan Centered Guide for Holistic Living" from her Bolton Hill home. "This is about making sure you keep your culture intact, about seeing the world through your cultural lens. It's an issue of self-determination."

Molefi Kete Asante, a professor of African-American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia who popularized the philosophy nearly 20 years ago, says about one-third of the country's more than 30 million African-Americans identify themselves as Afrocentric.

"It's one-third and growing," he says, noting that sales of his books on the subject have never been higher.

Asante and other black-studies experts say it is because African-Americans today have more education than ever: In 1973, 5 percent of blacks had four years or more of college, compared with about 14 percent today, census data show. And more education, Asante says, brings more blacks an awareness of their heritage -- and an increased desire to make Africa and its people central to everyday life.

Many drawn to Afrocentrism eat vegetarian diets, avoid processed foods and practice alternative medicine. They say they pursue natural living as they gain a new acceptance of themselves as nature intended -- dark skin, un-straightened hair and all.

"People come into my salon and I say, 'Welcome to the salon of nappy, kinky, buckshot hair!' " says Somari, who runs Africentrics natural hair salon on Read Street downtown. "They understand that I'm justifying the fact that it's beautiful, no matter what anyone has said about us to the contrary."

Books by such authors as Asante, Maulana Karenga and Frances Cress Welsing are staples for many who live Afrocentric lifestyles. As they learn about the philosophy, they say, they gradually begin to dress, talk and think differently.

Such a shift happened for Trina Oliver, who once worked in a corporate job but now is a consultant on Afrocentric school programs and runs a black home-schooling network.

"It happened over time," she says. "It was a natural progression as I started looking inside at what would make me happy."

Ultimately, many Afrocentric Americans consider every facet of life -- from the Clinton impeachment hearings to the state of the environment -- as it affects black people first. Some espouse their beliefs with an almost religious zeal.

Larnell Custis Butler is a passionate believer. The 51-year-old studies Afrocentrism and creates poetry, art and essays that reflect her beliefs. "I am an Afrocentric feminist," she says. "I want people to know that I'm full of rage, rage about the human rights violations going on in urban areas. And I'm full of rage about these mainstream, safe blacks who aren't doing anything about it."

She points to her 26-year-old son, a registered Republican.

Horatio Jabari Kitwala -- he changed his name in college to reflect his African roots -- is a special-education teacher who is decidedly Afrocentric. But he stresses that blacks must focus on self-determination and responsibility, philosophies conservatives espouse.

The heated but respectful conversations in the Kitwala-Butler house embody the wide range of Afrocentric philosophy. On one end are those who say everything a black person does, by definition, is Afrocentric. At the other end are those who believe blacks are victims of racist conspiracies that will always limit blacks in an integrated society -- and therefore must live separate from other racial groups.

Most Afrocentric Americans fall somewhere in between.

That includes Molefi Asante, who prefers to call it Afrocentricity, saying that the word Afrocentrism sounds like a religion.

Asante, who was called Arthur L. Smith until 1973, says it's not about living separately from other racial groups but about understanding the world as an African before embracing other cultures.

"It's a philosophical approach to African phenomena," he says. "For almost 400 years now, we have been moved almost completely away from our social and value terms and given a new set of terms. It means we operate against our own interests. Almost every day African people live on other people's terms."

For example? "Music," he says. "If you say what you like is 'classical music,' by that you've bought into the idea that European classical music is the only type of classical music. When I say 'classical,' I mean jazz."

All over Baltimore, residents live and breathe this philosophy: On West North Avenue is Everyone's Place Afrikan Kultural Center, which sells African fabric, incense, books and carvings. On North Charles Street is Hair Care by Masani: Nurturing Services for Natural Hair.

On Greenmount Avenue, Donnacize Aerobics Studio tries to create a healthy environment for clients, mostly African-American women, to get fit but not feel pressured to force their full figures into a white standard of beauty.

"They come here and see people who look like them -- we don't focus on diet or being skinny," says Donna Lynn, the owner. "I think we're built differently. A lot of my members have memberships at big health clubs but they don't go there. They're uncomfortable."

Says Jay Carrington Chunn, a social worker and therapist who is associate vice president of academic affairs at Morgan State University, "It's an exercise support group."

Chunn, who is African-American, says culture is an overlooked aspect of mental health -- but one that is crucial to understanding what ails many blacks and other minorities who struggle to fit into a culture that often does not embrace them.

Many African-Americans see this rejection in every aspect of life. On the covers of magazines and on television and movie screens, in literature and in newspapers they see little evidence that blacks exist or contribute to society.

Travel books are no exception, says Thomas Dorsey, a Baltimore native who lives in Oakland, Ca. "The books will either omit, distort or underemphasize black society," he says.

For years, he scoured travel books and articles for ideas on where to find his culture while on the road. Frustrated, he founded Go Ware Travel, which publishes detailed, glossy maps that guide visitors to Ethiopian restaurants and ancient black churches in such cities as Washington and Atlanta.

His Web site,, profiles black tourist destinations in 19 cities and the Bahamas. Among a growing number of Web sites that target African-Americans, it offers tips for driving vacationers to handle racial profiling by police -- often dubbed Driving While Black -- and provides statistics on hotel chains' ethnic diversity among employees.

"It's important to have this information organized so people will know where to go to celebrate our history and culture," Dorsey says. "That, in some ways, helps make our community stronger."

For many who discover the philosophy later in life, Afrocentrism is revolutionary. But for some, such ideas take root early on.

At 22-year-old New Era Education, teachers encourage students to see everyday aspects of life through a black perspective. " 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' becomes 'Dreadlocks and the Three Bears,' " says Myrtice Hockaday, the executive director. Learning under this approach, she says, children automatically color in the faces of cartoon characters such as Fred Flintstone so they have brown skin.

With walls adorned with black faces and African motifs, the 50-student school looks the way many schools are decorated during Black History Month.

Pub Date: 2/24/99

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