Updated: Feb 7, 2018
“Since coming to America, however, every aspect of my identity has been change"
Just as I was ready to get on the plane, my late father, Dr. Jovan Were Bulijjo, took me aside, looked me straight in the face, a thing our elders do not do, and said to me, “Son, you are now going to a strange land. Remember the values and traditions that our forefathers left behind for us to follow. Never forget that you are from the Bantu race, a Luhya by tribe, a Mulundu by clan, and an Otengho. You keep this in mind and there is no ideology that will change the perception of who you are and where you come from. Confidence is achieved in being comfortable with who you are.” This would be almost the last time my late father and I would ever talk face to face.
As the “big bird” finally soared into the skies, I took out my passport and there it was: my identity was well spelt out. I was known as a Ugandan of the Luhya tribe. I even muttered a few words to make sure that my mother tongue “Kiluhya” was still within my speech. But I was also a well-Western-educated African young man with a good command of the Queen’s English and a well-rounded world view. With my ethnic identity, political identity, and educational privilege, I was confident that no one would mistake me for anything else. I felt properly identified.
Since coming to America, however, every aspect of my identity has been changed. I find myself just an “African male,” a designation that American society prefers I bear as my new identity. My attitudes, culture, values, and life experiences are presumed to reflect all of Africa, a continent of almost 60 countries, thousands of nationalities, thousands of languages, and as many values and traditions, reflecting some almost 850 million people. By definition, I am presumed poor, disease-ridden, uneducated and incapable of spirituality. The missionaries call me heathen; the sociologists consider me maladjusted; the educators deem me illiterate; the politicians perceive me as an economic burden; and the census bureau has reduced my identity to the color of my skin. When I am among whites, I am called black; and with African Americans I take on the images of a white gimmick, a token, a window dresser, and sometimes a sellout. Even after 20 years in the United States with almost seven degrees in five different fields, I am still just an “African male.” I am still being put in my place. They will not let die a distorted image that they have forced upon me.
In 1993, I stumbled over a public television documentary about little children’s first day at school in such places as England, United States, Australia, Japan and Africa. Within minutes into the documentary, I realized that Africa had been reduced to a country. While parents in all the other countries were shown performing certain routines to send their children off to school, in Africa children were shown climbing trees, begging for food, asking donations from Westerners, and chasing each other into the forest. I was shocked beyond belief that a people with a conscience would distort the image of my people to such an extent.
You see, I grew up in the bustling cities of Nairobi and Kampala. There were as many schools as there were districts, public schools, private schools, and mission schools. We had major post offices, telephone companies, grocery stores, department stores, hospitals, and highly trained doctors and yes, believe it or not, vaccinations were required of us. Some walked to school; others rode a bus; many stayed on campus; and others were chauffeured to school. All the modern amenities and facilities were available. My memories of my first day at school did not fit the distorted images that were being aired on TV for millions to see.
I still remember so vividly my first day at school. My mother and father accompanied me. I had on the most beautiful uniform and new black shoes with white stockings. I remember how the principal (headmaster) welcomed us to his office, which was decorated with maps, school pictures, and team trophies. Then he served us refreshments. I can still remember the delicious Mikisa cookie that just melted in my mouth with the first bite. It was the kind of cookie you hope the taste would never leave your mouth. Then came the teacher so well-dressed and a body built like “Mr. T.” I wanted just to be like him, so elegant and confident. The classroom was so beautiful and carefully decorated. There were other children in the class sitting with smiling faces and dressed in the same uniform as I. I was allowed to sit next to a young and beautiful lady. I looked at my father, and I knew school was going to be just fine. Since it was required for all entering first graders to know their multiplication tables up to 12 and all the English alphabet and vowel sounds, my first test was a knockout because I knew my multiplication tables and the alphabet.
When I entered high school, we studied Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, the Bronte Sisters, A Man for All Seasons, The Merchant of Venice, Things Fall Apart and many Classical African writers like Achinua Achebe, Diop, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, etc. I was the captain of the debate club, the soccer team, the track and field team, and the boxing team, as well as the President of the Student Council (Head Prefect). Everyone in my graduating class was college bound. We had a graduation ceremony attended by every parent, relative, and dignitary. We had a PTA, a teachers’ union, and a student union. These were the images of my childhood and school, but to the TV producers’ and many Westerners, this rich school experience did not place me among the civilized; I was still an “African Male”. It was a shock when Senator Ernest Hollings, the Democrat from South Carolina, after attending a trade summit in Geneva, jokingly intimated that African leaders were still cannibals. What an insult! How ignorant! Why would someone, supposedly educated and who well understood the sphere of his influence over the minds of others, give such distorted images of my people? Why?
A Continent of Contrasts
It is true that Africa is a continent of contrasts. It is also true that there is unrest in Africa and that certain ethnic groups still resist Westernization. But let us understand that the unrest in Africa has its roots in the disparity between the opulent lifestyles of the elite, the privileged diplomats who represent different countries overseas, and the austere lives forced on the rest of the masses by governments that serve Western interests. While the masses are suffering, the elites are driving BMWs, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguars, and Rolls Royces. They hide behind high fences built around opulent houses staffed with servants, guards, and dogs. They have backup generators and pumps just in case of power failure. Their children are sent to Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. This elitist behavior places these individuals at cross swords with the underprivileged. They no longer serve the local interests of their people. It is therefore ironic that U.S. envoys would characterize such opulent men with whom they talk and dine as starving cannibals.
Why Distort my Identity?
Why do they distort the image of my people? To the American shapers of thought, it does not matter that these “cannibals” are products of the world’s best universities and that they are Secretary Generals of the United Nations. It is of no value to them that these “African males” like President Nelson Mandela control and distribute great resources of their countries.
I have yet to become accustomed to what America expects me to be. I do not understand the differences between the myth of the African that I am supposed to be in America, and the Luhya of the Balundu clan whom I know myself to be. While the dominant culture in America is busy planning for its posterity’s future, I find myself swimming with sharks against the current of a society that has distorted my identity. To be an “African male” is to struggle against myths and misconceptions of my negritude. Even though I know myself to be a Bantu from the Luhya nation of the Balundu clan and from the Otengho family, 17 years of constant bombardment of this identity by designations that despise my roots have almost left me frustrated. I can never be accustomed to what America expects me to be.
As an educator, I decry the plight of the little African-American child who is robbed of the privilege of being a Mulundu and finds himself/herself in a society called home and yet is always an alien. Labeled and stereotyped, the African-American child suffers indignities that render him/her a non-achiever in our society. The educational system that was never meant for the African-American child resists change that would render him an achiever in a society that he calls home.
Deep Imbued Distorted Identities
The distorted images of the “African male” are so acutely accredited to him that he begins life with a negative balance. Instead of being born to enjoy liberty, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness, he spends his life trying to untangle himself from the cobwebs of stereotypical trappings. Most educators do not believe he can learn and most employers do not expect him to perform. Being tired of trying in a never-ending struggle of proving himself, he accepts helplessness and frustration. Looking around and seeing the bleakness of his situation, he now gives up before he even begins. He does not even want to try because his trying has never been good enough. He is encouraged by those who seem to understand him; and yet they, too, are swimming against the currents that have rendered him a non-achiever. He sees the struggles of his single mother whom he hardly sees because she works two shifts to make ends meet. He has never seen a father, and the only male figure he had is in the beautiful hotel called “Incarceration.” Against all odds, he is forced to go to school to keep his mother from going to jail because of the law. The school labels and stereotypes him, and he knows it is a matter of time until he will be a resident at the “Incarceration Hotel.” After all, 45 percent of all “African males” begin adulthood marked for life. He struggles to make sense of his life in a society that has distorted his images; he is just another “African male.”
Who is the African-American Child?
Who understands an African-American child? He is called McIntosh, a Western name that bears no meaning but serves as a reminder that he will always be an “African male” of whom Hegel said “his character is that of a dog. He has no capacity to learn, no room for improvement and no human nature to cultivate.” It is the name that has cut him from the privilege of knowing that he comes from a legacy of classical civilizations whose forefathers were astronauts, doctors, teachers, authors, scientists, astrologers, surgeons, healers, kings, queens, soldiers, great warriors, builders, sailors, merchants, scribes, rabbis, and sages. His European name only allows a history of 300 years of bondage as an inheritance and not a history of six thousand years of continuous and unbroken chronicles. He does not know that he would have been a Luhya, a Yoruba, a Tui, a Muluba, a Berber, a Kikuyu, an Ovimbundu, a Khosa, or the elegant warrior of the Zulu. He does not know that his homeland has oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, and copper, and produces cocoa that he eats in all his chocolate bars. He does not even know that life would come to an end if one day America woke up and there were no chocolate products on the shelves. He just does not know.
Pseudo-Efforts to Reconstruct History
In 1994, Florida passed a law 233.061 mandating that it is time for the African-American child to know about his history and culture. The mandate carries with it no funding, and it is left to each school district to fund and implement the program. Does the State of Florida believe that this “African male” does not have the character of a dog, that he has the capacity to learn, that he can improve and has a human nature to cultivate? If this is true, then where is the funding to back up this new belief? Of the 67 school districts in Florida, only three have successfully written, funded, and implemented a curriculum: Dade County, Broward County and Palm Beach County School Districts. I challenge the state to stand behind an educational philosophy that believes all children can learn by providing the school districts with funding for this mandate. This will show that the state of Florida understands the plight of the African-American child. But to make us think that the state understands the importance of teaching a people’s history and culture and how that affects learning and teaching and then fail to put in place a mandate that is enforceable is misleading and downright hypocritical. If the system is willing to cater to the minority child, then the African-American child should not have to demand and beg for that to which he is entitled as a bona-fide member of society. And when it is given to him, he should not find that it is unattainable.
The African American Child Plight
The plight of the African American child is best described by the following true analogy. I met a young fellow who claimed to be a fisherman. He was proud that his master had just taught him every technique concerning fishing and that he also had purchased state-of-the-art fishing equipment. For a while, he accompanied his master to the fishing pond. His master had a very big pond full of all kinds of fish. The young man was the envy of his neighborhood. His master offered to train every male child in the neighborhood. With a state grant he trained all the boys who always fished in his pond and each one of them had state-of-the-art equipment. One morning the boy moved from the neighborhood to another state. He had all of his state-of-the-art equipment and was a magnificent fisherman. He got the map and located about 20 fishing ponds. He took his state-of-the-art equipment and ventured out.
He went to every pond and at each of them he found out that you had to be a member in order to fish. To be a member you had to be earning at least $65,000 a year, be a relative or friend of a member, and be recommended by the Chamber of Commerce, the Country Club or the Rotary Club. The young man could not meet those qualifications. But he still had his state-of-the-art equipment and was highly trained in fishing; yet he could not fish because his master had not told him that he needed to own a pond. He moved back home only to find that his “’hood” boys still had their state-of-the-art equipment and were highly trained in fishing but could not fish in anyone’s pond.
The Dilemma of Education
Today, there are many well-trained and highly qualified “African males” still sitting on the banks of fishing ponds who are not able to advance to fishing because of the society they live in. By the way, the master was still getting his state grant and even received an award for graduating the largest number of “African male” fishermen.
The Palm Beach County School District launched the implementation of the multicultural curricula in August of 1999 to comply with Mandate 233.061. The effort, strongly supported by the then superintendent Dr. Joan Kowal and her associates, was fully funded by the district. In addressing the Multicultural Task Force and classroom teachers, Dr. Kowal demanded a commitment from those present to believe that all children can learn and that each child is entitled to learning about his history and culture. I am persuaded that it is superintendents with this kind of vision, belief and resolve who understand the plight of the African male child. I am hoping that, for the 145,000 students in PBCSD, they will see the myths and stereotypes removed from their classes and replaced with respect and honor for all cultures that are representative in their schools and classes.
The Challenge of the 21st Century Education
The dawn of the 21st century is here, and we want each of our children to be placed in a position where they can communicate in a global society. Education is about our children, and our children are the guardians of the values and traditions that we hold so dear. “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I know there are issues that we must address in the educational system that pertain to the disparity that exists between the minority student and the dominant culture, issues like equity in gifted programs for minorities, raising the level of academic achievement for our children, the staffing of African-American teachers and administrators and guidance counselors who care enough to guide all our children to academic tracks that will help them become owners of their own learning. Our children should never be satisfied with crumbs that fall from the master’s table; they must gain the privilege of dividing the loaf. But as we address issues that are still pending, let us not lose sight of what we already have attained. We must be as vigilant in keeping that which we possess as we are in demanding for that which we deserve and is rightfully ours but is yet denied. Let us learn to identify the blessings that we have before we ask for more.
Images of Dispaire
The African-American child knows how his/her counterpart lives in the privileged culture. He sees it in the way they drive to school. His parents cook for them, mow their yards, pick up their trash, entertain them. The average person of the privileged culture does not understand the way the African-American child lives. I would bet the majority of all teachers do not understand how the African-American child in his/her class lives. It is almost impossible to know how to teach the African-American child when we do not even know his very being, let alone trying to define what is normal for an African -American child when we have not a clue as to how he/she reasons.
All of research done to measure academic success is done from the dominant cultures’ point of view without reference to the needs of the African child. Since it is true that education is for all our children, then, what is good for the African child should be good for the white child as well. If for some reason any educator in the public school system finds this unacceptable, it is possible that they are not fit to teach any child, especially the African American male in this country.
Closing the Cultural Gap in Education
Any minority child should not be put in a position that makes him feel inferior. There should be no child who is socialized to accept a designation of inferiority. There is the effort to try to close the achievement gap. The only problem is that the de-culturalized “African male” grows up believing that those of the privileged culture are superior. He is therefore denied the legitimate right to be accepted as an equal and as a human being. A student in one of my classes stated that: “White students make A’s and Black students do not.” She concluded by saying that getting A’s was acting “White.” I felt as though I had been shocked by 1000 volts of electricity. Anger, rage, frustration, sympathy, and pity, all welled up in my mind for a few seconds. The young lady was serious. There was silence. This innocent child had been socialized to accept an inferior position. Somehow she had been misled to believe that white people and A’s were synonymous. How tragic! It was indeed a teaching moment, although I felt angry at a society and a system that had told lies to such a raw mind. Needless to say, I stopped the flow of my lesson and seized the moment. There are so many of our children who are just like her. They are mentally, psychologically, and academically doomed to fail. There is so much to undo, and I wish universities that offer education programs would answer this call by putting in place courses which address and train teachers who are able to re-socialize the African-American child and any other child who has been victimized by such venom.
Globalization Demands Mutual Respect
The global society we live in demands mutual respect. Instead of isolation that creates hostility, we should cultivate a closeness that creates friendship and understanding. The 21st century demands such an attitude. The vast majority of our troubles spring from a lack of understanding of one another’s cultures. Ignorance therefore forces us to look at each other with suspicion, and this creates isolation that, in turn, leads to undeserved hostility on the part of each group. We must tailor our education to foster understanding among young people around the world. This will enable them to live more peacefully and productively than in the past.
Effective Intercultural Awareness
Cross-cultural, or intercultural awareness must go beyond a mere tolerance of attitudes toward the ideas and artifacts of other cultures. It must be a constructive and progressive engagement with a desire to act cooperatively with genuineness. In this way, our children, who are the future leaders, will respect cultural differences and will celebrate the richness and strengths that are born through diversity. The strength of a civilized society depends on its ability to communicate effectively. Some of the values that are common to such societies are ideas, attitudes, feelings, and the ability to listen to what others say in an effort to interpret their intentions, convictions, and world views. Our children can become productive, informed, and caring citizens if what we model promotes responsible, genuine, and meaningful participation in settings that are representative of the society they live in, a society that is culturally diverse but shares the common ideology of survival.
Good Education Begins at Home
Yet who understands the African-American child? I can ask and demand that the outsiders understand my child, that they provide for my child what every child of his age deserves in this society. But I ask myself, “Why would I ask a teacher to discipline my child when I do not foster and train good and acceptable behavior in my own child? When I allow my child to be labeled a non-achiever just because I am too busy to help him/her with homework, has not studied for a test, has had no access to the community library, or to community facilities that encourage proper education, then there is no one I can blame but myself. Failing my child this way, when I know that the system that tries to educate him has marked him for failure, is cultural treason. I cannot expect my child to respect authority at school when he does not respect me at home nor any of the elders or authority figures in my community.
If my child does not have the necessary values and beliefs that offer him the confidence to perform in school, there is no magic any teacher will employ that will transform his desire for learning. Before I fault the outsider, let me make sure that I really understand the African-American child and his academic needs. Let me ensure that I have done all that I know to do to set up my child for academic achievement. I allow outsiders to label my child when I do not appear at PTA meetings and School Improvement Councils, when I do not even know the na