Brooklyn Kids Absorb Culture to African Beat

By Marjorie Coeyman, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 21, 1998 | Go to article overview

Brooklyn Kids Absorb Culture to African Beat


Marjorie Coeyman, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The urgent rhythm of throbbing drums fills the air as the bare- chested young man faces the council of elders. This is the ceremony that will mark the boy's passage into manhood. With a sudden leap, he bursts into a dance of joy, using his body to describe both his individuality and his newfound authority. The elders nod approvingly and then open their arms to admit him into their midst, now one of the adults.

Until recently, this boy knew more about the intricacies of New York's subway system than he did about tribal ritual. And yet today he, and a few hundred of his young neighbors in Brooklyn's Bedford- Stuyvesant neighborhood, have a new grounding in African culture and customs, courtesy of a program called Dance Africa.

Dance Africa is a 20-year-long collaboration between the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp. Working through various after-school and Saturday projects for youths sponsored by the Restoration Corp., the project teaches children about African history, art, geography, language - and dance.

Dance Africa is really just one piece of a larger movement to teach young African-Americans about their African roots. It has gained strength in the United States over the last 20 years or so.

"For a long time now black scholars and activists have made it very clear that black people need to be linked with their history," says Joyce Joyce, chairwoman of the African-American Studies Department at Philadelphia's Temple University.

Due to the abrupt severing of family and cultural ties caused by slavery, "too many of us have little knowledge of our African heritage," Professor Joyce says. The 16-week Dance Africa program focuses on what was once known as "the Mali empire," the Western African region that includes Mali, Gambia, the Ivory Coast, and Senegal that was once home to most of the Africans forced into slavery.

Important tool

In a tough city neighborhood like Bedford-Stuyvesant - roughly a third of its residents live below the poverty level and about 40 percent did not complete high school - knowledge of the ancient Mali empire is viewed not as an academic luxury but as a tool for lifting consciousness.

Learning about African culture and tradition serves to both help the area's children "build self esteem" and "make their worlds bigger," says Peggy Alston, creative director of the Restoration Corp.

This year the focal point of Dance Africa was a traditional African rite-of-passage ceremony involving 16 neighborhood adolescents.

The boys worked for months with a "council of elders," a group of older men who volunteered to mentor the boys.

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