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Teaching African Language 2009

Cultural Identity Development For California Youth

by Jimmy Ghifa Crutison

During fall semester of 2009, I began working with a group of amazing young people in a deteriorating education environment In East Oakland California. Elmhurst Elementary is considered by some to be a ’bad’ school, primarily because of where it is located. Most students come from so-called “impoverished” areas and backgrounds. Most of the young people live in single parent homes primarily led by women, although some students live with both parents and others with single fathers. We have been learning, teaching and talking about identifying as African and dismantling the shame of being African. Some young people have talked about feeling ashamed of identifying with being enslaved.

Griot and avid listeners – Imaginations on a journey in Africa.

Our focus was reshaping those concerns by introducing them to cultures, customs and life before contact with Europeans. We are engaging the young people by encouraging them to research areas of interests and then each student is allowed time to present their findings. I believe when young people read information of interest, it encourages visual images that help their imagination and understanding. That notion would help young people form a holistic African identity with pride. In addition, these exercises are designed to expose, introduce and encourage young people to start thinking about the benefits of an institution of higher learning by demonstrating the possibilities of their college potential through these exercises.

I don’t remember 500 years ago. Just drum and it will come back to us.

The young people have been captivated by the structure of our groups. We start with a moment of silence/reflection. Everyone gets an opportunity to check in and express any joy, concerns or thoughts. After we’re done with whatever activity we do, we then form an instrument circle where we jam for fifteen minutes. These activities are designed to illustrate the importance and significance of maintaining some sort of ritual and custom in the realm of African identity.

Visions of our ancestors.

As a freshmen in high school, I remember being intimidated by the notion of taking a foreign language to graduate. I raced home to greet my brother in this most mellifluous language I had ever heard and I wanted him to hear me speak it. With wide eyes and a gigantic smile, I confidently looked him in his eyes and chanted, ‘mujambo’ (hello); he paused, calmly looked at me and responded ‘nu sana, nu weweeje (fine, and you?). I learned my brother was taking the same course from the same instructor at Cal. My eyes nearly popped out of my head with excitement, my brother and I were in America, in our apartment speaking an African language. It was in that moment, I realized I was proud to be African.

I didn’t think I could, but I’m drumming and it’s fun.

We were taking our notion of cultural maintenance to another level by learning an African based language to get a better idea of how language influences or impacts identity. While studying at the University of Ghana at Legon from January 2004 until January 2005, I took a course in Twi, one of many local languages in the region. In addition, I learned some words in three other African languages. Based on the tones and the sounds of the words, these young people have decided they would like to learn Twi. I received several thank you letters from some of them, and they were already using African words and phrases they had learned in their writings.

I’m playing the drums to the rhythm of my heartbeat.

Photos by Christina Villareal