Jawanza Kunjufu Biography
Writer, educator, publisher
Jawanza Kunjufu has dedicated his career to addressing the ills afflicting black culture in the United States, working primarily as an educational consultant and author but more recently expanding into video and film production. All aspects of the African American experience occupy Kunjufu's attention, but the main thrust of his work has been directed toward improving the education and socialization of black youths. He is the founder and president of African American Images, a Chicago-based publishing company that sponsors dozens of workshops intended to help educators and parents develop practical solutions to the problems of child-rearing in what he perceives to be a racist society. Kunjufu holds advanced degrees in business and economics that have enabled him to place the problems of black society in the larger context of national and international economic models.
Born on June 15, 1953, in Chicago, Kunjufu—who adopted a Swahili name in 1973—credits his parents, Eddie and Mary Brown, with affording him the encouragement, discipline, and stability that would later become the core of his program for the renewal of black society. As a young man, Kunjufu was urged by his father to volunteer his time at a number of different jobs, working without pay in exchange for learning firsthand how businesses and skilled craftsmen went about their work. Kunjufu attended Illinois State University at Normal and received a bachelor of science degree in economics in 1974. Ten years later he finished a doctorate in business administration at Union Graduate School.
Despite his formal training in business, Kunjufu was early on fascinated—and appalled—by the educational system for black students in America, and from 1974 onward he began delivering lectures and workshops treating the problems facing black educators. His presentations were well received, and Kunjufu eventually decided to make educational consulting his career; in 1980 he founded a publishing and consulting company in Chicago called African American Images. The birth of Kunjufu's two sons, Shikamana and Walker, further focused his energies on the contradictions inherent in black education and especially in the education of young black males. The fruit of these observations was the 1982 publication of Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys—probably Kunjufu's best-known book—in which he analyzes and offers alternatives to the frequent failure of black males in school and in the marketplace.
In Kunjufu's view, the "conspiracy" against black males is fundamentally rooted in the need of a white minority to control the world's far greater population of people of color; but in addition to overt racism, Kunjufu includes in his indictment all teachers, parents, and especially adult black males who fail to provide the support and discipline needed to keep black boys off the streets and in the classroom. Kunjufu sees black males as caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of failure, in which the absence of stable, successful adult role models ensures that young blacks will do poorly in school, turn to street life, and father yet another generation of boys without adequate male role models. The net result is the prevention of black males from attaining positions of social and economic power—thus continuing what Kunjufu perceives as the effective servitude of the black race in spite of America's claims to democracy and freedom.
Kunjufu has developed counter-strategies to this "conspiracy" in a number of his other books. In 1986's Motivating Black Youth to Work, he suggests that black Americans shift the basis of their value system from money to the encouragement of each individual's natural talents, a shift Kunjufu characterizes as a difference between European and African value systems. The author casts doubt on the usefulness of jobs programs in and of themselves; in a culture saturated with images of luxury and the power of money, minimum-wage jobs can hold little attraction for today's young black men and women. Kunjufu instead urges that each black child be helped to identify and cultivate his or her talents; from these discoveries, the child must build a means of livelihood, preferably, according to Kunjufu, by starting his or her own businesses. But in order to do this, children need the support and discipline of strong, loving, and concerned parents.
In another of his books, 1984's Developing Positive Self-Images and Discipline for Black Children, Kunjufu cites a University of Chicago study of 70,000 schools across the United States; the study concluded that the most important factor in pupil performance was the expectations of his or her parents and teachers. This conclusion supports Kunjufu's belief in the utmost importance of parental interest and support for schoolwork, along with the stimulation and challenge of a talented teacher. In this, as in all of his books and workshops, Kunjufu finds in the family the only effective defense against what he views as an inherently racist society; he particularly stresses the critical role of black men as role models and providers of discipline.
In conjunction with his writings, Kunjufu's African American Images organizes workshops for schools, community groups, and parents concerned with issues of education and economic independence. Kunjufu travels constantly in his role as moderator of these workshops and frequently lectures as well, addressing schools from the elementary grades on up to the college level. In addition, he has appeared on a number of well-known television programs, including The Oprah Winfrey Show and Tony Brown's Journal.
In the late 1980s, Kunjufu entered a new sphere of activity as the executive producer of a full-length motion picture, Up Against the Wall. Inspired by the success of independent black filmmakers such as Spike Lee and Robert Townsend, Kunjufu set out to make a film about black urban culture that would address the problems facing young black males without indulging in scenes of violence, sex, and drug abuse. Kunjufu told Frank James of the Chicago Tribune, "I wanted a movie that could take a black boy through positive and negative peer pressure and see if he could survive…and be a responsible young man."
Kunjufu persuaded actors Marla Gibbs (of "The Jeffersons") and Ron O'Neal (star of the 1972 mega-hit "Super Fly") to appear in the film without advance payment; O'Neal also agreed to serve as the film's director. Despite severe financial difficulties, Up Against the Wall was completed in two years at a cost of approximately $2 million and was released in January of 1991 to a limited number of theaters, primarily in the South. Kunjufu was unable to interest major film distributors in his project, which they thought too tame for today's audience, but the film did well enough at the box office to encourage Kunjufu to plan a second production.
Kunjufu's best claim to authority in the black community may well be the example of his own life. As he has recommended in book after book, Kunjufu managed to use the American educational process to develop his talents, create a successful business, and with his wife, Rita, raise two sons in a stable household. His success as a businessman and a father lends considerable weight to Kunjufu's ideas, which have been enthusiastically received by much of the black community. In 1992, Kunjufu opened a retail bookstore for African American Images which has since grown to be one of the largest black-owned bookstores in the country, with over 10,000 square feet of space and over 4,000 titles. Kunjufu has continued to compile studies and write books offering advice to black Americans about gaining a better education and creating a nurturing community in which to thrive.
Nearly twenty years after his first publication, Kunjufu offered another groundbreaking study about the state of life for African American males. The picture looked grim, with a rising number of black men in prison and alarming numbers of black boys relegated to special education classes in schools. In State of Emergency: We Must Save African American Males, Kunjufu offers statistics to show the magnitude of the social problem, but more importantly he lays out detailed advice for how to improve the situation he calls a "state of emergency." Noting that the nation's schools, economic system, pharmaceutical companies, and the prison system have institutionalized prejudices against blacks, Kunjufu also points to the preponderance of fatherlessness in black families for the difficulties facing black males. As with his other books, Kunjufu offers a series of best practices and approaches for parents, teachers and community activists to help address the problems he identifies.
Where some black leaders have been criticized for blaming the problems facing African Americans on racism alone, and others have occasionally stressed self-reliance while glossing over difficult discussions of racism, Kunjufu has found an important middle ground; by helping African Americans chart a course through racist waters and, at the same time, indicating the importance of black role models, strong families, and economic self-sufficiency, this learned author and educator has established himself as a leading voice of black empowerment.
Children Are the Reward of Life, African American Images, 1978.
Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys, African American Images, volume one, 1982, volume two, 1986, volume three, 1990.
Developing Positive Self-Images and Discipline for Black Children, African American Images, 1984.
Motivating Black Youth to Work, African American Images, 1986.
Lessons From History: A Celebration in Blackness, African American Images, 1987.
Critical Issues in Educating African American Youth, African American Images, 1989.
To Be Popular or Smart: The Black Peer Group, African American Images, 1989.
Black Economics: Solutions for Economic and Community Empowerment, African American Images, 1991.
Black Students' Survival Guide, African American Images, 1998.
State of Emergency: We Must Save African American Males, African American Images, 2001.
(With Carter G. Woodson) The Mis-Education of the Negro, African American Images, 2002.
Black Issues in Higher Education, February 19, 1998, p. 36; January 17, 2002, p. 33.
Chicago Tribune, February 18, 1991.
Essence, November 1988; December 1996, p. 60.
Herald and Review (Decatur, IL), January 17, 2005.
Publisher's Weekly, August 4, 1997, p. 38.
African American Images, www.africanamericanimages.com (March 10, 2005).
—Jonathan Martin and