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Black Educational Criticism as Theory in Its Own Right

Fugitive Pedagogy Edited Excerpt

Editorial introduction:

Below we publish an extract from Jarvis R. Givens’ new book, Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching (Harvard University Press). Givens excavates a subversive tradition of African American and diasporic educational thought that contested conventional framings of knowledge within the American curriculum. His book, and the tradition of black educational thought that Carter G. Woodson embodied, draws our attention to the ways in which black educators have challenged the epistemological antiblackness through which some school curricula have been codified.

“Woodson … looked at the entire educational system and he said that it is set up in such a way as to motivate white students by telling them that they had done everything and to de-motivate black students by telling them that they had done nothing. So the question that we have been running away from is the body of knowledge in the university and schools itself. It is not any other extraneous factor. It is the body of knowledge. It is the system of representation.”

Sylvia Wynter, ‘Race and our biocentric belief system’ (2000)

Black Americans struggled with how to talk and think about the education predicament they found themselves in and the systems of knowledge that structured their realities. Their pursuit of language and understanding produced a distinct body of educational criticism, one that analysed the relationship between education and black life and exposed how education factored into black people’s suffering as well as their struggle for freedom and justice. A way of speaking and knowing emerged from the interstices of black people’s alienation within and resistance to the American School. Mining this language provides revelatory insight about the intricacies of black life in the social phenomena of education and study, a heritage comprising black people’s experience in education as well as their interpretations of said experiences.

Black educational criticism, often referred to as black educational thought, was part and parcel of fugitive pedagogy, providing theories of education and counter analyses of the American School from below. The educational criticism of black people was fundamentally counterhegemonic in its assertion that they were rational subjects, and because the ideas embedded within it challenged the racial hierarchy of slavery and then Jim Crow. This body of educational theory disrupted fundamental myths shaping human sociality.

Naming “Mis-education”: A conceptual breakthrough in black educational criticism

Carter G. Woodson published The Mis-education of the Negro in 1933. This text represents a quintessential example of this theoretical tradition. Woodson’s central idea, “mis-education,” became a lasting fixture in black vernacular culture as a shorthand critique of white supremacist ideas propagated by Western imperialist indoctrination, especially in the context of schools. Naming “mis-education” invited a suspicion of normative educational values and for black people to think outside of dominant conceptions of schooling, which reproduced ideas and social practices rooted in white supremacy. Woodson’s polemical text provides a window into a long body of educational criticism by black thinkers wrestling with first questions, fundamental lines of inquiry that set out to name and interpret urgent matters in black experience, that struck at the root of the crisis.

The curriculum of the American School, Woodson argued, produced impoverished perspectives of black culture and history and therefore, too, degraded representations of black people in the national culture. These distortions operated as authoritative knowledge, as naturalized “scientific” facts. Woodson argued, “The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies.” The American Curriculum inspired white students by telling them that their race — referring to a homogenous white identity, beyond ethnic and national difference — was responsible for all notable progress in the world. The semantics embedded in this curricular orientation, its very narrative structure, intended diminished aspirations for black students and demotivated them from challenging their current state of subjugation. The motivation of white students and white achievement was premised on the debasement of black students and black achievement. Woodson’s critique of mis-education named the racialized gaps in “official knowledge” of schools. More than mere oversight, he insisted, these gaps were carefully manufactured, a knowledge system constructed by those in power who deemed African-descendant people as outside of history, outside of human time—trailing behind “the great march of human civilization,” as one textbook author put it.

A shared antipathy for black people as well as their culture and history within the American School ecology, Woodson recognized, made black teaching and learning urgent tasks of a distinct kind. He argued that the sustained erasure of black cultural and political achievements from knowledge animated the physical violence and precarity experienced by black people. Mis-education was an assault on black life in the psychic and physical realm, its violence manifested discursively and materially. Time and again he asserted, “There would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.” Addressing the violent erasure of black life in the canons of knowledge was a critical first step in developing a liberatory program of education. What we come to know and say about the world, the stories we tell and study, manifests in all other aspects of our lives. Anti-black curricular violence and the physical violence black people experienced were symbiotic. Addressing the material conditions of black life required upending black people’s condemnation in the symbolic order. This was the heart of Woodson’s theoretical argument.

Distilling theory from black educational criticism demands close reading of the words put forward by black thinkers alongside their deeds and practices of negotiating the constraints of the American School. The tradition of educational criticism represented by Woodson in the United States resonates with that of other educators and thinkers in the African Diaspora. Generating new language to talk about blackness, power, and technologies of schooling represents a distinct line in black intellectual history that transcends the United States, representing a critical feature of black diasporic consciousness.

“Blind to the Negro”: Imitation and the illegibility of the black condition

Woodson was concerned with the mis-education of black people, not that they were un-educated. Theoretically speaking, those blacks who were “highly educated” were the major source of his concern. Woodson’s critique was less about access to education in general and more about exposure to hegemonic curricula and indoctrination into white ruling-class ideology. While access to schooling was still a major issue for black Americans during the 1930s, Woodson’s concern was the epistemological underpinnings of education provided to those who made it past these barriers. Two years prior to publishing Mis-education, Woodson reflected on his own life, explaining in the Negro World newspaper that it took him twenty years after completing his doctorate at Harvard University to recover from his thorough initiation into the Western world’s highest orders of knowledge.

“Imitation” emerged as a key trope in Woodson’s development of mis-education as a theory of antiblackness in the American School. The implantation of hegemonic white ideology and curriculum in the context of black education created vexing conditions. It offered black learners no social analysis to develop critical perspectives on the oppressive conditions surrounding them and taught nothing of the continuum of struggle black students inherited. The curriculum did just the opposite. It allowed students to internalize racial myths that reproduced their oppression—or, at best, it left them to figure out a way forward with no resources or conceptual knowledge to assist them in imagining beyond the limitations of Jim Crow.

Woodson’s critique of imitation extended from a belief that ideas shaping school content ultimately informed process. Questions about ideology and knowledge, so deeply bound up in power relations, should come before or be made an integral part of the institutional development of black education. At a conceptual level, he raised questions toward the stories and ideas about the world that formed the bases of the knowledge system, which then instructed curriculum content and pedagogical practice. What was the human vision within education, and in what ways were black students allowed to see themselves within that vision?

The term imitation or some variation of the word shows up more than twenty-three times in Mis-education. “The chief difficulty with the education of the Negro,” Woodson asserted, “is that it has been largely imitation resulting in the enslavement of his mind.” As a consequence of this imitation, black Americans were taught to revere the history and achievements of the white race and thus aspire to whiteness — or the symbolic forms of achievement outlined in white historical narratives.

In an undated manuscript, Woodson elaborated on his critique of mimicry in black education: “The Negro is merely shoved out through the backdoor of the school provided for the needs of other Americans and ordered to imitate from afar the best he can what is going on in the main show.” This analysis of the conditions of black education not only critiqued it as a flawed assimilationist program but also denotes the violence of black exclusion from the mainstream public sphere vis-à-vis mainstream schooling. Black students were excluded—better yet, “shoved out through the back door”—from the main show, or the citizenship project of schooling offered to white students, and instead expected to mimic these programs in the confined space carved out for them at the margins of the American School, reflective of their alienated status as degraded citizens, as sub-students. Blacks were forced to construct an educational program that attempted to replicate whiteness, with no interrogation of how and why they were excluded from this structure of power, or “the main show,” to begin with. A preoccupation with imitation and mimicry foreclosed the possibility of imagining an alternative model of schooling that moved beyond the hegemonic norms of white ruling-class ideology. “The education of any people should begin with the people themselves,” Woodson argued, “but Negroes thus trained have been dreaming about the ancients of Europe and about those who have tried to imitate them.” This critique of imitation was a caution toward internalizing a fascination with European and Euro-American culture and values that diminished the possibilities of a positive black self-image and a critique of white supremacy.

The absence of sustained attention to the history of violence and exploitation that structured black life in the modern world, or black people’s unceasing resistance to these assaults, underdeveloped black people’s ability to see and know themselves as a historically situated people. Taking Woodson’s critique of mimicry seriously, we find that miseducation theoretically names the co-configuration of knowledge canonization, power, and antiblackness as a political mandate of white supremacy. Black education was forced to mimic hegemonic ideas of schooling without any critical interrogation of its reliance on dominant epistemology—a knowledge system that informed the racial order of society and its debasement of black people in its conceptual understanding of what it meant to be human. According to Woodson, this imitation of hegemonic schooling ran the risk of developing a false consciousness among black people; it cultivated aspirations of whiteness and its markers of power while rendering invisible the black condition as abject, dispossessed, and unfree.

In response, Woodson advocated for an educational program that challenged the distortions of black life in the American School. He called for rigorous sight of the black condition—a more exhaustive knowledge about the historical construction of anti-black ideas, an awareness of how these ideas were practiced in schools and society, and deep study of expansive narratives about the social and political life of African descendant people in the world. Woodson argued that race (and blackness in particular) needed to be named explicitly in the process of study, for it had implications for all aspects of our social order. As such “the Negro” as well as “Negro life and history” made race/blackness a hermeneutic for the process of study, and a realm of experience for excavating a submerged body of knowledge. Education, Woodson professed, must give black students new ideational resources to parse through their realities, resources for imagining the world anew.

Woodson’s theory marked a historic shift in black educational criticism. For so long black people’s primary quarrel in education centered on access. Access to literacy, access to professional training, access to higher education and citizenship. Surely, people before Woodson identified the need to talk about black history and achievement; however, Woodson’s naming of the wide-ranging impacts of the racist distortions in curricula was new territory. This clarity achieved by Mis-education was a conceptual breakthrough. It was new language for a new world.

Jarvis R. Givens is Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Suzanne Young Murray Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard University.