(Review) The Struggle for Black Education: On Jarvis R. Givens’s “Fugitive Pedagogy”

Historians in the News
tags: African American history, book reviews, Carter G. Woodson, education history

Randal Maurice Jelks is a professor of American studies and African and African American studies at the University of Kansas. His most recent book is Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans: Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams, Eldridge Cleaver, and Muhammad Ali.

IN 1970, I ATTENDED summer school at Carter G. Woodson Junior High on Third Street across from the Magnolia Projects in the city of New Orleans. Architecturally, Woodson was a modernist structure, dedicated on October 11, 1954, six months after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Between 1940 and 1960, high schools and junior highs were built with the intent of keeping the regime of separate but equal intact. These schools were named after prominent Black New Orleanians and noted national figures such as Woodson. Despite the malicious intent of Louisiana and New Orleans officialdom, schools named after Black Americans were viewed with considerable pride by their initial students.

The first principal of Woodson Junior High was Charles B. Rousseve, a historian whose The Negro in Louisiana: Aspects of His History and His Literature was published in 1937. Black schoolteachers like Rousseve, like city students, revered Woodson. In 1934, Woodson visited New Orleans to lead a discussion on his Negro Makers of History, a textbook first published in 1928, at the Pythian Temple, an architectural site of considerable Black self-determination. Woodson’s visit flew under the radar, to protect the meeting from the fearful gatekeepers of national and Southern education. Sometimes openly, sometimes furtively, schoolteachers emboldened and empowered students in the city of my youth through the encouragement imparted to us by books, lesson plans, and the creative marketing of Negro History Week. We were reminded that we were also history makers. Little did I know at the time that I, too, was being proselytized in the Gospel According to Woodson.

Woodson’s influence would further stamp me. I took my first Black history class during my senior year of high school. The assistant principal of my Chicago high school was Dr. Clementine Skinner, a lifetime member and benefactor of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the organization that Woodson and his colleagues founded in Chicago in 1915. Skinner, a World War II veteran, was also engaged in the educational revolt in Chicago chronicled by historian Dionne Danns in her 2003 book, Something Better for Our Children: Black Organizing in Chicago Public Schools, 1963–1971. She, along with the other faculty, thought it was vital that all students in our high school have a sense of Black Americans’ historical and cultural agency. This was all before President Gerald R. Ford promoted the national observance of Black History Month in 1975 as he sought reelection. When I attended my first ASALH meeting, I heard a familiar voice calling my name. It was Dr. Skinner, then an octogenarian. Vigorously, she grabbed my hands and gleefully proclaimed, “Randal Jelks, you’ve finally made something of yourself!”

I offer these personal vignettes because they lend credence to the argument that Jarvis R. Givens makes when analyzing Woodson’s legacy in his new book, Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching. Through meticulous research, Givens has reconstructed the radical historical methods, teaching ethic, and writings of Carter G. Woodson; his book is a long-overdue labor of love and analysis.

Woodson, the second African American to earn a Harvard PhD in 1912, was, as Jarvis elucidates, one of this country’s greatest teachers and theoreticians of education. While philosopher John Dewey is usually seen as more significant to the development of mainstream education (i.e., that available to the white middle classes), Givens tells another story about those who were not politically ascendant. This story focuses on how Woodson, as a mentor of teachers, slowly transformed the organizational self-awareness of Black folk as a historical people, inspiring them to find significance in their own history.

Givens points out that Woodson was a schoolteacher long before he became a noted scholar. Born in 1875 toward the end of Reconstruction, Woodson was fully cognizant of the dangers, daring, and difficulties involved in organizing schools and teaching Black youngsters to think critically for themselves. Every step of the way, Southern state governments impeded Black educational development, their foremost political objective being to maintain a barely educated subservient workforce to tend the cotton and tobacco fields. Meanwhile, in the industrial North, the goal was to keep Black laborers in the least mobile positions and to stoke ethnic divisions, in order to stave any possibility of mass unionization. These material conditions made teaching in Black communities a fraught process that often required subterfuge.

As his career developed, Woodson taught in a variety of school settings. These ranged from the one-room school where he began his own education to the famed Dunbar High School in Washington, DC. The breadth of Woodson’s experience prior to and after his graduate education was extraordinary. He knew firsthand that to be a Black schoolteacher was a perilous vocation, and his experiences taught him the curricular needs of Black youth. They needed the kind of instruction that would allow them to critically assess and interact with the societal racism they constantly faced. During his years of dealing with the blindly racist faculty of Harvard’s history department, he learned that Black history had to be researched by Black people themselves. This is what drove Woodson and his cohorts to establish the ASALH in 1915 — the same year that The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith’s cinematic ode to the Lost Cause, was shown in theaters across the country.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books

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