The Book that Launched Black Studies Was a Challenge to Classroom RacismHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Black Studies, education history, Carter Woodson
Ibram X. Kendi is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University and the founding director of the university’s Center for Antiracist Research.
In 1925, teachers at the Negro Manual and Training High School of Muskogee, Oklahoma, made what they thought was an appropriate choice of textbook: The Negro in Our History, by the Harvard-trained Black historian Carter G. Woodson. Woodson had written this "history of the United States as it has been influenced by the presence of the Negro" to supply the "need of schools long since desiring such a work," as he wrote in the book's preface. Upon learning of this textbook choice, White segregationists on the school board sprang immediately into action. They decreed that no book could be “instilled in the schools that is either klan or antiklan,” insinuating that Woodson’s Black history textbook was “antiklan."
The school board banned the book. It confiscated all copies. It punished the teachers. It forced the resignation of the school’s principal. “It’s striking how similar that feels and sounds to the contemporary moment,” the Harvard education historian Jarvis R. Givens told me.
A century ago, white segregationists were banning anti-racist books and “Negro studies” as well as punishing and threatening anti-racist educators all over Jim Crow America.
In response to these incidents, Woodson embarked on a new initiative to support educators and promote Negro history. In 1926, he founded Negro History Week, which officially became Black History Month 50 years later. And Woodson’s most important scholarly contribution, his 1933 book, The Mis-education of the Negro, highlighted the importance of teaching Black history. The book argued that Black children learn to despise themselves—just as non-Black people learn to hate Black people—when Black history is not taught. As Woodson wrote, “There would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.” Combining pedagogical theory, history, and memoir, this was a book about the dangerously racist state of education, a book for 2023 as much as it was for 1933.
The Mis-education of the Negro was recently reissued with an introduction from Givens, who studies the history of American education and has written extensively on Black educators, including Carter G. Woodson. Givens helped develop the AP African American Studies course that was piloted in about 60 schools across the United States and recently rejected in Florida. We discussed the enduring relevance and power of this classic book 90 years after its birth.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Ibram X. Kendi: For the past two years, many politicians and political operatives have made the case that teaching white students about African American history, about slavery, about racism, makes them feel bad or is even a form of miseducation. But these operatives do not seem to care about the educational experience of Black children. I’m curious what Carter G. Woodson would say about the impact on Black children of not teaching that material. What is Woodson saying in Mis-education?
Jarvis R. Givens: He argues that the physical violence Black people experience in the world is inextricably linked to curricular violence. He would say Black students must be equipped with resources to resist this violation of their dignity and humanity; they must be given an opportunity to know themselves and the world on new terms. To deny Black students the opportunity to critically study Black life and culture is to deny them the opportunity to think outside of the racial myths that are deeply embedded in the American curriculum.
Kendi: It seems like this book could have just as easily been titled The Mis-education of the American.
Givens: The overrepresentation of European and Euro American history and culture offers white people this kind of inflated sense of importance. Woodson would say that this has historically been part and parcel of the identity development of white students, or any other group who is taught to look down on and despise Black people as a means of propping themselves up. There are several parts in the book when Woodson points to this miseducation of non-Black people—especially when he writes, “There would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.”
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