When one thinks of public education in America and Black people, the usual themes start to emerge. The images of segregation, degradation, neglect and Brown versus Board quickly begin to frame the narrative in concrete terms for most people in this country. It is not commonly known that Africans in America are largely responsible for what we now know as Public Education.
According to James Anderson: “Appropriately, it was Thomas Jefferson who first articulated the inseparable relationships between popular education and a free society. If a nation expected to be ignorant and free, he argued, it expected the impossible” (Anderson, 1988, introduction).
In 1863, the enslaved Africans were emancipated whereby they temporarily joined the ranks of the nation’s free citizens at the very moment that public educational systems were being developed into their modern form. From the 1860’s to the 1870’s African-Americans were allowed marginal entry into the American system. These moments were cut short by the federal government, extralegal organizations and white supremacist tactics. Black education attempted to exist in the midst of this political and economic oppression. During this time period African-Americans sought to develop an educational system that would strengthen their chances of securing a full and complete life as free people. This paper seeks to explore the realities of this profound imbalance. It is the backdrop of this reality that form and frame the modern day lives of many African people today. This paper will look at the uneven system of education fostered in America.
The Southern Response
In Harpers Weekly Magazine in 1874, a cartoonist named Thomas Nast drew a cartoon which demonstrated the South’s temperament concerning the education of newly freed African-Americans. The illustration depicted two African people kneeling down holding a baby and two armed white men standing over them. In the background of the cartoon lay a schoolbook and a burning school, while an ex-slave is being lynched. This cartoon reflected the national psyche of America at that time in world history. Anderson writes:
It is crucial for an understanding of American educational history, however, to recognize that within American democracy there have been classes of oppressed people and there have been essential relationships between popular education and the politics of oppression. Both schooling for democratic citizenship and schooling for second class-class citizenship have been basic traditions in American education (Anderson, 1988, introduction).
The question could be asked: Why would America want second class citizenship for a large number of its citizens? After Reconstruction a man emerged on the political scene in America, his name was Booker T Washington. An ex slave he was born in1856, his mother was a mulatto slave on a plantation, his father a white man. Washington associated with the richest and most powerful white businessmen and politicians of the era. He was seen as a spokesperson for African Americans and became a conduit for funding educational programs. His contacts included such diverse and well-known personages as, Andre Carnegie, Howard Taft and Julius Rosenwald to whom he made the need for better educational facilities well-known. These wealthy individuals being products of their time wanted African-Americans to assume certain positions and never to challenge their “natural place” in society. These funders believed and so did Mr. Washington that African-Americans could prove to whites that they deserved civil rights by being trained in the “industrial way.” This industrial education would train them in agriculture, carpentry, and other industrial tasks and according to Washington “position African-Americans in society.”
The Northern Answer
At another time and place another luminary was being developed by the name of W.E.B. Dubois. He was an easterner and lived a cultured interracial life in Massachusetts He was educated at Harvard, traveled to Europe and studied there as well. His position on the education of Blacks was quite different from Booker T. Washington’s. Dubois wanted a liberal arts education for Blacks, focusing on the “Classics.” Dubois believed the Black mans place in the world would be gained through acquisition of letters and the use of his brain not his back.
Dubois and Washington presented two distinct programs for Black people in America. In the north the schools agreed to allow African-Americans the opportunity to learn the so- called “Classics.” It was this learning of the Anglo-Saxon academic traditions that harmed some Blacks. In the book: The Negro in Our History, Carter G. Woodson argues:
The education of the Negro, however, has continued in the hands of the whites, the Negroes themselves being largely the objects of such efforts. This results from the fact that in the main it is a concern of the government and Negroes are not permitted to figure conspicuously in this sphere. The philanthropists are not to be blamed for this, for they are merely dealing with the situation as they find it. The public functionaries believe that it inures to their special program to direct the mental development of the Negro along lines which will not be prejudicial to their interests (Woodson, 1933, p. 572).
Woodsons argument concerning the “mental development” of the Negro is an important point and will now be addressed. If the “negro” can be made to think like his oppressor then his actions can be determined by remote control on most levels.
Woodson further argues:
In like manner, the teaching of history in the Negro area has had its political significance. Starting out after the Civil War, the opponents of freedom and social justice decided to work out a program which would enslave the Negroes’s mind inasmuch as the freedom of body had to be conceded. It was well understood that if by the teaching of history the white man could be further assured of his superiority and the Negro made to feel that he had always been a failure and that the subjection of his will to some other race is necessary the freedman, then would still be a slave. If you can control a mans thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one (Woodson, 2000, p. 84).
It is clear and common knowledge that this was the motive and method of the education system in the United States of America. This program sought to produce two types of Black people: 1.) the African-Americans who would absorb the intellectual traditions of Europeans lock stock and barrel without question and mimic and ape the values associated with this learning and 2.) The African-Americans, who would see themselves through the eyes of this alien learning, feel they could not achieve it and develop inferiority complexes when comparing themselves to the African-Americans who had mastered the master’s plan! This is the tragedy of the American education system at the level of psychological operations of people of African descent. The next section of this paper will not address achievement gaps between African-Americans and whites but will look at the psychological damage that has resulted in the minds of some African-Americans in America as a result of a systematic, and institutionalized European hegemonic academic structure.
After decades of mis-information and tolerance of the European idea, Professor Molefi Asante at Temple University in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, codified the theory of Afrocentricity. After looking at the works of Woodson, Dubois and others Asante decided that a theoretical base be developed to challenge European hegemony in the academy. In 1980 the book, Afrocentricity The Theory of Social Change, was published. This text laid the groundwork for a movement to redress the imbalance in education in American schools and universities. Asante maintains:
The Afrocentric idea is essentially about location. Because Africans have been
moved off of our own cultural and historical terms, decentered by the conditions of oppression, it is important that any assessment of the African condition or analysis of African phenomena be made Afrocentrically. We begin with the view that Afrocentricity is a quality of thought, perspective, and practice that perceives Africans as subjects and agents of phenomena in the context of human experience. All definitions of Afrocentricity carry with them the idea of centrality of the African experience and the idea of agency (Asante & Karenga, 2006, p. 152).
Asante’s work is groundbreaking because authentic Afrocentric- Theory challenges European intellectual imperialism; it affronts the Western canon and is a tool, an instrument that resists the structural impositions of colonial thinking. Afrocentricity, deconstructs, and disempowers the major ideological pillars of the Eurocentric project. It challenges the keys, the core, the deep structure aspects under girding and unifying European cultural thought and behavior. This intellectual movement is geared and directed towards restoring the collective sanity of African people, both in the Americas and on the continent of Africa.
In the American south the African people understood the importance of education for African children. When schools were not available for Black children Black people paid for and built them with their own money, sweat and tears. Anderson writes:
They gathered in “a little rickety building without any heat” to plan the construction of a consolidated school in a remote rural community. The majority of Black people were tenant farmers and they were hard hit that year because the boll weevil had caused a tremendous damage to cotton crops. When the fund –raising rally began and the master of ceremonies introduced the guests, among the many points he made was the following: “We have never had a school in this vicinity, most of our children have grown into manhood and womanhood without the semblance of an opportunity to get an insight into life.” At that moment, “one old man, who had seen slavery days, with all of his life’s earnings in an old greasy sack, slowly drew it from his pocket, and emptied it on the table.” Griffin recalled that the ex-slave said: “I want to see the children of my grandchildren have a chance, and so I am giving my all” (Anderson, 1988, p. 165).
The education of African children has been an amalgamation of off center analysis. After Brown –V- Board there was not until the late 1970’s any serious concern given to the learning and learning styles of Black children. The work by European educators focused on getting Black children better suited to do better in the European school system. African educators who were trained by Europeans put out scholarship that agreed with the findings of the status quo. This fostered the belief that there was some sort of inadequacy in the capabilities of Black children and this simply was not the case. The end result was the effect this type of thinking had on public policy concerning the lives of African children in the United States. Numerous papers, conferences, and media events were held to present the evidence that Black children were lagging behind whites and the cause was unique to Black children. In the twentieth century IQ testing took center stage and was used as the sole measure for learning potential in American students. This work was eventually challenged by scholars such as: Asa Hilliard, Naim Akbar, Kwame Agyei Akoto, Molefi Asante, John U. Ogbu and others whose work both in and outside of the classroom refuted the findings of the mainstream scholarship that was forced in the public sphere by so called “ Mainstream” thinkers. Ogbu writes:
Contrary to ability theory, IQ does not equal intelligence, and IQ tests measure only a set of cognitive skills functional in Western middle class culture. The cognitive problems posed by the technoeconomic environment of Western middle class culture require and promote a distinct set of cognitive skills and strategies involving grasping relations and symbolic thinking. According to Vernon (1969), for some extent these have come to permeate all learning activities at school, at work, and in daily life. But they are not universally valued, nor equally functionally; other cultures require and stimulate the development and use of other cognitive skills for coping with their environments. In other cultures possess different intelligences (Cummins, 2005, p. 55).
Ogbu speaks to the injustice that faces Black children in the American school system. It becomes clear and evident that European administrators, academics, and textbook companies clearly do not want to take into account any variables that are outside the so called “norm” that they have established. It could be argued that because of these closed minded policies, some Black children have not been allowed to flourish and grow in their school environments.
African Centered Pedagogy
In his book, Nationbuliding: Theory and Practice in Afrikan Centered Education, Akoto speaks to the issue of Afrikan Centered pedagogy as a corrective to enhance the learning and life chances of African children. He writes: “The relationship of the mwanafunzi to the mwalimu is like that of the drummer to the dancer” (Akoto, 1992, p. 109). This passage speaks to the notion of teacher and student being in concert with each other on cultural as well as pedagological terms. This writer agrees with Akoto when he says: “Education stands in the same relationship to the national culture as childbearing stands to the human species; that is, it assures the perpetuation or permanence and continuity of the species” (Akoto, 1992, p. 94).
It is in this spirit that African people must look at the education of African children. In the book: Black Children Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles, there are mentioned three components of a curriculum for Black children, they are:
Pedagogical relevance (method)
Academic rigor (content) (Hale-Benson, 1987, p. 152)
The historical record helps us to understand that there is no place on earth where African people are not involved in some form of a colonial relationship with white people. It is because of this that African-American children must have a foundational curriculum based on an accurate historical and political analysis of the situation of Black people in the world.
According to Janice Hale-Benson: “In a system of colonialism, the colonizer has a dual purpose for educating the colonized. The first is socialization into accepting the value system, history, and culture of the dominant society. The second is education for economic productivity” (Hale-Benson, 1987, p. 154).
If in fact the first agent of socialization is the home, and the second is the schooling environment then it only makes sense that African children be schooled and socialized to the realities of institution, structural and systemic Anglo Saxon Nationalism. It now becomes clear that Black children must be taught more than reading, writing and arithmetic. Their education must have a political component at the basic level.
In the book: Black Authenticity A Psychology for Liberating People of African Descent, Haki R. Madhubuti states:
Our position on Black education is very clear and simple. Either a people prepare their youth to be responsible and responsive to their own needs as a people or somebody else will teach them to be responsible and responsive to somebody else’s needs at the expense and detriment to themselves and their people (Sutherland, 1997, forward).
This statement gives weight to the idea of political education being included in the curriculum for African children. It is clear and common knowledge that forces exist in the real world that are on a constant mission through public policy, to limit, control and destabilize the life chances and opportunities for Black children; therefore it makes sense to help them at a young age to understand these structural forces so they can prepare themselves to fight.
Education for Struggle
Education for African children must have a component for consciousness raising included. Hale-Benson (1987) identifies five realities for Black people that must be understood through their education.
Who they are.
Who the enemy is.
What the enemy is doing to them.
What to struggle for.
What form the struggle must take.
If the African child understands the meanings and realities of Structural, Institutional and systemic Anglo Saxon Nationalism and they begin to order their world around these truths, then a new way of being can be forged for African people. Early racial socialization must be an essential component of early African education. It is through this education that a new way of life can be realized for African people. The early colonizers knew that not only did they need the resources of Africa, but the mind as well. The colonists knew that if they could control the “African mind” they could control the “African behind.”
What is the major question of the twenty first century for African people? If W.E.B. Dubois felt that the major issue for Black people in the twentieth century was the “problem of the color line” then this writer posits, that the problem of the twenty first century is the “control of the African mind.” Social and behavioral scientists have long understood that all behavior has an origin and that all humans are products of their exposures, environments and experiences and that shapes their values and how humans view and interact in the world. African education must contain the important and necessary structures to insure that African children understand and can interpret the realities that they all must face, in a world that has never had their best interests at its core.
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BIO: Michael Tillotson is a Ph.D graduate at Temple University in Philadelphia PA. His research interests center on critiques of domination and global white supremacist discourse at the structural and institutional level. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org