For black folks teaching — educating — was fundamentally political because it was rooted in antiracist struggle.
— bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (1994)
On Sundays, I have seen the negroes up in the country going away under large oaks, and in secret places, sitting in the woods with spelling books.
— Charity Bowery, Freedwoman, Age 65, (1848)
Antiracist teaching — both in language and, ostensibly, in practice — has become increasingly popular in the past decade. More recently, in the wake of unprecedented uprisings during the summer of 2020, American education has been roiled by the place and possibility of “antiracist” protocols for instruction. Many have turned to the ideas of best-selling author Ibram X. Kendi, who, in How to Be an Antiracist, defines antiracism as “expressing the idea that racial groups are equals” and actively “supporting policy that reduces racial inequity.” On the subject of teaching, he urges “educators to realize that we are either being racist or antiracist educators,” and describes antiracist classrooms as “learning environment[s] where the cultures and ways of life of different groups of people are valued and taught and understood equally.” It is “a learning environment where Black doesn’t mean ‘misbehaving.’” The creation of such antiracist classrooms, of course, requires curricular modifications, whereby white supremacy is named in explicit terms, and where multiple claims about the past and present of human life are incorporated.
A wave of legislative campaigns has recently appeared to condemn such teaching. As of July 2021, just under 30 states have passed or proposed legislation to restrict how educators can teach about race and power in schools. Legislators are generally banning teachings, trainings, and orientations that suggest race and racism were foundational to the United States and that racial hierarchies continue to shape experience in the present. Critics of antiracist education argue that it borders on — or even is — indoctrination. It over-politicizes education through didactic instruction and, in turn, undermines critical thinking. Others suggest that accusations of social injustice in schools are overblown, and that school leaders must “attend to the fine line between enlightenment and cowardice.” While some skeptics condone teaching students to be antiracist, and support the intentions of Black Lives Matter, they point out that there are varying approaches to remedying racial inequality in society. They insist that if critical thinking is the aim of education, then students must be allowed to engage with a range of remedial approaches.
Most fascinating about this debate — in my mind — is the treatment of antiracist teaching as a novel idea, as well as the roster of theorists regularly identified with its premise, such as the author of White Fragility Robin DiAngelo, the diversity consulting industry, or contemporary Black intellectuals such as Kendi. Missing from the debate is any serious engagement with the long-standing tradition of antiracist teaching pioneered by Black educators in the 19th century, and their greatest organizers and theorists, such as Carter G. Woodson. The child of former slaves and the second Black PhD from Harvard, Woodson was a schoolteacher who founded Negro History Week in 1926, now celebrated as Black History Month.
Historical study of Black teaching reveals that antiracist pedagogy and practice is not new. In fact, current advocates would benefit from a more mature historical consciousness, one that recognizes the extensive and unique contributions of Black schoolteachers. Since the time of slavery, Black pedagogical practices were fundamentally antiracist. And this impulse among Black American educators — particularly their critique of the anti-Black color line — was merely a starting place. They teach us that antiracism is only the beginning of a liberatory education. The substance is much greater.
Black educators provided counternarratives to aid students in resisting white supremacist propaganda in schools. They worked with each other and within social movements to build solidarities and their own organizations that could coagulate into more sweeping social change, while protecting their collective group (as best they could) from retaliation and repression. Their conceptions of teaching went beyond conventional academic subjects and forms of relation imposed by the bureaucratic structures of schools. Black educators recognized that repairing and resisting the damage of racial domination required attentiveness to what gets deformed by both oppression and the ongoing struggle against it — including the ability to appreciate beauty, matters of recreation, and other needs that exceeded the narrowly construed responsibilities of the teacher: elements of human life that were essential for Black children to flourish in a hostile world. The traditions of Black teachers reveal a more expansive and, at times, nonintuitive approach to antiracist education. They offer important lessons for our time.
Inspired by her experiences in the segregated schools of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, during the 1950s and ’60s, Black feminist scholar bell hooks wrote the following in 1994: “For black folks teaching — educating — was fundamentally political because it was rooted in antiracist struggle.” These “all-black grade schools became the location where I experienced learning as revolution” from teachers who sought to bring about social transformation by challenging Jim Crow’s established protocols of knowledge and cultural authority.
hooks’s recollections are not an anomaly. The autobiographical literature of a range of iconic Black figures — Mary McLeod Bethune, Benjamin Mays, Angela Davis, Congressman John Lewis, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King Jr., Sonia Sanchez, James Baldwin, Assata Shakur, and Ossie Davis — form a chorus of witnesses to the heroic labors of African American teachers in service to the long Black freedom struggle. These educators socialized hooks and her peers to understand their “devotion to learning, to a life of the mind” as an integral part of a broader toolkit Black people needed to “resist every strategy of white racist colonization.” The work of school was not just about jobs, material gains, or “inclusion” in white society; and as hooks explained, their education was about more than “only responding and reacting to white folks.” It was framed by a higher purpose — transgressing a social order built on Black subjection and striving for the likeness of a world not premised on the color line.
African American teachers were the progeny of literate slaves, who represent the origins of a subversive Black pedagogical tradition. This heritage was formed in the shadows of anti-literacy laws and ideology that criminalized Black reading and writing almost universally in the South, where approximately 95 percent of African Americans resided on the eve of the Civil War. As most famously outlined by Frederick Douglass’s master, Master Hugh Auld, one of the most important axes between slavery and freedom was the written word. Having witnessed his wife teaching a young Douglass how to read, Auld scolded her and outlined “the true philosophy of slavery.” Douglass recalled a set of “peculiar rules necessary to be observed by masters and mistresses, in the management of their human chattels,” which Auld proceeded to list. Principal among them was that “[l]earning would spoil the best nigger in the world”; “if you teach that nigger — speaking of myself — how to read the bible, there will be no keeping him”; “it would forever unfit him for the duties of a slave.” According to Master Hughes, it all came down to this: “If you learn him now to read, he’ll want to know how to write; and, this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.”
A slave having learned to read and write was a slave “running away with himself”: stealing oneself, not just stealing away to the North or stealing away to Jesus, but stealing away to one’s own imagination, seeking respite in Black independent thought. Douglass proved such suspicions to be true, having continued his studies covertly. He secretly used his master’s old spelling books, offered stolen food to impoverished white boys in exchange for lessons in letters, all before teaching in a clandestine sabbath school and physically absconding. Out of this secretive, esoteric set of practices, there emerged a tradition of what I have come to call fugitive pedagogy. While still in bondage, African Americans developed a conception of learning whereby theft of mind was inextricably tied to the theft of one’s body. They understood their physical sufferings as intimately tied to their subjugation in the world of words and books — in official knowledge, in classrooms and, more generally, the schooling apparatus of the Western world.
Perhaps surprisingly, this tradition survived post-Emancipation amid the atmosphere of persecution and repression that ruled in Jim Crow. In fact, history teaches us that white anxieties always shadowed Black educational strivings. We can look as early as 1740 — before American Independence — when the first law banning Black literacy was enacted in South Carolina. But it wasn’t just the South, contrary to popular memory. Some of the most violent efforts to suppress Black education in antebellum America took place in New England. They manifested in violent white protests, the destruction of schools, and the physical assault of Black students. This hostility persisted after Emancipation, when the majority of Black Americans gained legal access to education. By a conservative estimate, between 1864 and 1876 more than 600 Black schools were burned in the US South. Such hostilities took place even as the freedmen’s demands for public education made schools available to white Southerners as well, given that universal education was nonexistent in the region prior to the campaigns waged by Blacks during Reconstruction. As W. E. B. Du Bois forcefully argued, “Public education for all at public expense was, in the South, a Negro idea.” And it was an idea that grew out of the subversive educational practices of the enslaved.
Black American teachers became prime targets of white aggression because, for many, they represented the most flagrant example of antiracist struggle and Black progress. Some educators lost their jobs simply for teaching classical liberal arts curricula, particularly after white funders insisted that industrial or “practical” models of education were most appropriate for Blacks. A practical education would conceivably train Black Americans to be content as a servant class of people, while liberal arts education suggested economic and political mobility. John W. Davison, principal of the Fort Valley High and Industrial School in Georgia, was fired in 1903 by the school’s white board for subversively teaching students Latin and maintaining a commitment to classical education. In 1905, the local school board demoted Anna Julia Cooper as principal of the M Street School in Washington, DC, because of her defiance of local white authorities and commitment to high academic training. Her demotion took place despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that M Street students outpaced white schools based on nearly all traditional metrics of educational achievement, including acceptance to elite Black and white colleges and measured academic performance.
The persecution experienced by Black educators and students was joined, and perhaps conditioned, by anti-Black curricula and distortions in America’s symbolic order. Regarding the curriculum developed for the freedmen’s schools following the Civil War, historian Heather Williams described how textbooks “with competing ideologies floated around the South.” There were “those that supporters of the Confederacy designed to inculcate values such as the morality of slavery and the inferiority of African Americans,” and there were “those that white abolitionists produced to advise black people how to carry out their new roles as free people.” Even in the latter, the books were overdetermined by white paternalism and plagued by studious omission of Black life. In the freedmen’s books, white missionaries routinely insisted that white soldiers died to free Black Americans, but “neglected any mention that Black men had also fought for their freedom.” Responding to such distortions, Black abolitionist and teacher Charlotte Forten Grimké taught students on the South Carolina Sea Islands about Toussaint L’Ouverture and Haiti, proclaiming that the freedchildren “should know what one of their own color had done for his race.” Former slave Edward A. Johnson, having begun his education in defiance of North Carolina law, made similar observations. As a school principal in 1890, Johnson wrote a textbook, entitled A School History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1890. Anti-Blackness persisted in the American curriculum into the 20th century, and Black teachers inherited resources to do battle with the violence imposed by “official” school knowledge.
Fugitive pedagogy, as I call it, is rooted in the covert acquisition of knowledge by slaves and their descendants and has evolved into the practice of Black educators covertly teaching counter-hegemonic ideas through subversive practices. As was the case for Douglass, much of this educational tradition happened in clandestine fashion, even after Emancipation. Throughout the Jim Crow South and elsewhere, white authorities imposed protocols and content on Black schools that upheld the established political order, suppressing through legal and extralegal violence anything that went against the grain of white supremacy. To express their heterodox pedagogies, Black educators were compelled to teach between the lines. In 1922, Carter G. Woodson crafted a lesson to remind teachers and students of this fugitive tradition. In his textbook, The Negro in Our History, Woodson recalled the heritage of Black education as a beautiful tale of flight and transcendence. He wrote, “Knowing the value of learning as a means of escape and having longing for it, too, because it was forbidden, many slaves continued their education under adverse circumstances.”
Born in Virginia in 1875 as the child of former slaves, Woodson heard stories from his parents about Black people’s persistent struggle to resist the master’s ideology. As a child he reveled in the story about his father as “a fugitive [who] rushed to the invading troops” after refusing to be whipped and physically assaulting his owner. He learned of his mother’s attempts to disrupt the sale of her own mother and brothers. But Woodson was also the student of former slaves. His uncles, John and James Riddle, were his first schoolteachers. They taught Woodson “the fundamentals,” as he put it, and such lessons included more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. Once property themselves, these freedmen teachers were enfleshed representations of what was always at stake in the work of Black educators and the learning of Black students. Their work was about loosening the hold of slavery and its afterlives, which continued to structure Black reality.
The lives of former slaves were extremely instructive for Woodson. Before attending high school in West Virginia at the age of 20, he worked in the coal mines alongside Black Civil War veterans, most of whom were illiterate. These men relied on Woodson to read Black newspapers and books published by Black authors, as well as mainstream publications reporting on social and economic issues of the day. But the stories these men carried with them from their lives taught the future educator that Black people, too, were repositories and producers of knowledge.
After leaving the coal mines, Woodson attended the Frederick Douglass High School, where his cousin Carter Barnett served as principal. Woodson and Barnett shared the given name of their grandfather, but the cousins also shared experiences of persecution at the hand of white school authorities. The white schoolboard fired Barnett, who Woodson described as “a scholarly man,” because he used his independent newspaper to organize Black folks in Huntington, West Virginia, to support an independent slate of Black leaders running for political office. This was an early lesson about the precarity of Black educators, especially when they expressed independent thought that challenged white authority. This pattern of education and state repression repeatedly appeared over the course of Woodson’s life as a student and teacher. After completing high school in 1896, Woodson became a teacher while furthering his education. He attended Berea College, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, and eventually Harvard University, where he earned his doctorate in 1912. Having recognized that distortions in knowledge were created at the highest levels of the academy, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, and it is through this organization that he expanded on the subversive intellectual heritage passed on by the formerly enslaved.
In 1933, Woodson synthesized key aspects of this longstanding theory and practice of antiracist education in his paradigm-shifting book, The Mis-Education of the Negro. American education, both its institutions and system of knowledge, operated on racial myths that structured human consciousness, Woodson argued. It cultivated anti-Blackness as a social competence. Therefore, Black educators had to be vigilant in their teachings. Their vocation required them to be bold in their defiance of the status quo.
Teaching alternative scripts, like those found in curriculum materials developed by Woodson, often required fugitive practices. In 1933, Tessie McGee taught her students from Woodson’s textbook in Webster Parish, Louisiana. McGee intentionally kept the textbook in her lap, under the desk, as she read to her students, just in case someone unexpectedly visited her classroom. It was common knowledge that Black teachers were fired for even smaller offenses. But she refused to stick to the official textbook adopted by Louisiana’s Department of Education, which suggested that “not only are almost all the civilized nations of to-day of the white race, but throughout all the historic ages this race has taken the lead and has been foremost in the world’s progress.” Resisting such scripts that “narratively condemned” Black life — to borrow from Sylvia Wynter — this teacher, in rural Louisiana, stole away to a hidden transcript that offered a counter-reading of the world.
A narrative line runs between McGee’s teachings — a textbook example of fugitive pedagogy — and those of yet another of her predecessors, Richard Parker. While enslaved, Parker kept a spelling book concealed under his hat, knowingly in violation of both his master’s rules and Virginia law. In Mississippi, Mandy Jones explained how enslaved Blacks on the plantation went into the woods at night to climb into a pit in the ground — literally under the surface of the earth — to be tutored by some Black person who “had some learning.”
Such an intellectual tradition made Black teachers and learners subject to ongoing white opposition and violence. In 1925, the white school board in Muskogee, Oklahoma, discovered Woodson’s textbook being taught at the Negro Manual and Training High School. They pointed to Woodson’s discussion of Blacks fighting back during the Red Summer of 1919 and killing white people in self-defense as seditious. Most anathema to them was the textbook’s discussion of sexual violence committed by white men against Black enslaved women, and a photograph of the first mixed-race jury in the District of Columbia. Such themes were far out of step with what was deemed acceptable knowledge for “our negro schools,” the white officials explained. The Black principal was forced to resign, and teachers were reprimanded by a school board that publicly sympathized with the Ku Klux Klan.
Black teachers’ actions in the classroom were informed by their involvement in antiracist struggle outside the school walls. For instance, they secretly funneled money to the NAACP through their autonomous professional organizations, even after Southern states made membership in the NAACP illegal for teachers. In 1956, Georgia’s State Board of Education — similar to Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, and others — declared that any teacher who “supports, encourages, condones, or agrees to teach mixed classes” shall have their license revoked forever. To enforce the law, school authorities required teachers to disclose all organizations to which they belonged.
Such mechanisms of surveillance pushed Black educators to be strategic about which aspects of their work could be public, and which should remain private. They walked a tightrope in their struggle for justice. They engaged in calculated, often quiet, acts of resistance.
While the combative posture of antiracism was important, Black teachers insisted that students also deserved tenderness and space to encounter and create beauty. This, too, was a refusal of anti-Blackness. Resisting white supremacy was essential, but Black pedagogy and classrooms were also sites for gathering and refuge: realms for teachers and students to model what it meant to be in right relationship with one another, opportunities to try on new ways of being in this earthly place, and respite from the exhaustive white gaze (at least for a little while). This was essential to pursuing the new world they could build together.
The best among Black teachers understood that any true education began with the students. This meant getting to know the communities in which they taught. According to hooks, the teachers “knew our parents, our economic status, where we worshipped, what our homes were like, and how we were treated in the family.” She continued, “My effort and ability to learn was always contextualized within the framework of generational family experience. Certain behaviors, gestures, habits of being were traced back.”
There is no stock approach for educating all Black learners, because Black children are not fungible objects. Their lives have been similarly racialized, certainly, but the needs of individual students and communities are contextual. Caring for Black students as human beings, and not as damaged youth to be looked upon in contempt or pity, is and was fundamental. Any antiracist teaching that flattens a student into his oppression does more harm than good. It is one thing to focus on how to get people to challenge racist ideas and policies, but attending to the needs of Black and brown kids cannot be reduced to the defensive posture of anti-anything.
When studying the longer history of Black teachers, we learn that education can be antiracist even when it does not solely focus on race. A sincere antiracist education is one in which a commitment to challenging anti-Black domination is holistic and translates into the social systems of classrooms and relationships. In such a learning environment, even content that is not explicitly about antiracism can work toward antiracist ends. For at times, the role of the teacher was to bring students in the classroom, close the door, and shut the world out. This was an opportunity to reach higher, to think beyond the world that they knew, a world that was not good enough.
Black Studies scholar Hortense Spillers explained to me that even when lessons during her youth were not explicitly about Black history and culture, they often accrued distinct meaning based on contextual factors in her segregated community of Orange Mound, Tennessee, during the 1940s and ’50s. The King James Bible, and poems like William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” took on distinct meaning when seen through the prism of Black cultural politics. Spillers recalled that such poems and recitations of scriptures formed an important part “of our first formal training and made for fantastic oratorical development! […] How could you beat ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul’ in the mouth of a 10- or 12-year-old Black child in front of her admiring elders?” Such lessons played critical roles in the moral education of Black students and the cultivation of dignity among them, in spite of a world that debased Black life. What’s more, the seeds of this oratorical training named by Spillers bloomed into the stentorian rhetoric one hears when reflecting on the sounds and voices of the modern Civil Rights movement. These traditions were put to work, helping to stir and sustain resistance among African American people as they stood up to a world wicked and hell-bent on maintaining Black abjection.
Key elements of Black teachers’ fugitive pedagogical traditions impacted my own life as a student and scholar. This is partly what compels me to recuperate their histories. And it shapes my conviction to interpret their stories in light of current debates on antiracist education, where the history of Black teachers has conveniently fallen out of the narrative.
From the age of three until high school, or from 1992 until 2002, I attended a parochial school in Compton, California, run by Black educators. I only recently learned that many of these teachers were former students in segregated schools of the Jim Crow South. A pedagogical tradition migrated with these teachers, representing the long roots of antiracism, but also a distinct liberatory model of education (two strands that should not be conflated). Most vividly in my mind is our daily routine of devotion. The day always began with everyone lining up on the schoolyard, while one class led the entire student body in a series of songs and poems. This was typically followed by announcements or a short talk by our principal, Miss Carrie Paige, a native of Lake Providence, Louisiana, who began her teaching career at the Southern University Laboratory School. Every day we sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black national anthem, and recited “Dreams” by Langston Hughes; we also prayed and saluted the flag. The intention of such protocols was supposedly to wake up our minds and our bodies, to prepare us to learn before we entered the classroom. I have since learned that there was always more to this preliminary realm of our studies.
Such daily devotions were more like ritualized counternarratives that framed our collective striving, where we were taught to embody a distinct tradition of education, a heritage older than any student or teacher at the school. The lyrics to James Weldon Johnson’s ballad and Hughes’s devotion to dreams were important cultural and political armor. They offered subtle lessons that accumulated over time, a growth that paralleled our development as learners, as Black children.
Muting the backdrop of aggressive neglect plaguing the city in which we lived, neighbors sat on their porches in the morning and watched from across the street as our school day commenced. Some parents and, at times, those walking the street while battling drug addiction, stood at the gate and sang along. So formalized were our practices that even these participant observers internalized our songs and our sayings. Their gaze was not intrusive or unwelcomed. These were quiet moments, though filled with beautiful sound, offering new semantics for how we were to interpret our lives. Like Zora Neale Hurston, we were “not tragically colored.” We were too busy trying to catch the cadence of Miss Todman, a native of North Carolina, whose second soprano voice made us feel as though we were being sent home to ourselves. Regardless of what the world may have said about us (which we were taught to be vigilant of, but not obsessed with), these mornings reinforced a competing narrative about who we were and what we set out to accomplish. It was minor notes like these that carried the chord of our lives and our learning.
Such a tradition insists that we light a candle, even as we curse the darkness. Both are necessary.
The backlash witnessed in 2021 against antiracist teaching made in the struggle for social transformation strikes a familiar chord. Efforts to suppress critical teaching about race and Ethnic Studies all echo the white grievance politics and revanchism of years past. This looks like Arizona’s law banning classes that promote “ethnic solidarity” and former President Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13950, as well as ongoing hostilities shown toward Black educators and those who teach against the grain. Studying the history of Black teachers can support critical educators today to develop meaningful strategies for confronting such opposition, while drawing inspiration from a worthy tradition. This history provides a legacy for critical educators to situate themselves in and strengthen their vocation — one that challenges the status quo of what it actually means to be a teacher in a world of perpetual crisis.
But the world in which Carter G. Woodson lived and in which bell hooks attended school in Jim Crow Kentucky are radically different times than our current moment. Some would suggest — as they should — that we have witnessed unprecedented numbers of Black superintendents, mayors, Black Studies departments, 1619 projects, and corporate sponsored Black history documentaries. We must also recognize in the same breath that siloed inclusion of Black knowledge into mainstream institutions — often in defanged fashion — can only do so much to disrupt the self-corrective nature of said systems. These institutions, the society in which they are embedded, and those who benefit from them most, are deeply invested in their preservation as such, even when they absorb seemingly radical rhetoric and archive Black people into their very order. Rarely do such actions translate to a reallocation of power and access to transformative resources for those most in need. And for Black folks, the shadow of retrenchment has always followed episodes of progress. I offer this not to stoke pessimism, but to encourage a cautious vigilance. Thus, fugitive relationships to such institutions — as poet Fred Moten and historian Robin D. G. Kelley have urged — may continue to be a necessary mode of operation, especially for those whom such institutions have been more hostile that hospitable.
At the same time, it is important to note that procuring and expanding on the substance of Black traditions of fugitive pedagogy is more important than the method of transmission itself. Black people’s “learning as a means of escape” has always been about the protection and enhancement of human life, not merely the activity of flight. At its best, it sought to achieve higher ideals — of beauty, of right relationship, of justice — and to help them achieve broad recognition in the world, that they might be defined in a new light, beyond the ranked human sociality that plagues the world as we currently know it.
Recognizing the American school as a site of anti-Black violence and general miseducation, Black teachers developed a heroic pedagogical tradition. Theirs was a fugitive pedagogy, and it offers important lessons for our time. It warns of the risks and challenges that are sure to come when one’s lessons exceed the tolerable threshold of current multiculturalist progressive politics — which, to be clear, is always a moving target. Indeed, examples are appearing across the country of educators being targeted, fired, and pushed out for their teaching and reform efforts. One Connecticut school district hired its first Black superintendent in the wake of George Floyd’s murder to respond to the political moment but also a high volume of racist incidents in the district. Within less than a year, he was pushed out and labeled an activist with a CRT agenda.
Let us not forget that multicultural curricula and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion measures are new phenomenon in the longer history of race and education in this country; and they have always been unevenly applied across institutions and geography. Thus, the current wave of resistance to teaching about race and power in education is much more consistent with the larger portion of our nation’s history than what many had comfortably interpreted as progress in the last few decades. For these reasons, I insist that antiracist teachers should learn from the historical example of Black educators. They show us how to strive for a more meaningful education for all learners; especially those for whom persecution is both past and present. When we exaggerate the novelty of antiracism, we overlook a tradition that we desperately need.
Jarvis R. Givens is an assistant professor of Education and African & African American Studies at Harvard University, and the author of Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching (Harvard University Press, 2021). Professor Givens’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Education Week, Black Perspectives, and various academic journals on education, history, and race. He is originally from Compton, California and currently resides in Roxbury, Massachusetts.