The Struggle for Black Education: On Jarvis R. Givens’s “Fugitive Pedagogy”
By Randal Maurice JelksSeptember 12, 2021
Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching by Jarvis R. Givens
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.
By 1916, Woodson had launched The Journal of Negro History to counter the willful deceit of the American Historical Association and its membership. By 1926, Woodson and his cadre of schoolteachers had begun implementing Negro History Week. As Givens observes, Woodson “built on the social infrastructure of black communities to drive forward his vision of an educational model that centered black cultural life.” This was grassroots marketing at its most ingenious. Woodson and his collaborators were what historian Carol Anderson would call “bourgeois radicals.” His Black community-building allowed Woodson, in Given’s words, “to serve as a surrogate mentor to educators, scholars, and community leaders around the country.” His “abroad mentorship,” as Givens calls it, was essential for Black teachers who furtively read his books, whether in Southern rural settings or in major metropolitan areas, and who openly promoted Negro History Week in their school districts. His mentorship, in essence, made him the “Schoolmaster to his Race,” undergirding an “insurgent intellectual network” that collectively fought to build Black social capital in a racist democracy. That network included a who’s who of the Black intelligentsia, from schoolmasters like Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, and Benjamin Mays, who became the president of Morehouse College, to academic historians like Lorenzo Green, John Hope Franklin, Rayford Logan, and Charles H. Wesley — not to mention the many unsung women schoolteachers who dedicated their lives to teaching “the race,” such as Fanny Jackson Coppin.
Between 1880 and 1965, during the Jim Crow era, the majority of Black schoolteachers taught in the Deep South. They were forced via the constraints of the law and extrajudicial violence to heed white political dominance and were placed under constant surveillance. Black educational leaders in these settings often dissembled, genially cajoled, and patiently negotiated to expand the curriculum on behalf of their students. And they covertly used their own networks to teach their students that their history extended beyond the borders of the United States to embrace Africa and the Caribbean.
Givens builds upon the rich historiography of scholars such as James Anderson, Ronald Butchart, Pero Dagbovie, Stephen G. Hall, and Heather Williams. In addition, he demonstrates how Woodson’s critical pedagogy benefited from the efforts of Black teachers who wrote a bevy of Black history textbooks even before the publication of his Negro Makers of History. Givens further makes a vital linkage to Négritude, the diasporic anticolonial cultural movement that began among the Francophone African and Caribbean intelligentsia during the 1930s. Aimé Césaire, for example, was the high school teacher of the Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon. Givens quilts this tradition together with the philosophical reflections of West Indian novelist Sylvia Wynter, who challenged the hegemony of Anglo-European thought by offering an aesthetics of Black humanity, and Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who saw school curricula as a way to control the mindset of the colonized. Woodson’s corpus is given broader significance through the comparative lens Givens brings to bear on it. These various diasporic thinkers all affirmed that the work of social change begins with what we teach, and this is precisely why, in the United States at this moment, there is so much political consternation over critical race theory and the history of slavery. The historical revisions begun with the work of Woodson and his band of schoolteachers have come to fruition in a potent challenge to the whiteness of the educational-political order of the country.
By reading Woodson and other Black educators in tandem with noted thinkers of the Black Diaspora, Givens develops an important theory of “fugitive pedagogy.” This approach, he argues, “accounts for the physical and intellectual acts of subversion engaged in by black people over the course of their educational strivings.” Fugitive pedagogy serves as the
metanarrative of black education, a new frame for seeing this history. These acts were ordered by an overarching set of political commitments sustained by black institutions and shared visions of freedom and societal transformation. They were not sporadic. They were the occasion, the main event. Fugitive pedagogy is the plot at the heart of the matter — the story and the scheme. […]
Fugitive pedagogy in its ancient and modern historical meaning generally refers to the enslaved fleeing from the dominant protocols of teaching and learning and the narrative scripts that structure these experiences. […] As such, the entire apparatus of schooling is called into question when the enslaved think and plot their own course of action, when their response is flight, when they steal possession of their own life.
Woodson’s historical research and organizational activities served as a forerunner to academic Black Studies. As Givens documents, early Black educators found themselves in a vulnerable situation in the immediate post-emancipation decades and during the early 20th century, and Black Studies departments are facing similar challenges today in the ruthless political opposition that threatens their funding and curricula. As we are only too aware, the empire always tries to strike back.
While this is an outstanding book, there are a few notable omissions. First, it is curious that Givens does not take up Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, developed during the Brazilian dictatorship of the 1960s, nor does he address anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko, who died in a South Africa prison in 1977 due to his work affirming Black consciousness. Second, there is no mention of Noliwe Rooks, a brilliant Black Studies scholar whose groundbreaking Cutting School: The Segrenomics of American Education (2017) confronts the current state of US education. Read against Rooks, Givens’s discussion does not really address the contemporary problems of Black education, economics, or pedagogy in a fully satisfactory way. While a creative piece of theorization, fugitive pedagogy tends to look back, it seems, and not forward.
Third, Givens’s approach is decidedly secular: there is no analysis of the role of Black churches, mosques, or temples. Yet such religious organizations have long practiced fugitive pedagogy; indeed, as historian Judith Weisenfeld has shown in her 2016 book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration, they were its original source. Often standing next to or nearby the one-room schoolhouse that Black children initially attended were Black Protestant congregations. As legendary religious historian Albert Raboteau noted many years ago, Black preachers also preached the ABCs. Givens makes little mention of Woodson’s lifelong devotion to the Baptist church or how religion influenced his thoughts and vocation; in fact, Woodson initially wanted to write his dissertation on the subject of Black churches. As historian Eric Gardner chronicles in his underappreciated 2015 book, Black Print Unbound, Black churches often formed schools, including HBCUs, and published journals and newspapers, such as The Christian Recorder. As Woodson himself noted in his 1921 study The History of the Negro Church, Black Protestant study of the Bible hastened Black self-education. Black religiosity was also a primary source for Woodson’s 1933 magnus opus, The Mis-Education of the Negro. Self-understanding, self-regard, and the freedom of the self are the ultimate aims of Black education, just as they are of Black religion. Baptist preachment fueled Woodson’s single-minded devotion to teaching his people.
Fourth, Givens does not appear to ask the question of class consciousness versus race consciousness. Even the promotion of Black histories — what Givens calls “vindicationism” — was framed by bourgeois understandings of what was respectable and what was not. The poet and writer Langston Hughes, who once worked for Woodson, was berated as the poet “low-rate” by middle-class tastemakers. The point being that Woodson and Black schoolteachers reflect a bourgeois class position that at times conflicted with the perspectives and attitudes of their students. Using “fugitive pedagogy” as an analytical lens hides the class conflict that Black teachers are inevitably confronted with when teaching cynical working-class and poor agrarian Black children.
I offer these various criticisms not because I think that Givens’s tremendous effort is deficient or poorly formulated. Rather, the book is so stellar that it opens doors to many underanalyzed subjects still to be researched and written about by Black Studies scholars. I have nothing but admiration for this outstanding contribution to the history and theory of Black education. I cannot wait to discuss it with fellow educators, scholars, friends, and graduate students. After reading Givens’s book, I thought of how Woodson’s ideas in The Mis-Education of the Negro resonated with those of the poet and writer Audre Lorde, in her evocative 1985 essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”:
As they become known and accepted to ourselves, our feelings, and the honest exploration of them, become sanctuaries and fortresses and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas, the house of difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action. Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would have once found intolerable or incomprehensible and frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems. This is not idle fantasy, but the true meaning of “it feels right to me.” We can train ourselves to respect our feelings, and to discipline (transpose) them into a language that matches those feelings so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.
This book is a tremendous offering and one that would make Woodson, the ever-rigorous teacher, proud.
Randal Maurice Jelks is professor of African and African American Studies and American Studies at the University of Kansas. His latest book is Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans: Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams, Eldridge Cleaver and Muhammad Ali. His forthcoming book, Letters to Martin: Meditations on Democracy in Black America, will be published in January. His website is https://randalmauricejelks.com/.
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