On Afrocentric History in American Education

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Freedom School students outside of the Benton County Freedom School at St. James Church, 1964 (Courtesy of Gloria Xifaras Clark and Larry Rubin)

Donald Trump was vaguely familiar enough with black history to identify Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks on the first day of Black History Month. Toward the end of the month, Betsy DeVos insinuated an appreciation for segregation by inaccurately labeling historically black colleges and universities as “pioneers” of school choice. Grave oversights and misunderstandings were obvious in these shallow attempts to honor black history. In addition to implying that Douglass was still alive, Trump missed the fact that each of these historic figures broke or subverted unjust laws to reach the ideals of freedom. DeVos failed to acknowledge that African Americans were forced to create a separate system of higher education due to de jure segregation, not a desire for “choice.”[i] These statements point toward a collective value invested in the inclusion of black history into the curriculum at the expense of an activist-oriented Afrocentric curriculum that links black autonomy and self-determination with a larger international struggle. As a nation we acknowledge the history of African Americans but fail to institutionalize the equity, freedom and calls for action this history embodies.

Though integral to our nation’s history, historian Carter G. Woodson lamented the fact that only eighteen high schools out of hundreds surveyed by the Bureau of Education formally taught Negro history in 1933. Woodson confirmed what sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois noted thirty years earlier, that when black history and culture was studied, it was usually addressed as a “problem” to be solved. Woodson devoted his career to incorporating black history and culture into American consciousness through education. He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) in 1915 and the Journal of Negro History (now the Journal of African American History) a year later. In 1926, Woodson called for the observance of Negro History week during the second week of February, which claimed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14).[ii]

Building on the efforts of Woodson, black teachers worked steadfastly to integrate black history and culture into the curriculum throughout the 1930s. Led by the National Association for Teachers in Colored Schools, Southern black teacher associations organized for the inclusion of black history into the schools.[iii] Mississippi educators, for instance, called upon the state to “profitably stock the shelves of its public schools with books designed to bring respect to the Negro [since]the wealth of contributions from individuals makes rich the society which is democratic.”[iv]  Students and faculty at A.H. Parker High School in Birmingham, Alabama, which proudly claimed to be the largest black high school in the country with over 3,000 students, demonstrated how black history could be observed. The high school transformed the observance of Negro History Week into a public celebration. Homeroom teachers featured accomplished black scholars, professionals, entertainers and athletes. The auditorium was used for a daily history program. Students wrote and performed a play for the community, “The Life of Sonni Ali.” A seven-piece orchestra and the school octet accompanied public lectures and sermons throughout the week.[v]

Black history advocates sought inclusion into the existing curriculum. Yet vocal critics maintained that it was built upon Eurocentric values that affirmed racism. The NAACP since the 1930s utilized black history to challenge racist ideology propagated within schools. In addition to instilling a pride in black culture and history, the Association developed campaigns to eradicate the roots of racism with the help of NAACP Youth Councils, who surveyed textbooks, submitted reports that documented racist stereotypes and misinformation, and pressured school boards to revamp the curriculum. During the Double Victory campaign of the Second World War, Youth Councils issued a statement to “demand that public schools of the nation include in the curriculum a complete and unbiased knowledge of Negro history.”[vi]  After the Second World War, numerous organizations such as the Intercultural Education Association implemented programs that drew upon black history and literature to instill antiracist attitudes and behaviors among white educators and students.[vii]

Many activists on the front lines of the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and early 1970s challenged the moral legitimacy of the curriculum and questioned the utility of integrating black history into it. As historian Russell Rickford has noted, organizers created independent schools outside of and parallel to the public system that were based firmly on an Afrocentric curriculum that privileged the African and black perspective.[viii] Unlike the calls for Negro or black history of previous generations that sought to incorporate black culture into the existing curriculum, an Afrocentric curriculum demanded the reorientation of the entire curriculum and the school system itself to address the totality of the black experience, including African history and culture. Civil rights education programs such as the Freedom Schools and the Liberation Schools, which drew upon traditions of autonomy, self-determination and activism, offered an Afrocentric education at all levels. Unlike an inclusive black history agenda, Afrocentric educators began with a black or African vantage point and sought to raise political consciousness, train students to become movement leaders, and instill a strong social, moral and political critique to inspire social and political action.[ix] College students also called for Black Studies programs as part of the larger civil rights and Black Power movement, which included massive confrontations at the University of California-Berkeley, Cornell University, Howard University, Duke University and a multitude of campuses across the country in the late 1960s. [x] Student demands moved beyond a simple inclusion of black history into existing courses and made calls for institutional change through the development of accredited Black Studies programs and the hiring of black faculty.

As calls for an Afrocentric curriculum gained momentum within activist networks, the organization behind black history captured federal and state recognition. President Gerald Ford institutionalized Black History Month in 1976.[xi] Some Southern states even made attempts to incorporate elements of black history into the public curriculum. In South Carolina, legislators passed the “Educational Improvement Act” in 1984 that called for the inclusion of African American history into public education. Legislators in Mississippi passed Senate Bill 2718, which called for comprehensive legislation regarding the teaching of black history and culture.[xii] Unfortunately, for all the successes in creating an official Black History Month, the ideals behind the designation and the long struggle behind it are still unrealized. As the Southern Poverty Law Center found in 2014, civil rights education in the country remained “woefully inadequate.” More recently, Public Policy Polling released a survey that found nearly one-half (48 percent) of Trump supporters favored the adoption of a “white history month.”[xiii]

Woeful inadequacy abounds beyond shortsighted comments on black history and the total marginalization of Afrocentric history. During the same week that Trump announced Black History Month, the President issued an Executive Order “to enhance the protection and safety of Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.” [xiv] He signed this after a Black Lives Matter movement drew national attention to the black and brown victims of policy brutality. The danger behind black history is that it can become an excuse for people in power to claim they are invested in the struggles of the oppressed, and that the struggle is over. However, if the rhetoric is empty, and the policy is still oppressive, then the ignorance and issues in race relations deplored by Woodson, Du Bois and other scholars over a century ago will continue. Yet by reconnecting with the aims that sustained a movement for Afrocentric history, we can actualize our higher ideals of genuine democracy and self-determination. Ensuring that Afrocentric history is an integral part of our curriculum at all levels of education and connecting it to the current political and economic context continues the work of actualizing radical institutional reform.

Dr. Jon Hale is an associate professor of educational history at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.  His book, The Freedom Schools: A History of Student Activists on the Frontlines of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement (Columbia University Press, 2016) examines the role of youth and educational activism during the Civil Rights Movement. 

[i] “Remarks by President Trump in African American History Month Listening Session” (February 1, 2017), https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/02/01/remarks-president-trump-african-american-history-month-listening-session; Yamiche Alcindor “After Backlash, DeVos Backpedals on Remarks on Historically Black Collegs,” February 28, 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/28/us/politics/betsy-devos-historically-black-colleges-statement.html?_r=0; see also Adam Domby quoted in Charles Bethea, “Teaching Southern and Black History Under Trump,” The New Yorker (February 2, 2017) http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/teaching-southern-and-black-history-under-trump.

[ii] W.E.B. Du Bois, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” in The Souls of Black Folk (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1994; 1903), 1-8; Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (Lindenhurst: Tribeca Books, 2013 (reprinted), 7.

[iii] Perry, History of the American Teachers Association, 199-201; John David Smith, “A Different View of Slavery: Black Historians Attack the New Proslavery Argument, 1890-1920,” Journal of Negro History 65 (1980): 298; W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past A Clash of Race and Memory (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2005).

[iv] C.G. Woodson, “Negro History Week,” Mississippi Educational Journal: A Monthly Magazine for Teachers in Colored Schools, v. 18, p. 57, MDAH; Fairclough, A Class of Their Own, 320-322.

[iv]Perry, History of the American Teachers Association, 199-201.Mississippi Educational Advance, Mississippi Educational Journal: A Monthly Magazine for Teachers in Colored Schools, v. 18, p. 74,-76 MDAH

[v]“Parker High Observes Negro History Week,” A.H. Parker High School Record in A.H. Parker High School Centennial Celebration (A.H. Parker High School Archives, Birmingham, AL); “Dr. A. H. Parker” 8/19/39 in “Parker High School – Ed & Sch-Pub-Bhm” vertical file, Linn-Henley Research Library, Birmingham, AL.

[vi] Thomas L. Bynum, NAACP Youth and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1936-1965 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013), 10-12; NAACP Youth News Letter, July 1943, NAACP Papers, Part 19, Series C, Reel 27, frames 31-33; “William Pickens to Branch Officers, February 17, 1938, “NAACP Papers, Part 19, Series A, Reel 1, frame 0161; “Textbook Survey for Youth Councils,” Part 19, Series A, Reel 1, frame 0169.

[vii] Jonna Perrillo, Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle of School Equity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 59-69; Leah Gordan, From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Individualism in Midcentury America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 143-148.

[viii] Russell Rickford, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press. 2016)

[ix] Jon Hale, The Freedom Schools: Student Activists in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); William Sturkey and Jon Hale (eds), To Write in the Light of Freedom: The Newspapers of the 1964 Freedom Schools, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015); Daniel Perlstein, “”Minds Stayed on Freedom: Politics and Pedagogy in the African-American Freedom Struggle,” American Educational Research Journal 39, 2 (Summer 2002): 249-277.

[x] See: Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); Stefan M. Bradley, Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009); Ibram H. Rogers, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). On the movement on black college campuses, see: Joy Ann Williamson, Radicalizing the Ebony Tower: Black Colleges and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi (New York: Teachers College Press, 2008); Fabio Rojas, From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

[xi] Gerald R. Ford, “Message on the Observance of Black History Month”, https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/speeches/760074.htm

[xii] “Civil Rights Education Reform in Mississippi,” Teaching for Change, http://www.teachingforchange.org/civil-rights-education-reform-in-mississippi; South Carolina Educational Improvement Act of 1984, http://www.scstatehouse.gov/sess105_1983-1984/bills/eia.htm.

[xiii] Southern Poverty Law Center, “Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States” (March 2014), http://www.tolerance.org/book/executive-summary ; Public Policy Polling Press Release (February 10, 2017), http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/pdf/2017/PPP_Release_National_21017.pdf

[xiv] “Presidential Executive Order on Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers” (February 7, 2017), https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/02/09/presidential-executive-order-preventing-violence-against-federal-state

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