“The Negro, whether in Africa or America, must be directed toward a serious examination of the fundamentals of education, religion, literature, and philosophy as they have been expounded to him. He must be sufficiently enlightened to determine for himself whether these forces have come into his life to bless him or bless his oppressor. After learning the facts in the case the Negro must develop the power of execution to deal with these matters as do people of vision.” ~ Carter G. Woodson
Carter G. Woodson proposed this notion in the context of outlining a plan for advancing racial education through the development of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). In this sentiment, we can discern a challenge from Woodson to begin interpreting historical phenomena in a manner that establishes its measurable utility for influencing black people to claim full agency in altering their own condition. While making a comparative reading between this text and “The Souls of Black Folks”, conversations I encountered with others led me to the conclusion that many have not afforded the most popular single thesis by Woodson the thorough examination required. While the language is often less florid than DuBois, the analysis offered here is no less comprehensive and lends itself to neither imitation nor repetition of the facts elucidated previously in “The Souls of Black Folks”. Through his work as a historian, Woodson uses an incisive reading of the history of Negro education from the Reconstruction period forward to bolster the argument that it has been improperly administered by others to the detriment of black people. This injustice would only be resolved when we took ownership of creating the input and defining the outcome.
While the text opens by focusing its attention upon the process of miseducation, Woodson expands the diameter of the discussion markedly with each new chapter to display how this process takes root in each aspect of Negro life impacting the church, political ambitions, business sector, vision, and leadership. The argument he constructs finds him squarely balanced between Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. While he endorses the fierce work ethic Washington sought to make the hallmark of black people, he rejects a servile acceptance of the permanent social underclass. His devotion to an educational system which nourishes black identity and intellect at every level builds upon the work of DuBois, but he admonishes educated Negroes to pair their higher learning with the grassroots service still being performed by those lesser educated. In practice, this pairing of ideas and implementation would form the framework for an independent community enterprise. Throughout the text he exudes the fierce nationalism exemplified in the Garveyite philosophy, but differs upon the subject of repatriation.
Amongst the most astute observations offered here comes in a discourse on Marxism where he states “History shows that it does not matter who is in power or what revolutionary forces take over the government, those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they had in the beginning.” The insight Woodson offers on this matter would later prove prescient when we saw our leftist alliances of the Renaissance crumble upon the realization that they held no serious desire to address racism within their ranks. This other facet of miseducation arising in the black community then being the dynamic adoption of new philosophies with no strategic or tactical analysis of merit or usefulness. In summation, Woodson offers us one of the many early attempts at developing a black social theory which draws upon the most valuable assets our community while exhorting us to take serious measures in addressing its liabilities.
His legacy of Negro History Week which later evolves into Black History Month is not born of a desire to give either ourselves or America a concession that equality has been achieved nor are we to be cavalier in our observance of this milestone. Negro History Week was to be a first stage towards the objective of building black institutions that could both educate children in their history being overlooked and afford them opportunities and avenues to expand upon that legacy. Cases in Arizona and Tennessee have given us a clear lens into the peculiar quality of American forgetfulness which occurs when a synthesized and complete historical record is not the way an educated mind is measured. As this forgetfulness becomes more pervasive, we must return to the work of Carter G. Woodson, Lorenzo Johnston Greene and the pioneers of varying strains of Black Studies whom arose post-Civil Rights for a template that will guide us back to the goal of establishing independent systems of education where the curriculum is not dictated to us, but decided by our own best assessment of the needs of our communities.
Bobby Wright offered us possibly the most sage insight on our renewed ethnic education debate in stating “Education is a political dynamic and for a people who have no social theory, reading, writing and arithmetic should be much less important than what is written and read.” “The Miseducation of the Negro” is an opening gambit in helping us to shift that political dynamic in another direction, but only if we read it again with a far more critical eye than we have applied in the past for miseducation has implications which extend far beyond the classroom.