In celebration of Black History Month, the Minnesota Humanities Center has asked some of our friends to write essays to share with you their thoughts on black history and culture, as well as on broad issues of racial and social justice. Like a good conversation with friends after a good meal, we have not attempted to steer the conversation in any direction but instead will seek to enjoy the richness of the ideas. Please therefore curl up with a warm blanket during this extended cold snap and enjoy the conversation with us.
When I mention the name Carter G. Woodson to people in the field of education I tend to see one of two reactions. The first is a glimmer of faint recognition, a look of someone trying to remember the name of the kid who sat behind them in 9th grade biology. The other reaction is often a broad smile, followed by a hearty “YES!,” as though I just referenced their favorite song.
These reactions can tell me a lot about an educator. Of course it would be unfair for me to make broad judgements about people based on their knowledge of a single historical figure, yet it would not be odd for us to be curious of an adult who has not heard of Sir Isaac Newton, or Aristotle, or Shakespeare. We tend to take for granted that educated people are aware of intellectual giants. Yet, people who furrow their brow at the mention of Woodson, educators in particular, reveal an essential ignorance, not of a person, but of a body of knowledge. For Carter G. Woodson was perhaps the most eloquent and effective exponent of the idea that Black Americans—and indeed, all Americans—should know the pre- and post-colonial history of African Americans in order to manage the present and shape the future of race relations in America.
Woodson once told one of his proteges, Lorenzo Greene, a fantastic story of his experience sitting in a graduate school history classroom at Harvard University around 1910, taught by the world renowned scholar Edward Channing. In his retelling, Woodson shared that Channing had told the class (in which Woodson was the only non-white student) that the Negro had “no history.” Woodson retorted that “no people lacked a history.” And so the story goes that Channing challenged Woodson to prove him wrong, and that Woodson made this challenge his life’s work.
Even if you have never heard of Carter G. Woodson, you have heard of this life’s work. Black History Month was Woodson’s brainchild, or maybe grandchild. It began in 1926 as Negro History Week, and for Woodson and his colleagues it was meant to be a time when children across the country shared what they had been learning about Black history during the rest of the year. Sadly, today, we have completely inverted this idea so that Black History Month is often the only time when learning about the history of Black people is sanctioned and acceptable.
So much for progress.
The life of Carter G. Woodson is fascinating. And he should be as well-known as any of the classical thinkers we have come to take for granted, for three main reasons.
First, the story of what happened in Woodson’s Harvard classroom is the story of all education. As Woodson argued in his most famous book, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), there is a dangerous potential for schooling to erode a Black person’s ability to help liberate their community. This is not to say that education is bad, but rather to distinguish two kinds of education: the kind you are given and the kind you give yourself. For Woodson, the latter is far more important, and if we are given an education by others, we must question their purposes. We cannot take such education at face value.
Second, despite his skepticism of extant educational systems, Woodson suggests that there can be a liberatory emphasis to education. Woodson was born in 1875 to parents who had been enslaved in Virginia. He was born into the era known as Reconstruction, where masses of Black people were attempting to fundamentally shift the power structure of the United States after the abolition of slavery. In this era Black communities made some of the greatest leaps in terms of literacy, numeracy, and access to formal education in all of human history. These communities were among the first to demand the creation of universal public education systems funded through taxes, an idea considered radical at the time.
Woodson, however, came of age during the failure of Reconstruction, when the white power structure was re-established through Jim Crow segregation, white domestic terrorism, and the dispossession of resources from Black communities. It is easy to see why he believed in the liberatory potential of education: It was the education of Black Americans that had threatened to continuing supremacy of white norms and privileges.
Third, Woodson recognized that the political control of education by those who do not have a community’s interest at heart could result in the negation of learning, or what he called mis-education. Here lies the genius of Woodson. He recognized that his Harvard University professor was engaged in mis-education. His Harvard University professor who wrote a six volume history of the United States was teaching the erasure of the history of Black people, and as we know, history is inseparable from humanity. This is the crux of our educational dilemmas today.
And this is why ignorance of Woodson should make me a skeptic of someone’s educational credentials. You see, Woodson was not sitting in some makeshift barn listening to a random guy spout off. He was interacting with the institution that defined the field. This was not a version of history. This was history. And Black erasure and degradation was not limited to the field of history. Racial science was science. The literary canon, absent the writings of Black people was the canon. Teachers, scientists, researchers, doctors, politicians, and every single person who was deemed “educated” was being taught in this way.
So it is no wonder, today, that one of the founders of the field of African American Studies, Carter G. Woodson, is not well known. We are products of history, products of mis-education and systematic ignorance; and yet, so arrogant. This laughable hubris is so obvious today when we look at the current struggle to include Ethnic Studies in Minnesota schools. Every attempt to block the rich and wonderful knowledge of Black people from being taught to every student in Minnesota is based in the history of Edward Channing telling Carter G. Woodson that the Negro has no history.
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