African Americans and Education: A Contested History

Curry Stephenson Malott. Souls. Volume 12, Issue 3. 2010.

This essay traces the history of African resistance to Euro-subjugation in the United States. The author notes the important role of the Black church during slavery as central institution for the subversive work of liberation. However, the essay focuses primarily on the post civil-war era as it was this period when American capitalists began to construct an education for African Americans as a transition from chattel slavery to wage slavery. It is within this context that the critical traditions of Du Bois and others emerged offering a real challenge to America’s racist domesticating education for capital. The piece concludes revisiting the role critical pedagogy can continue to play in carrying on the unfinished project of the Black church, Du Bois, and other African freedom fighters in America.

Embarking on this study of African Americans and education, examined from a leadership perspective, we must begin by providing a concrete context from which our analysis can be grounded. The African experience in the Americas after 1492 is marked by the tragedy and suffering of the African physical and cultural genocides that were the byproducts of the transatlantic slave trade carried out by European enslavers; thus, we must understand that socialization, in the plantation context, and later education, in the post-Civil War context, has always been a tool for the social control of Africans in America who have consistently, in various complex, and at times contradictory, forms, resisted their subjugation threatening the mode of production and thus the basic structure of power and leadership.

By focusing our attention on the long legacy of abuse afflicted by ruling-class whites on Africans and other people of color for the sole purpose of amassing vast fortunes, beginning with slavery, which laid the economic and social foundation for industrial capitalism, that eventually saw the system of slavery as an “impediment to capitalist development,” we provide a conceptual framework for whites to understand why and how we are privileged, therefore creating an opportunity for taking responsibility for what we have participated in. However, there is a paradox here: this important work simultaneously runs the risk of perpetuating “the white person’s need for self-display in relation to nonwhite persons,” and therefore keeping whiteness at the center of attention.

In other words, this study of abuse, while a necessary component of antiracist education, alone, is not enough because it misses one of the most important aspects of both colonialism and neocolonialism—that is, human agency. In other words, while the legacy of abuse emerging from the African slave trade, and now global neoliberal capitalism, is important to study because it helps us better understand contemporary manifestations of this history of Eurocentrically justified profiteering, alone, it does not fully disrupt the hierarchy of intelligence paradigm that positions white people, or more recently, white culture, as inherently superior or important, and, in the process, further obscuring the primary purpose of the basic structures of power, and that is the accumulation of vast fortunes at whatever human or environmental cost. To disrupt the institutionalization of a Eurocentric history curriculum more fully, we must reexamine the role of Black Africa as a world leader in culture, science, philosophy, and social organization, however imperialistic, in the pre-Columbian context.

For example, Alexander von Wuthenau argues that it is not enough to document the genocidal cruelties of Europeans engaged in the West African, transatlantic slave trade, but scholars should also work to rewrite the official curriculum to include detailed accounts of “the nobility of Black rulers who had their portraits carved in colossal stone monuments on American soil” which underscores “the glorious past of African lords in Ancient America” thousands of years before the arrival of Columbus. While it has become increasingly acceptable in academic circles to discuss “the enslavement of Black people in the New World” since the birth of the Columbian pedagogy of conquest and plunder, it remains bitterly unacceptable to examine “the role of Blacks in the Americas prior to the slave trade.” It is equally unpopular to discuss the role Black Egypt played in the development of ancient Greece.

Even leading figures in multicultural education downplay the significance of the African presence in pre-Columbian America. In the seventh edition of his widely read Teaching Strategies for Ethnic Studies, James Banks, without sharing even one example, concludes that the “evidence” that Africans had “established a colony in Mexico long before Columbus’s voyage in 1492” is “inconclusive.” However, when we examine the mountains of evidence and the conclusions many archeologists have come to in regard to Africans in ancient America, “inconclusive” does not seem to be a popular response. For example, the presence of Egyptian hieroglyphs, that is script or writing, found in the late 1950s on a number of seals excavated in Chiapas, Mexico and carbon-14 dated to be as old as 1000 BC, for some anthropological scientists, is perhaps the strongest piece of evidence that has been unearthed. For Wayne Chandler, “writing can be used to identify a culture” as accurately as DNA evidence can identify an individual.

From a critical constructivist perspective, we might therefore observe that under the current hegemony it is acceptable to produce knowledge that critiques Europe’s atrocities, if their victims, in this case Africans, are presented as inferior. In the contemporary context the Black victims of white superiority are discursively positioned as at risk because of their inferior culture and, at times, their biologically determined cognitive deficiencies, although behaviorist, cultural racism is far more popular in the twenty-first century. At the same time, it is not acceptable to produce knowledge informed by schema grounded in the evidence that highlights the African role as a world leader in science and technology since the beginning of human civilization. It is therefore not widely permissible to critique the assumed superiority of authorized, dogmatic versions of Western science.

In our examination of the struggle over the education of African Americans in the post-Civil War United States, we therefore pay particular attention to the activist role of the efforts of Black educational and religious leaders (although these domains, historically, in the Black community, have been indistinguishable) to ensure their students’ self-esteems are not damaged by a Eurocentric curriculum. We then examine the challenges faced by today’s Black leaders in education, such as challenging capitalist exploitation and redundancy. This focus is crucial to our critical pedagogy because agency and self-determination are the hallmarks of social justice education, based not on the values of competition and domination but on community and the democratic distribution of social, cultural, and economic power.

However, in our examination, we attempt to avoid the pitfalls of oversimplification indicative of romanticizing, for example. What we do, however, is look for complexity, contradiction, and conditioning, while rejecting predetermination, and thus the capacity for critical consciousness because critical, higher-order thinking appears to be a biological trait of the human species, just as Canadian geese, for example, are genetically encoded with internal navigation systems.

Situated within this spirit of critical pedagogy what follows is an analysis of the education of African Americans since the Civil War as Northern industrial capitalists sought to mold the Black labor force of the South into consenting low-level, wage workers. Basing our critical pedagogy here on von Wuthenau’s emphasis on African leadership on the world stage, we also focus on the ways formerly enslaved Africans and the descendents of formerly enslaved Africans have fought back and became a world-leading force against an indoctrinating, capitalist education with a critical education against subjugation by the late 1960s. In our investigation we find that African history has been a consistent tool used by liberatory pedagogues to counter the low self-esteem engendered by white supremacy. We end our investigation considering the ways this analysis might further inform our critical pedagogical choice for teaching and learning in the twenty-first century.

African Americans and Education: A Brief History

After the Civil War, or the completion of the bourgeois revolution of 1776, from a Marxist perspective, when “northern corporate industrialists emerged as the undisputed power brokers of the period,” the newly empowered capitalists became highly interested in education because of their need for social stability, and thus social control, which education is particularly conducive for manufacturing. After the war, many uncertainties loomed large, such as how to subdue an emancipated African population who fought passionately for their freedom in the Civil War.

To assist in this transition from chattel slavery to wage slavery, in 1865 the federal government legislated the Freedman’s Bureau to “provide rudimentary education and social services” to African Americans. Understanding the significance of the Freedman’s Bureau, W. E. B. Du Bois describes it as “one of the most singular and interesting of the attempts made by a great nation to grapple with the vast problems of race and social condition.” The education was designed to incorporate freed Africans into wage labor society. The leadership of the Bureau was assigned to General Oliver Howard because, after the war, bands of unruly poor whites roved about and small groups of Africans had fled into the countryside beginning the slow process of building a functioning society growing food and running small schools. Howard’s white-supremacist perspective informed his paternalistic objective of subduing the population with the assistance of humanistic missionaries and an industrial style education with an emphasis on discipline, behavior, taking orders, and role memorization. While some argued for deportation, genocide, or reenslavement, the official policy was to paternalistically civilize and train the assumed inferior ex-slave (and poor white) as low-level wage earners.

The goal of capitalist education has always been twofold: first, to train community leaders (including teachers) in the application of law (as it pertains to every aspect of capitalist society) to serve the interests, even if by default, of the rich and powerful, and simultaneously, to mold those who are slated to be wage earners or the working class, such as recent immigrants, those being colonized on their own land, that is, Native Americans, and recently freed slaves after the Civil War, into accepting the law of the capitalist class as legitimate, as just, as inevitable, and at times, divine (as in “in God we trust”). This is achieved by institutionalizing a Eurocentric one-answer and one-approach formula to knowledge production, rendering the Northern industrial capitalists the only legitimate possessor of truth and knowledge. The framework from which this approach to the social structure is based on is hierarchical and is therefore represented in unequal educational practices, giving way to the normalization of white supremacy and social class.

During slavery, however, “most states had no provisions for educating slaves prior to the Civil War.” In fact, many states passed “compulsory ignorance laws prohibiting the schooling of blacks,” which were not “declared illegal” until 1868. Enslavers therefore relied on a plantation system of divide and rule, and force, for perpetuating the economic and social system of slavery. Because capitalism is presented as a natural system and thus in need of no coercion, its perpetuation relies heavily on consent and thus ideological indoctrination, with special emphasis placed on education. Again, humanistic missionaries, who tended to embrace “notions of altruism, free expression, salvation, and the unfettered development of the individual,” spearheaded the form of education the “White architects of Black education” offered Black Americans during Reconstruction.

However, as previously mentioned, the missionary’s progressive vision of progress and social justice for Blacks was situated within the context of an unquestioned industrial capitalism that “espoused the paternal social and racial relations of the South.” What this meant was keeping poor whites and poor Blacks separate because a divided working class is far more manageable and controllable than a united one. These segregationist relations were formally institutionalized in 1896, when the Supreme Court ruled on Plessy v. Ferguson, which “officially gave the states the right to segregate racial minorities in separate schools.” While the states had already been practicing segregation, the significance of Plessy, according to Menchaca, was that it sent the message “to non-whites that they did not have any legal recourse to protest against the educational policies of the states.”

Shedding considerable light on what emerged as a white-supremacist approach to industrial education for Blacks are the psychological assumptions behind its construction. That is, the North’s industrial education for African Americans might be described as being informed by a combination of behaviorist and mentalist perspectives: mentalist because the hierarchy of intelligence was assumed to be biologically determined based on race, and behaviorist because the assumed low level of intelligence of Blacks rendered them unfit to make important decisions and thus in need of external conditioning and control. The rudimentary industrial education offered to Blacks by Northern industrialists was therefore presented as not only a good intellectual match, but as their destiny due to inherently inferior cognitive abilities.

However, while the Northern capitalist ruling class was busy constructing a domesticating education for African Americans, the undercover agency of the Black church in the South had already a long established history of subversive educational and liberatory practices despite the compulsory ignorance laws mentioned earlier. Underscoring the significance of the Black church as a pivotal vehicle for Black liberation, Eric C. Lincoln has commented that, “by the end of the Civil War, to belong to an African church was the clearest statement about how one felt about freedom.” “God’s challenge,” from the perspective of the Black church, was for “every man [sic] to realize the highest potential of his humanity by being a living testament of the divine image in which he was cast. Since God himself was free, and was created free in his image, then man’s struggle must ever be to maintain or recover the freedom with which he was endowed by his Creator.” Leading Black liberation theologian James Cone, in the context of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Faith of Our Fathers: An Examination of the Spiritual Life of African and African American People, reiterates the instrumental role of the Black church, noting:

Faith of Our Fathers tells the story of an African people who in the midst of the most devastating circumstance held themselves together and fought back—refusing to let 244 years of legal servitude in America define their humanity. How did they do that? How could enslaved Africans know that they were human beings in a land that only recognized them as chattel? Mumia Abu-Jamal correctly locates the answer in the cultural and religious life that slaves created through an affirmation of their African past and a radical reinterpretation of the Christian religion of white missionaries.

The African American liberation struggles that have emerged from this legacy of the Black church have always been rooted, as Cone underscores, at various levels of complexity and sophistication, in the African cultural and spiritual heritage because slavery, through the process of cultural genocide, required its African subjects to abandon their indigenous cultures and religions in the creation of an enslaved subjectivity. The significance of this African culture and history, situated in the context of white-supremacist America, lies in the evidence that overwhelmingly suggests that ancient Black Egypt provided ancient Greece with the model of civilization that the West would later attribute to European sources and therefore the basis of white supremacy. This history therefore disrupts the paternalistic white supremacy that portrays Africans as primitive, underdeveloped savages whose salvation resides within the hands of their white, naturally superior masters. Consequently, liberation, for many enslaved Africans, meant not only freeing oneself and one’s community from chattel slavery and later wage-slavery (that is, industrial capitalism), but recovering one’s African cultural heritage.

For example, Du Bois (1868-1963), who had been under FBI surveillance for more than forty years by the age of ninety-three in 1961, argued that far too many African Americans had been robbed of their cultural consciousness, and in 1946 wrote that a truly liberating African American education must be firmly grounded in African history and social development based on the awareness that African epistemologies and ontologies represented some of the most sophisticated perspectives ever developed by humankind. In practice, it has, and in many instances continues to be, the Black religious leader that serves the function of the organic intellectual, the cultural workers, the political leaders, the respected men and women of ideas that lead and direct the community, either toward accommodation through the boss’s religion, or through a deeper interpretation of religious texts that identify with Jesus as a figure of the oppressed, a freedom fighter. Summarizing this view of the Black religious leader as revolutionary, Du Bois comments:

The free Negro leader early arose and his chief characteristic was intense earnestness and deep feeling on the slavery question. Freedom became to him a real thing and not a dream. His religion became darker and more intense, and into his ethics crept a note of revenge, into his songs a day of reckoning close at hand. The “Coming of the Lord” swept this side of Death, and came to be a thing to be hoped for in this day … For fifty years Negro religion thus transformed itself and identified itself with the dream of Abolition.

For Du Bois, then, religious leaders, and by implication the Black leaders of Black education, should serve the interests of the students, and therefore work to subvert the basic structures of power within white supremacist society. Within the context of Du Bois’s approach, formal education is highly desirable to the extent that it is presented as an indispensable tool in the project of humanization. In other words, humanity’s struggle to free itself from all forms of oppression is portrayed as not possible without a revolutionary form of mass education and an empowering conception of the divine or the spirit that views the “deliverance from bondage as a divine act.”

Consequently, for many Africans in America “the political was deeply infused with the spiritual.” Making this connection crystal-clear, Abu-Jamal rhetorically asks, “Wasn’t their most fervent hope, for freedom, a prayer for the transformation of a political reality?” To deny people a transformative education and religion is therefore an act of oppression or subjugation. The struggle for liberation, or the “passage from slavery to freedom,” situated within this spiritual context, is therefore not so much “the work of man as it was the work of God.” Unlike the boss’s religion, marked by an obsession with otherworldliness, Abu-Jamal highlights Du Bois’s recognition that Black religious institutions were firmly grounded in the affairs of this world, “given the hellish temporal experiences of most black congregates held in bondage.”

Du Bois’s work can therefore be understood within the context of the liberation theology of the Black church that places special emphasis on achieving one’s highest God-given potential. The low-level industrial education for Northern industrialists and a domesticating religion that commanded its flock to accommodate the basic structures of power subjected Blacks to the development of a dependent relationship where capitalists are not viewed as a barrier to self-actualization, but as a necessity of life. That is, the paycheck as an inevitable requirement of survival. Du Bois’s pedagogy offers students a way to view the world not as deterministically fixed, but as a place of possibility and critical transformation. As we will see, this racially mediated struggle between labor and capital has continued to inform the politics of education into the twenty-first century.

Education, especially higher education, in post-World War II America, has been touted within the settler community as evidence of the existence of meritocracy, that is, if you work hard, are a “good” (that is, obedient) citizen, and have access to the material and cultural capital needed to go to college, then it is expected that you will be rewarded with “success” within the system that exists. Education has therefore been held up in the West as a key to full democratic participation (within the limitations of capitalism). Because of the social power and privilege afforded those with a formal education in Western societies, it has been used as a tool of oppression, as previously mentioned, by denying it to certain people such as African Americans.

Much of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, after Brown v. Board of Education reversed Plessy in 1954, and after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was ratified, was focused on achieving equal access to educational opportunities for historically oppressed peoples in the self-actualizing spirit of the Black Church. Demanding the right to an education has not only been implicated in accommodating the system that exists, that is, attempting to “succeed” within it as wage earners, but, as argued earlier, it has also been advocated for as a means of becoming critically conscious and politically active, that is, transformative or liberatory. The symbolic and material significance of the struggle to bring equality to the nation’s public schools, especially to the seventeen states in the South that mandated segregation by law, resides within the notion that “it was an integral part of a much broader movement for racial and economic justice supported by a unique alliance of major civil rights organizations, churches, students, and leaders of both national political parties.”

African Americans and Education: The Contemporary Neoliberal Context

Between 1954 and 1964, little had changed in Southern schools as mandated desegregation was met with almost universal state and local racist resistance. In 1964, a civil rights-empowered Congress considered withholding funding for programs that operated with discrimination, such as education. Consequently, between 1964 and 1970, Southern schools went from being the most segregated in the nation to the least segregated. After the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s realized these and other economic and cultural gains and achievements, such as the advancement of multicultural education (MCE), the capitalist class moved swiftly to recover all it perceived itself to have lost. As a result, by the 1990s this trend was beginning to reverse, and by 2001 schools were as segregated as they were three decades earlier.

The election of Richard Nixon in 1968 was the turning point, signaling a shift in policy and practice with the elimination of the desegregation enforcement machinery and eventually the slowing down, and, in some instances, the reversing of desegregation requirements. These trends continued with President Jimmy Carter and intensified under President Ronald Reagan, with a new discourse of crisis painting the civil rights movement and desegregation as a failure, which posed a serious danger to whites as a form of reverse discrimination. As a result, there has been no serious attempt to integrate schools since the 1970s.

The legacy of Reagan’s conservative discourse can be found within his administration’s famous education report, A Nation at Risk. The report appeals to people’s sense of fear, employing the language of crisis or urgency to blame multicultural education and the civil rights movement for watering down the curriculum, reducing academic rigor, and eventually leading to the decline of the United States as a world power. Employing militaristic language, the report argues that if the nation’s schools do not return to the basics (that is, math, science, and reading), then the Communist threat of the Soviet Union will jeopardize the American freedom embodied in free-market capitalism.

This brings us to another layer of analysis that is central to our investigation here. Part of the ruling elite’s effort to regain control over those who rely on a wage to survive, and simultaneously increase their profit margin, has been the neoliberalization of capital, which represents the real cause of people’s economic suffering or the decrease in real wages, not multicultural education and the civil rights movement. It is widely accepted among critical economists that the dismantling of the Bretton Woods system in 1971 signaled the beginning of this most current neoliberal era of capitalism. Bretton Woods was established in 1944 to limit the power of capital to externalize the costs of not only normal production, but also the high costs of the stock market crash and the Great Depression of 1929 on labor, especially African American labor.

This was not a generous gesture made by benevolent leaders, but rather an attempt to save the system because the working class’s level of resistance and rebellion was reaching critical levels threatening the basic structure of power. Something had to be done; workers had to be appeased, but real and permanent change in the relationship between labor and capital was not an option, from the perspective of elite interests. It is therefore not surprising that the time following the Great Depression is characterized by the Harlem Renaissance as the migration of African Americans from the South realized relatively significant income gains as Northern manufacturers had a shortage of labor—a favorable position for collective bargaining. Consequently, the African American community had the income to fund an African and African American cultural rejuvenation movement that would inspire Malcolm X and later the revolutions of the 1960s and beyond.

Given this context is not surprising that Bretton Woods was dismantled and capital was once again free to move with limited restrictions on where and how it could function. International trade laws, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have removed tariffs on international trade allowing capital to move more freely across borders, limiting the effectiveness of unions as corporations can much more easily relocate to areas with the least powerful working classes. Consequently, the wages of working people, globally, have decreased in the past thirty years. At the same time, the earnings of the richest capitalists have exploded. For example, of the world’s six billion people, the poorest 40 percent receive only 5 percent of the world’s income, whereas the richest 20 percent receive 75 percent.

Neoliberalism has also enabled capital to move into more areas of public and social life from hospitals, libraries, prisons, and schools. Consequently, neoliberal policies are transforming these social services intended to serve the public good at a cost, and therefore informed by democratic values, rather than market values, into for-profit ventures. As a result, the control of public schools, in many instances, has been handed over to private, capitalist management companies, such as Edison—the hidden agenda of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). That is, it has been widely argued that schools are intentionally set up to fail by imposing Adequate Yearly Progress goals set by NCLB guidelines the schools cannot meet because the program is severely underfunded and the phonics-based approach to literacy it endorses is not engaging for students.

This testing-based legislation, touted as the surest path to increasing achievement, was therefore really designed to lend weight to privatization and the neoliberal agenda represented by the choice and voucher movement. Critical educator Alfie Kohn has commented that “you don’t have to be a conspiracy nut to understand the real purpose of NCLB.” That is, NCLB is nothing more than a “backdoor maneuver” constructed around conceptions of choice allowing private for-profit capitalists to take over public education. The increasing role that high stakes standardized testing has played through NCLB in determining what students and what schools are effective disproportionately effecting the educational achievement of traditionally oppressed peoples, such as African Americans. Arne Duncan, the Obama administration’s secretary of education, was frequently protested for supporting NCLB’s privatization agenda when he ran Chicago’s school system. In recent speeches, Duncan has continued the legacy of Reagan’s discourse of urgency or crisis as a justification for neoliberal, NCLB-style programs, blaming teachers and teacher education programs for this presupposed failure.

Consequently, the largely segregated schools Black, Latino, and Native American students attend in the twenty-first century present a host of problems to educational leaders unfathomable just thirty years ago. Summarizing this context, Tondra L. Loder comments:

Fifty years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court case declared legalized racial segregation in public education unconstitutional, African American principals in urban schools confront leadership dilemmas unlike any others they have faced in United States history. As student bodies become increasingly ethnically and economically diverse, and as social and technological changes render the principal’s role more complex, urban principals today confront problems and crises that did not exist for principals fifty years ago.

Loder finds this turn of events “ironic” because the desegregation policies allowing African Americans to enter the ranks of public school administration also signaled “the loss of middle-class White and African American students and families who were formerly invested in urban schools” and the “shrinking financial commitments from state and federal governments,” rendering this new generation of Black principals “at the helm of extremely troubled urban schools.” Black educational leaders in the post-civil rights era have therefore been portrayed as both messiahs and scapegoats. That is, working-class Black communities throughout the United States have looked to their Black educational leaders, holding “unrealistic expectations and unusually high hopes that significant improvements in public education could be gained solely through their empowerment.” At the same time, it has been predicted that many of these new Black leaders would be viewed by the Black community as representatives of the white power structure and therefore with suspicion. At the same time the Black educational leadership community has been blamed by “white politicians and members of the business community” for “proliferating societal ills.”

African Americans and Education: A Critical Pedagogy

The career and martyrdom of M. L. King ushered in an extraordinary era of American life, but like the ebb and flow of nature’s mighty oceans, it might fairly be said that the movement he led and energized is on the wane. This is due, in no small part, to conservative counter movements in the United States…. Conservative judicial and political actors have responded to this countermovement by a policy of retrenchment on issues (such as affirmative action) that are seen as supportive of Black interests. In some respects, then, it would be fair to call this period a post-civil rights era.

Situated within this atmosphere of repression and right-wing, white-supremacist resurgence are glimpses of African American agency and transformative cultural rejuvenation. Of course, there are many Black teachers who have internalized the dominant paradigm and work in the interests of the Eurocentric, capitalist class as part of the dominant society with whites, Latinos, and others who have been similarly indoctrinated. However, it seems the more one looks, the more examples and instances of Black teachers (and whites, Asians, Latinos, and countless others) working for peace and democracy taking inspiration from many sources, such as the Black theology of liberation.

For example, twenty-year veteran New York City public school teacher Winthrop Holder demonstrates that doing critical pedagogy with traditionally oppressed students is something that can be done now and done successfully, as he, and many others, have built vast communities of subversive producers and engagers of subjugated knowledges. Holder stands as a steadfast example of a high school social studies critical pedagogue who has been “giving voice to the voiceless,” for decades publishing, and in the process empowering, the critical insights of the hundreds upon hundreds of students he has worked with over the years. Holder began reproducing student work in a series of self-produced and student-run journals, such as Crossing Swords, that quickly gained the support of parents, university professors, school districts, school janitors, and schoolteachers.

These critical approaches to education deserve much celebration and reflection because they successfully embrace diverse ways of knowing allowing educators and students to “hang out in the epistemological bazaar listening to and picking up on articulations of subjugated knowledges.” It is therefore not saying too much that restructuring the curriculum (at least within our own classrooms) for social justice (however defined) is within our immediate grasp. Aware of these possibilities, an increasing number of African American principals who lead traditionally Black schools have found ways to allow spaces for teachers to explore ways to incorporate Afrocentric content into the state-mandated content standards. In the language arts, for example, teachers frequently use African American writers to teach literary terms such as metaphor and irony.

For example, Bernard Gassaway, the new principal of one of the nation’s largest public high schools, Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, was a guest on Gill Noble’s television program Like It Is, where he argued that the curriculum of the New York City public school system, in general, is Eurocentric and noted that he supports efforts made by individual teachers in his school, a school that is failing, according to NCLB guidelines, to incorporate content from African and African American history and studies in their curricula. He sees his role as principal as the ambassador to the Black community his school and students are an intimate part of. He wants the working-class families of his student body to see the school not as an external imposition designed to whitewash or de-Blackify their children, but a partner in the struggle for a better life. Consequently, there is a feeling of not only increased rigor among the predominantly Black teachers, but also a sense of cultural pride and mission. It is therefore becoming increasingly more common to observe groups of teachers working together developing Afrocentric curricula. These efforts, in the spirit of Du Bois, are not only assisting students in seeing themselves through their own eyes rather than through the colonialist gaze of white eyes, but are also fostering a passion to know the skills of language arts, science, and mathematics, as these disciplines have deep roots in the ancient Black world.

African American Leaders in the Twenty-First Century

Black mayors, black city executives, black legislators, and black police officials are more numerous now than at any other time since the Reconstruction era. This should be an African American renaissance. Why then is African American community life at such a low ebb?…There are many reasons…but only one will be addressed here—the critical crisis in confidence in black leadership.

While Mumia Abu-Jamal’s comments are nearly a decade old, he has, more recently, made similar observations regarding Barack Obama. Abu-Jamal refers to the cultural and political indoctrination that occurs as the result of Black leaders being “trained by white peers” resulting in “black polls” mimicking “their trainers, rather than creatively acting to address the actual issues facing their black constituency.” The irony, Abu-Jamal points out, resides in the observation that today’s Black leaders, who, more often than not, serve the interests of the same ruling class the Black Power movement rebelled against in the 1960s to whom their positions are now owed. In other words, as Abu-Jamal observes, “all of today’s black ‘leaders’ owe their position to the expressions of black discontent, rage, riot, and rebellion made by the nameless black many who took to the streets in the 1960s.”

Making a similar argument, while providing a deeper analysis, world-renowned professor of African American studies Manning Marable argues that “there have been three general approaches to the struggle for black empowerment in America…inclusion, black nationalism, and transformation.” Defining these categories, Marable elaborates:

An “inclusionist” approach toward black politics has relied on coalitions with white parties or organizations to achieve reforms; it seeks access and opportunities for blacks within the existing system and utilizes the courts to pursuit legal challenges to end discrimination. Frequently, an inclusionist approach emphasizes cultural assimilation, the effort to be accepted within the American mainstream. A “black nationalist” approach to black empowerment favors the building of all-black institutions to provide goods, services, and education to African American people; it culturally rejects the values and ideals of white America and emphasizes our unity with other people of African descent throughout the Black Diaspora. A “transformationist” or multicultural democratic approach argues that institutional racism cannot be dismantled unless the power, privileges, and property of elite whites are redistributed more democratically to oppressed Americans. A transformationist strategy calls for an internationalist perspective linking black struggles for freedom with those of other people of color and oppressed people; it favors the construction of a dynamic coalition of the oppressed in American society to extend the principles of political democracy into economic and social relations.

We might observe that Abu-Jamal’s critiques are leveled at those Black leaders assuming an inclusionist approach that sidelines the struggles of working-class African Americans for the interests of the white ruling class. Many of today’s large Black and Latino high schools in urban areas such as New York City tend to be run by Black principals based on many of Marable’s tenets of Black nationalism. Because many of these large urban school districts are facing severe challenges, such as increasing dropout/pushout rates situated in a context of rising poverty, the African American principals and superintendents who are running them are often perceived by the communities they serve as either messiahs or scapegoats. That is, these educational leaders are expected to solve all the problems of the community, and when they do not, which is inevitable, they are turn into scapegoats not only within the Black community, but within the mainstream white society as well.

While the tenets of Black nationalism often make sense for educational leaders working in the trenches, as it were, we will examine Marable’s notion of transformation as a possible model for educational leadership. Because principals tend to see their role as the facilitator who builds a bridge between their school and the community they serve, their work often takes the form of developing a strong Black community. What we find is that the limits of the institution of education itself often prevent the implementation of a truly transformational agenda. That is, educational workers, from principals to teachers, are working in a highly structured institutional environment founded upon the unstated presupposition that employees will follow their predetermined roles within the hierarchy of command.

In urban high school settings, especially where student bodies are Black, Hispanic, and poor, student populations are coded as troubled youth, predisposed for violence, and at risk for dropping out and being left behind. Viewing urban secondary education through this lens—the white, paternalistic lens of colonization—the role of the principal (that is, educational leadership) is to whip into shape the school as hellhole where the students are demons and therefore demonized. In this context it is the principal who, endowed with the blessings and certification from the dominant society, saves the savage minority from himself and herself. This is portrayed as a gift done with the scientific efficiency of Taylor and the paternalistic manipulation of Skinner. Because these youth are viewed as either criminals or future criminals, it is assumed that a military-style approach to leadership is necessary, which is best executed by a strongman. It is thus assumed that women are too weak for this task and therefore better equipped to be coddling mothers taking care of innocent children at the elementary and childhood levels.

Conclusion: Revisiting Critical Pedagogy

If our critical pedagogies are to take as their place of departure the concrete context in which they are situated, then the analyses presented here are of particular importance, and, by implication, counterhegemonic. Because these histories are controversial in mainstream academia, as critical pedagogues, we should make it one of our primary objectives to challenge this tendency. That is, it would serve us well to treat engaging with the subjugated knowledges of African Americans and ancient African civilizations, for example, not as a radical endeavor, but as the practice of rationally expanding our epistemological parameters and therefore conducive to the ideals of justice and equality that our democracies are based on. This approach is designed to celebrate the multiple epistemological perspectives characteristic of all peoples and all backgrounds, and is therefore substantially more revolutionary than any one perspective by itself, such as the many critical pedagogies associated with critical theories.

This unified approach is not just a liberal attempt to lend equal weight to all ideas, as it were, but rather, it represents a conclusion we have arrived at after a thorough investigation of the evidence. What we have seen is that the history of the many peoples and epistemologies of the earth are not a series of isolated histories where each individual locale represents a distinct and unrelated march toward the same universal standard for advanced civilization. The history of humanity, according to science, on the other hand, is a complex story of convergence, passive diffusion, and compulsory diffusion. Such historical understandings make crystal clear that the epistemologies of the world’s peoples are closely related and share long, complex relationships as ancient as human civilization itself. Following Du Bois, when we study world history in a non-Eurocentric way, we are left with a much more African-influenced understanding of human culture and civilization.

Again, this Afrocentrism should not be conceived of as controversial, and it should not make white people, or anyone else who relies on a wage to survive (which is nearly all of humanity, because capitalists are a very small minority of the world’s population) uncomfortable, because there is only one species, even if at the present moment those of European descent happen to be the current beneficiaries of hegemonic prejudice and oppression. For example, white people in the United States, and throughout much of the contemporary world, who currently possess racial privilege because of the long legacy of the racializing that accompanied the African transatlantic genocidal slave trade and the genocide of 98 percent of all Native American peoples since 1492, can become change agents by choosing to denounce racial privilege, working as labor organizers, and opposing all forms of undemocratic hierarchy. For schools, this means that the curriculum needs to be revised to remove its Eurocentrism.

The content presented here is an example of one such attempt. Of course, as critical pedagogues, we encourage all educators and all students to be actively engaged in this work. Reformulating the curriculum should not just be the act of replacing the subject matter that is to be deposited by teachers into students, but should question the very basis of the knowledge-producing process. This is the task of the socially just educator because it is the responsibility of schools to provide a positive and nurturing environment for all students taking special care to ensure that their self-esteem is not damaged in any way by the learning experience.

Our approach to critical praxis here is informed by a refusal to accept the mainstream proposition that one often hears in the parroted echo of the dominant discourse: there will always be inequality and exploitation because it is human nature, rendering any struggle waged against such tendencies counterproductive. Our critical pedagogies, which consciously strive for universal democracy, however, are based on the evidence that overwhelmingly suggests that social hierarchy is not an inherited biological trait universal among the species. Inequality, where the few dominate the many, is not determined by genetics but by the combined use of force, consent, and divide and rule, and it can therefore be resisted and transformed. This is the objective of critical pedagogy, and our collective histories offer many invaluable insights and sources of empowerment, as demonstrated thus far from the Black church to the Black school.

But our attention to detail does not end here. In our critical examinations of Eurocentric curriculum and the subsequent explorations of subjugated knowledges, we must continuously challenge ourselves and the students we work with to always bring to the fore the contexts such perspectives are constructed in. Similarly, Joe Kincheloe, in his Critical Constructivist Primer, notes that critical constructivist educators are “concerned with the processes through which certain information becomes validated knowledge” as well as “the processes through which certain information was not deemed to be worthy or validated knowledge.” In the end then, to reiterate, from this critical pedagogical perspective, the goal “is not to transmit a body of validated truths to students for memorization,” but rather, “engaging students in the knowledge production process.” Teachers who are successful at this show a great capacity to create the conditions where students can spark their own epistemological curiosities, which tends to be marked by the creation of a classroom “where students’ personal experience intersects with academic knowledges.” Kincheloe offers some insight into what this might look like in practice, noting that “in their search for ways to produce democratic and evocative knowledges, critical constructivists become detectives of new ways of seeing and constructing the world.” Put another way, critical scholars, dedicated not only to understanding the world but also contributing to uplifting its democratic imperatives, tend to be perpetually searching for new interpretative frameworks (philosophies) or ways of seeing that can better serve these ends.