By Margaret Adams
February is Black History Month. What better time to reflect on the reason for Black History Month, especially with the current rhetoric surrounding the teaching of CRT (Critical Race Theory.)
Traditionally the month focuses on the achievements of Blacks who have made outstanding contributions to this country. Accomplishments and contributions that are most often not included in literature, science or history books. While this is important, it is not the only thing Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Week, which later became Black History Month, had in mind.
Carter G. Woodson spent a great portion of his life promoting more balanced, and culturally sensitive education for Blacks in this country. Especially after spending the early part of his career as a school principal in the Philippines, and teaching in Europe and Asia where he observed the impact European/White influenced education had on people of other colors and cultures firsthand.
This led to the formation of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915, whose mission is “to promote research, preserve, interpret and disseminate information about Negro life and history and culture to the global community.” This organization still exists today.
Woodson believed that education should be based on a child’s circumstances. He felt that you cannot teach a child from a stable household the same way as one from a single-parent household and that people of different socio-economic circumstances require teaching that is more relevant to them.
Historically the United States has a questionable history when it comes to the education of enslaved people. Some slaveholders forbid the teaching of reading to slaves. There was a severe punishment, even death if one was caught trying to learn how to read. There was a fear that freeing a slave’s mind might increase awareness of their inhumane circumstances and the desire to be free. Regardless of the risk to life, many slaves did in fact learn to read.
Even after emancipation, the education of the formerly enslaved has been a perilous challenge. There is evidence of “fugitive pedagogy” (meaning escaping the theory and practice of traditional education.)
In his book Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, Jarvis Givens gives the example of a student who remembers being taught by Tessie McGee, a 28-year-old Black teacher who taught history in 1933-1934 at the only Black secondary school in Webster Parish, Louisiana. She used a textbook that was more appropriate for her particular class, but had to hide it whenever an administrator came into the room.
There are many examples of “fugitive” learning throughout the history of this country. Seen in the struggles to build black schools, obtain the right to attend previously segregated schools, and obtain the right to an equal education.
The control of what is to be taught to Black students can be traced back to the United Daughters of the Confederate who after the Civil War felt it was their duty to write history books with a favorable slant towards the Confederates.
This “policing” of what will be taught to Black students is still in effect today–in the form of school boards, the people who determine the curriculums, and the people who make the decision of which books will be published and available to which schools.
In today’s politically charged environment much is being done to resist the inclusion of Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians in textbooks and classrooms, and diminish their roles and contributions to the growth of one of the most powerful nations in the world.
We find that the education of our children is being used by politicians to influence votes for a particular candidate. We have people vying for seats on school boards in order to influence what will and will not be taught in schools, and politicians threatening to withhold funding to schools that promote an inclusive and true history of this country.
At the heart of this heated controversy is Critical Race Theory. CRT is not a course to be taught in school grades K-12. It is also not a recent phenomenon. CRT was developed at Harvard Law school under professor Derrick Bell in the 1980s and grew popular among legal scholars. Its focus is on understanding and rectifying the ways in which a regime of white dominance and its subordination of people of color in America has had an impact on the relationship between social structures and professed ideals such as the “rule of law” and “equal protection.” It is taught in law schools and schools of higher education. There is no truth that it is being taught in grades K-12.
According to an article on cleveland.com in January of 2022, Governor Mike DeWine is quoted saying he opposes CRT, but supports teaching “ugly parts of American history.” DeWine deflected when asked if CRT was actually being taught in grades K-12 schools in Ohio. CRT is being used as a political strategy by Republicans to gain voters, especially voters they lost because of Trump. In Ohio, Republicans have introduced bills prohibiting teachers from promoting divisive topics and also a list of topics that cannot be taught.
What is at issue is whose interpretation of the history of this country will be taught in public schools, the true history or one that serves the needs of the dominant society?
Dr. Carter G. Woodson – The Founder of Black History Week
Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Week, was promoting a more balanced, culturally accurate, and sensitive education system as far back as 1926. Woodson wrote the Miseducation of the Negro in 1933 and much of what he wrote then still holds true today.
The Miseducation of the Negro looks at how the power structure in this country has dictated the roles that Blacks and people of color play in this country. Dr. Carter understood the importance of a proper education when striving to secure and make the most of one’s divine right of freedom.
For a current consideration of the issues, you might want to read the hotly contested new book The 1619 Project, by Nicole Hannah-Jones, released in August 2019.
During Black History Month, let’s not forget that the driving force behind its inception was the right to a fair and honest education.