BY AMOS JONES
He was among Harvard’s earliest black Ph.D. recipients, a professor at Howard University, and a columnist in newspapers of distinction. He refuted prevailing stereotypes and chronicled black achievements. He criticized the professional-education process as delivered to black Americans of the 1920s and 1930s.
“He” was Carter G. Woodson, the founder of what is known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the organization through which he systematized the study of Black History and gave the world Black History Week, which we now observe as Black History Month, February.
As Howard University historian Daryl Michael Scott notes on the jacket of Woodson’s legendary and recently republished 1933 book of observations, prescriptions, and analyses, “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” Woodson “dedicated his life to two simple yet Herculean tasks: vindicating the black race from the charge of inferiority and restoring Africans and peoples of African descent to their proper place in the annals of history. His field of battle was scholarship and knowledge, and his weaponry, historical truth. Though he had many predecessors and co-workers, Woodson’s singularity of purpose [and] his immense skills as a scholar, a businessman, and an institution builder garnered for him the much deserved title of the Father of Black History.”
I recently read the 123-page book for the first time. Its brief but powerful arguments left me refreshed, inspired, energized, and transformed. I regard Woodson as the essential cross between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, a black thinker of their era who sketched a vision for blacks that bridged formal learning with utilitarian ends. I gave copies to everybody in my immediate family for Christmas.
Woodson would be delighted to see that black and white Americans have improved in key respects since the 1930s. He would be dismayed (but not surprised), however, to learn that so much of his criticism of both communities remains applicable to their conditions 76 years after his death in April 1950. Some scholar should produce a contemporary annotation of Woodson’s book, a chronicle that explains the extent to which Woodson’s ideas have been actualized, and where we find ourselves as a result. I found myself glad that certain conditions have changed since he wrote, but I am intrigued by the fact that many other observations still ring true, particularly those concerning the effects of slavery upon interracial and intraracial dynamics.
Carter G. Woodson wrote with unusual clarity, power, and authority. As we conclude the first third of Black History Month 2007, I offer some fascinating passages from his 1933 volume.
“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”
“Cooperation implies equality of the participants in the particular task at hand. On the contrary, however, the usual way now is for the whites to work out their plans behind closed doors, have them approved by a few Negroes serving nominally on a board, and then employ a white or mixed staff to carry out their program. This is not interracial cooperation. … This unsound attitude of the ‘friends’ of the Negro is due to the persistence of the medieval idea of controlling underprivileged classes. Behind closed doors these ‘friends’ say you need to be careful in advancing Negroes to commanding positions unless it can be determined beforehand that they will do what they are told to do. You can never tell when some Negroes will break out and embarrass their ‘friends.’ After being advanced to positions of influence some of them have been known to run amuck and advocate social equality or demand for their race the privileges of democracy when they should restrict themselves to education and religious development.”
“The Negro will never be able to show all of his originality as long as his efforts are directed from without by those who socially proscribe him. Such ‘friends’ will unconsciously keep him in the ghetto.”
“In the schools of theology Negroes are taught the interpretation of the Bible worked out by those who have justified segregation and winked at the economic debasement of the Negro sometimes almost to the point of starvation. Deriving their sense of right from this teaching, graduates of such schools can have no message to grip the people whom they have been ill trained to serve. Most of such mis-educated ministers, therefore, preach to benches while illiterate Negro preachers do the best they can in supplying the spiritual needs of the masses.”
“In schools of journalism Negroes are being taught how to edit such major metropolitan dailies as the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, which would hardly hire a Negro as a janitor; and when these graduates come to the Negro weeklies for employment they are not prepared to function in such establishments, which, to be successful, must be built upon accurate knowledge of the psychology and philosophy of the Negro.”
“Negro law students were told that they belonged to the most criminal element in the country; and an effort was made to justify the procedure in the seats of injustice where law was interpreted as being one thing for the white man and a different thing for the Negro. In constitutional law the spinelessness of the United States Supreme Court in permitting the judicial nullification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments was and still is boldly upheld in our few law schools.”
“In the schools of business administration Negroes are trained exclusively in the psychology and economics of Wall Street and are, therefore, made to despise the opportunities to run ice wagons, push banana carts, and sell peanuts among their own people. Foreigners, who have not studied economics but have studied Negroes, take up this business and grow rich.”
“In the case of the white youth of this country, they can choose their courses more at random and still succeed because of numerous opportunities offered by their people, but even they show so much more wisdom than do Negroes. For example, a year or two after the author left Harvard he found out West a schoolmate who studied wool [during college]. … On the contrary, the author studied Aristotle, Plato, Marsiglio of Padua, and Pascasius Rathbertus when he was in college. His friend who studied wool, however, is now independently rich and has sufficient leisure to enjoy the cultural side of life which his knowledge of the science underlying his business developed, but the author has to make his living by begging for a struggling cause.”
“The Negro girl who goes to college hardly wants to return to her mother if she is a washerwoman, but this girl should come back with sufficient knowledge of physics and chemistry and business administration to use her mother’s work as a nucleus for a modern steam laundry.”
“Graduates of our business schools lack the courage to throw themselves upon their resources and work for a commission. The large majority of them want to be sure of receiving a certain amount at the end of the week or month. They do not seem to realize that the great strides in business have been made by paying men according to what they do. Persons with such false impressions of life are not good representatives of the schools of business administration.”
“Often when [the highly educated Negro] sees that the fault lies at the door of the white oppressor whom he is afraid to attack, he turns upon the pioneering Negro who is at work doing the best he can to extricate himself from an uncomfortable predicament.”
“‘Educated people’ hope to make the Negro conform quickly to the standard of the whites and thus remove the pretext for the barriers between the races. They
do not realize, however, that even if the Negroes do successfully imitate the whites, nothing new has thereby been accomplished. You simply have a larger number of persons doing what others have been doing. The unusual gifts of the race have not thereby been developed, and an unwilling world, therefore, continues to wonder what the Negro is good for.”
“The differentness of races, moreover, is no evidence of superiority or of inferiority. This merely indicates that each race has certain gifts which the others do not possess. It is by the development of these gifts that every race must justify its right to exist.”
“We have long had the belief that the Negro is a natural actor who does not require any stimulus for further development. In this assertion is the idea that because the Negro is good at dancing, joking, minstrelsy and the like he is ‘in his place’ when ‘cutting a shine’ and does not need to be trained to function in the higher sphere of dramatics. Thus misled, large numbers of Negroes ambitious for the stage have not bloomed forth into great possibilities. Too many of them have finally ended with roles in questionable cafes, cabarets, and night clubs of America and Europe; and instead of increasing the prestige of the Negro they have brought the race into disgrace.”
“The Negro church … although not a shadow of what it ought to be, is the great asset of the race. It is a part of the capital that the race must invest to make its future. The Negro church has taken the lead in education in the schools of the race, it has supplied a forum for the thought of the ‘highly educated’ Negro, it has originated a large portion of the business controlled by Negroes, and in many cases it has made it possible for Negro professional men to exist. It is unfortunate, then, that these classes do not do more to develop the institution. In thus neglecting it they are throwing away what they have, to obtain something which they think they need. … How an ‘educated Negro’ can thus leave the church of his people and accept such jimcrowism has always been a puzzle. He cannot be a thinking man. The excuse sometimes given for seeking such religious leadership is that the Negro evangelical churches are ‘fogy’ … They say that in some of the Negro churches bishoprics are actually bought, but it is better for the Negro to belong to a church where one can secure a bishopric by purchase than be a member of one which would deny the promotion on account of color.”
“The large majority of Negroes [in the arts] have settled down, then, to contentment as ordinary clowns and comedians. They have not had the courage or they have not learned how to break over the unnatural barriers and occupy higher ground. The Negro author is no exception to the traditional rule. He writes, but the white man is supposed to know more about everything than the Negro. So who wants a book written by a Negro about one? As a rule, not even a Negro himself, for if he is really ‘educated,’ he must show that he has the appreciation for the best in literature. The Negro author, then, can find neither a publisher nor a reader; and his story remains untold. The Negro editors and reporters were once treated the same way, but thanks to the uneducated printers who founded most of our newspapers which have succeeded, these men of vision made it possible for the ‘educated’ Negroes to make a living in this sphere in proportion as they recover from their education and learn to deal with the Negro as he is and where he is.”
Amos Jones (’06) is a Visiting Scholar in the Faculty of Law at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.