Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families


The Mis-Education of the Negro – from the Preface

I recently joined a study group in the Washington DC area, largely focused on more fully understanding the history of African people. One of the texts we're reading is The Mis-Education of the Negro, by Dr. Carter G. Woodson. The book, originally published in 1933, is just as relevant today as it was at the time of its original publication.

This book is a natural starting point for the study group, precisely because Dr. Woodson analyzes the dynamic of African American mis-education, and the huge and tragic toll it has taken on African American people, not to mention whites and others who are likewise affected.

As we progress through the book, my intent is to highlight some of the major ideas that are being unpacked, highlighting Dr. Woodson's own words as much as possible. As much as I could only offer my own analysis, and sometimes I will, I also want to emphasize the importance of actually going back and reading the text for one's self. Especially in the case of this text, the really remarkable thing is that you can read this text and make the direct connection to today's African American community circumstances. If you haven't already read the book, please make a special effort to do so.

I read this book originally during my undergraduate years at Howard University. It's interesting to reread the very same copy of the book I read during those years, with the original markings and comments I wrote in the margins at that time. Such is the beauty of reading, and re-reading.  Such is the beauty of genuine learning and growth!

Reflections on the Preface...

What really stands out to me in re-engaging this text is Dr. Woodson's sense of humility. As I've read others' accounts of Dr. Woodson's personality, it's clear that he's not meek or timid, nor that he shows unnecessary deference to foolish and ignorant people and ways. I see the humility in the way Dr. Woodson treats the history of African people (including the American 'Negro' as he references our people in this country) with such care and high regard. He places himself in the role of student in many ways, acknowledging his own earlier shortcomings with respect to the topic, while in no way discounting his credibility to speak on this subject.

Herein are recorded not opinions but the reflections of one who for forty years has participated in the education of the black, brown, yellow and white races in both hemispheres and in tropical and temperate regions. Such experience, too, has been with students in all grades from the kindergarten to the university. The author, moreover, has traveled around the world to observe not only modern school systems in various countries but to study the special systems set up by private agencies and governments to educate the natives in their colonies and dependencies. Some of these observations, too, have been checked against more recent studies on a later tour.

Discussing herein the mistakes made in the education of the Negro, the writer frankly admits that he has committed some of these errors himself. In several chapters, moreover, he specifically points out wherein he himself has strayed from the path of wisdom. This book, then, is not intended as a broadside against any particular person or class, but it is given as a corrective for methods which have not produced satisfactory results.

He continues to argue that, as tax-paying citizens, Negroes, like others, have a right to advance our community in ways we see most fit, creating, taking advantage of and benefitting from opportunities as we are able to. such every individual of the social order should be given unlimited opportunity to make the most of himself. Such opportunity, too, should not be determined from without by forces set to direct the proscribed element in a way to redound solely to the good of others but should be determined by the make-up of the Negro himself and by what his environment requires of him.  (Preface, Page x)

Developing the knowledge and skills needed to do develop and advance our families and community is what the real purpose of education is; not just the mere learning of information. Progress, then, is based on how well we've been able to do this, and not on some other arbitrary and disconnected status measures.

In thus estimating the results obtained from the so-called education of the Negro the author does not go to the census figures to show the progress of the race. It may be of no importance to the race to be able to boast today of many times as many "educated" members as it had in 1865. If they are of the wrong kind the increase in numbers will be a disadvantage rather than an advantage. The only question which concerns us here is whether these "educated" persons are actually equipped to face the ordeal before them or unconsciously contribute to their own undoing by perpetuating the regime of the oppressor.  (Preface, Page xi)

In this regard, Dr. Woodson acknowledges that the current state of affairs for the Negro is not good. While the educational systems at that time were not serving any racial group particularly well, it was especially doing a disservice to our children, families and community.

The problem of holding the Negro down, therefore, is easily solved. 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.

The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worth while, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability of the race.  (Preface, Page xiii)

And thus a clear acknowledgement of mis-education within the (Negro) African American community, evidenced by widespread aspirations for all things white, and our discounting of all things related to our own community.

Our task therefore, and the task that Dr. Woodson begins to take on directly, is to analyze and fully understand what this self-hate and sickness looks like, as a pre-requisite starting point in our movement toward true education and racial / community uplift.

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