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The Radical Historian Among Us

LONG before Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Ture) shouted the phrase “Black Power” in 1966; before James Brown, sans his famous processed pompadour, urged his audience in 1968 to “Say it loud: I’m Black and I’m proud”; before musician and singer Nina Simone offered that “To be young, gifted and Black is where it’s at — and that’s a fact”; and before Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed appeared on anyone’s bookshelf, there was Carter G. Woodson.

Woodson — the second Black person to receive a doctorate from Harvard University (W.E.B. DuBois was the first) — rightfully should be described as an uncompromising, radical public intellectual. He authored several books, the most popular of which may be The Mis-education of the Negro, published in 1933. A new edition, with a timely introduction and forward, came out this month.

By the time he penned that manuscript, Woodson had spent considerable time living and working in Washington, DC, including at the famous M Street School, the most prestigious school for Blacks in the nation. He had founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History with four other men in September 1915 — three years after he finally earned his degree from Harvard. (That so-called bastion of liberal education had refused to provide Woodson with a second year of funding, so he moved to the nation’s capital to earn money as a teacher.)

Woodson had also created the Associated Publishers Inc. in 1921 as a way to get works about Black history to the public, and he had written The Negro in Our History. In 1926, he and several colleagues established Negro History Week, situating it in February between the birthdates associated with two people perceived as important to the freedom and advancement of Black people: former President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (who, by the way, was a former recorder of deeds for DC).

Alexander Padro, executive director of Shaw Main Streets, a commercial revitalization and historic preservation organization, asserted that Woodson was “much more than the Father of Black History,” as some have described him, limiting his reach and influence. The historic Shaw neighborhood in Northwest DC is inexorably tied to Woodson and many other luminaries of African American history.

“He was a civil rights activist, like his good friend and 9th Street neighbor, Mary McLeod Bethune, founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women,” Padro said. “He advocated for worker’s rights, like A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, whose DC office was across the street from Woodson’s home and office.”

The National Park Service is currently renovating Woodson’s home, located at 1538 9th St. NW. Years ago, a memorial statue of him was installed with the help of the DC Department of General Services in a triangular park near 9th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW.

The Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site at 1538 9th St. NW .

“Woodson’s mission and passion was to inspire pride and the struggle for power into the hearts of African Americans of all ages,” continued Padro. “He was a true Renaissance man.

“But to the children of Shaw, where he lived and worked for nearly three decades, and who always saw him carrying books on the street, he was ‘The Bookman,’” added Padro.

Woodson was no slouch, to speak in the vernacular. He also wasn’t shy or timid. He mixed it up, for example, with the white president of Howard University over the proper presentation of the history and legacy of Negroes, as Blacks were called back then.

While he died in 1950, his work has lived on. The group he founded in 1915 — now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) — continues to operate in DC. Negro History Week is now Black History Month, celebrated throughout February across the country.

Further, this February Penguin Classics books re-released The Mis-education of the Negro, with a powerful forward written by Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., general editor of the publishing company’s series of African American works. A famed Harvard scholar and television host, Gates helps readers understand African American authors’ historical and generational connection: from Douglass to DuBois to Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, Edwidge Danticat and others. They echo each other in ways that many, including myself, may not have appreciated.

“Each classic black text reveals to us, uncannily, how the Black Experience is inscribed, inextricably and indelibly, in the human experience,” writes Gates.

Could the possibility of that message being received by greater numbers of Americans be what is so frightening for white supremacists and their ilk, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are engaged in book banning and censorship?

The question and the answer underscore the importance of Mis-education, explained Jarvis R. Givens, author of Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, who penned the introduction of the Penguin Classics version of Woodson’s book.

“The ideas at the heart of Mis-education have resonated across generations, carrying intellectual significance inside and outside the elite academy,” writes Givens, whose introduction provides critical details about Woodson’s life, including his ritual of reading the newspaper to his formerly enslaved father. He did so for others, too: “Oliver Jones — a coal miner and Civil War veteran who was formerly enslaved — paid Woodson to read to him and a group of other illiterate miners in the evening, after long days of work,” Givens writes.

There were times when Woodson fought with others, be they educators, scholars or white philanthropists supporting his organization, for the right to teach and tell the history and story of Negroes — all of it, including their triumphant achievements.

Givens and Gates, through the Penguin Classics edition, have enhanced the richness and value of Woodson’s original manuscript. Although the former noted that it is “the least scholarly of all of his writings,” I think there can be no denying its brilliance — the melding of theory with his 40 years of practical experience as an educator and historian who traveled extensively including in Asia, North Africa and the Philippines.

If you’ve never read Mis-education, run — don’t walk — to the nearest bookstore.

“It is one of the most important pieces of work ever written,” Bernard Demczuk, a white DC resident who lives in Shaw and holds a doctorate from George Washington University in African American History and Culture, told me earlier this week during a conversation about Woodson and the times in which he wrote what has become an American classic.

Demczuk cited various examples of the era’s turmoil and general environment of racism and hatred: The Ku Klux Klan marched down Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and some of its members were received in the White House by President Woodrow Wilson. In 1919, there was the “Red Summer” during which riots broke out in the country that were part of a backlash against Black World War I veterans, many of whom had received medals from France for their bravery. Givens mentions in his introduction that Woodson witnessed a lynching in DC during the riot here.

“This is the context in which he begins to write,” said Demczuk.

That was around a century ago, yet the 18-chapter The Mis-education of the Negro is timeless. It is an unflinching, expansive and deep analysis of how the state of Blacks and people of color was tragically affected by the anchoring of this country’s mainstream public and private education systems in white supremacy.

Truth be told, those consequences continue to be felt today. DC residents need only consider the city’s traditional and charter schools. Despite a multibillion-dollar budget, which is expected to increase next fiscal year, tens of thousands of students of color are receiving at best a mediocre education that does not fully help them understand or appreciate their history or their historical and cultural contribution to the world and its various civilizations. Thus, they are not well-positioned to realize their full potential.

“The mere imparting of information is not education,” Woodson asserts in his introduction to the book.

Not only does he point the accusatory finger at whites and the discriminatory society they created, but he also places partial blame for the mis-education or the stunting of Black advancement on a group he called “educated Negroes.”

“Educated Negroes have the attitude of contempt toward their own people because in their own minds as well as in their mixed schools, Negroes are taught to admire Hebrew, Greek, the Latin and Teuton and to despise the African,” explained Woodson.

However, he offered that many schools and universities, often attended by the Black elite, failed to teach the “Mediterranean Melting Pot with the Negroes from Africa bringing their wares, their ideas, and their blood therein to influence the history of Greece, Carthage and Rome.”

Woodson also wrote that “It may be of no importance to the race to be able to boast today” about how many Blacks had been educated since 1865. “If they are the wrong kind the increase in numbers will be a disadvantage rather than an advantage.”

The “wrong kind,” the context makes clear, is a reference to educated Blacks who don’t think highly of their own people or who don’t do enough to elevate people in their community who need assistance.

“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,” he wrote.

That question is as relevant today as it was when Woodson asked it 90 years ago. Progress, yes. But obviously not nearly enough.

While Woodson does not skimp on broadsides against members of his own intellectual or economic class and others in society, his book is not a gripe session in print. Rather he advanced solutions he believed important, including providing more opportunities for Blacks to be involved in business and the need for other Blacks to support such establishments.

“Negro businessmen have made mistakes and they are still making them. But the weak link in the chain is that they are not properly supported and do not always grow strong enough to pass through a crisis.”

Woodson also advocated pursuit by Blacks of professional careers — medicine and the law, for example — not just for the income they generate, making it possible to buy expensive homes and fancy cars, but to enable care of those who are still struggling. And he urged for a new political approach: “The Negro should endeavor to be a figure in politics, not a tool for the politicians.”

As I once again read Woodson’s book this month, I became convinced that the best offense against white supremacy and censorship movements of this 21st century might be to make The Mis-education of the Negro required reading. Let’s start in DC — the nation’s capital.

Who’s with me?

This article was previously published by Cover photo credit: Shaw Main Streets


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