More subversive than physical fetters: W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson on the subjugation of African minds (an excerpt)

Central to the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson was an on-going investigation of the context of terror visited upon Black bodies (Du Bos 2007a; Woodson 1990). For these scholars the assault upon African humanity was not merely a localized dilemma isolated to a marginal epoch of American history, rather it was a central process in the creation of America’s racialized social order, and beyond this, a key component in the modern global system wherein the humanity of African people was a secondary consideration to their utility as vehicles of or impediments to the acquisition of capital (Du Bois 2007b; Woodson 1990, 2004). Both Du Bois’s and Woodson’s work compels for us to look at the context of enslavement as a foundational moment in the erection of the contemporary power of the west. This process propelled the expansion and entrenchment of a domestic colonial project, in addition to fueling subsequent processes of conquest abroad. Within the domestic milieu, the political-economy of Black subordination via the system of state-sponsored racial subordination necessitated the implementation of an epistemic regime of terror (Du Bois 1978a, 1978b). This process has maintained a dual focus consisting of the oppression of Black bodies via instruments of coercive control, and the subjugation of Black minds via processes of mis-education (Du Bois 2002, Woodson 1990).

What must be asked is not whether this campaign has abated (it has not), but rather how a liberatory form of Black education might more effectively resist this assault? Du Bois and Woodson recognized that Black people, as ever, stand at the precipice, facing on one side a familiar tyranny and on the other a new world that exists just beyond the bounds of our knowing and the fruits of our unfettered social agency. As Du Bois queried in 1960, we must ask again, whither now and why (Du Bois 1973b)? Ultimately we must ponder to what extent has realization of liberation been obscured via the highly efficacious management of Black bodies and minds in the schools of America (Du Bois 1973a; Woodson 1933)?

I work in teacher education

I work in teacher education. Every year I meet new batches of students endowed with old notions of what needs to be done in order for Black children to learn. Typically it consists of things like being “culturally relevant” (though I have never been able to locate the coursework that provides extensive training in African American history or culture where I work), encouraging resilience or “grit” (as if we don’t already have that from surviving centuries in this nightmare called America), or being demanding yet compassionate educators (as if this is some kind of modern innovation), by militarizing the schooling experience (which effectively prepares Black children for prison, the military, or the low-wage service sector), or by incessantly measuring every single facet of the learning process so as to glean some kernel that might improve future processes of measurement (if that sounded circular, it was intended to).

While I strive to be understanding of where my students are in terms of their perspectives, it should be noted that most of these notions begin from the standpoint of locating deficiencies in Black children, rather than the society in which they exist. Black children are either culturally incongruent from the American schooling apparatus (a profound revelation that Carter G. Woodson would be surprised to hear), too lethargic to try to succeed (which raises interesting questions about why they should given the diminishing gains that accrue from being successful in this system), they are the on-going victims of jettisoning of Black teachers in the mid-20th Century under desegregation/integration (as demanding-warm educators were the cultural norm among many Black teachers in that era), only suited for martial discipline (because they are really viewed as a social malignancy), or are equally unsuited for any form of education that engages the imagination (because why should serfs dream).

All of these premises listed in paragraph one rest upon a superstructure of belief that presumes that (1) the American social order is basically legitimate, (2) schools are institutions that serve as conduits to opportunity and that (3) Black folk’s social (economic, political, and cultural) interests are essentially identical to everyone else’s–not requiring any distinct remedy.

I differ with each of these assumptions. I offer the following arguments: (1) the American social order has always been and will remain illegitimate. It was born of colonialism and slavery, sustained by neo-colonial practices, and the hyper-exploitation of its own working classes. (2) Schools are institutions whose primary role is the maintenance of the status quo. They are not revolutionary or proto-revolutionary institutions. Radical social change or even any modicum of social change that requires a significant reconfiguration of the social order is considered both unfeasible and unpalatable to the political and economic interests that schools protect and project. (3) Africans in America have a unique set of problems, requiring a very specific set of solutions. These problems generally emerge from the legacy of the Maafa–the interrelated processes of slavery, colonialism, and their aftermath. Thus, one of the primary remedies required by us is the reconstitution of our humanity and social systems, which have been shattered. This is a mandate that only we can carry forward for ourselves. This is why revolutionary educators came together in the 1970s to found the Council of Independent Black Institutions. They were driven by a clear understanding that the future of Africans in this country would be born on the collective backs of Africans in America. Absent our own efforts, we would be subject to the capricious whims and abuses of more powerful groups.

It is 2016 and I think that their reasoning has stood the test of time. I think that Malcolm X was correct when he critiqued the folly inherent in how we allow most of our children to be (mis)educated. I think that Dead Prez was also correct when they called these institutions “they schools”. Moreover, I think, or rather know that the problems of Black education will never be solved in this country. There’s too much profit to be made off of disaster. There are whole industries built to capitalize on the outcomes of the American nightmare made real in our lives. But ultimately, these problems won’t be solved by anyone but ourselves driven by a vision of what our future as African people can and should be. Until we accept this and act accordingly we’ll continue to be a “problem” for other people to solve. And when this happens, do we have the right to complain about their “solutions”?