Carter G. Woodson: The Mis-education of the Negro (Penguin Classics, 2023 - originally published 1933 by Associated Publishers)

Seule de tout les continents l’Afrique n’a pas d’histoire.” – Eugène Guernier (1882-1973), French historian quoted by W.E.B. DuBois in The World and Africa (1947)

If beforehand you had some preconceived ideas about what to expect, reading Carter G. Woodson’s African American Classic from 1933 you might be surprised by just how severely Woodson critiques not only “the mis-education of the Negro” but also that of white people in America, from kindergarten through schools both public and private to the universities, concluding:

“It is strange … that the friends of truth and the promoters of freedom have not risen up against the present propaganda in the schools and crushed it. This crusade is much more important than the anti-lynching movement, because there would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.”

Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950), teacher, historian, institution builder, and polemicist extraordinaire, in 1912 was the second African American, after W.E.B. DuBois* in 1895, to earn a PhD in history from Harvard University (the third was Charles H. Wesley, see below).

The new Penguin Classics edition of The Mis-education of the Negro consists of Woodson’s original text from 1933, with his own foreword and introduction, and a new Introduction by Woodson scholar Jarvis R. Givens, author of Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching (Harvard University Press, 2021). Givens also selected and introduces the ten letters and articles by Woodson, spanning the years from 1908 to 1950, printed in the Appendix.

We bring Eugène Guernier into the picture to illustrate what Woodson was up against. Because Guernier was not alone. In essence Guernier in 1933 was just repeating what the famed German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) had pronounced some hundred years earlier. In Geographical Basis of World History, printed in Lectures on the Philosophy of World History (1822-8), on what he calls “Africa proper” (Africa south of the Sahara) Hegel writes:

“It has no historical interest of its own, for we find its inhabitants living in barbarism and savagery in a land which has not furnished them with any integral ingredients of culture.” Adding: “… it has no history in the true sense of the word. We shall therefore leave Africa at this point, and it need not be mentioned again.” Having left Africa behind, Hegel can now turn to “world history itself.”

Hegel (and Guernier) thus demonstrating for us that ‘cancel culture’ is nothing new.

A schoolmaster to his race. Woodson, often called ‘the father of black history’, was first and foremost a schoolteacher, participating for forty years in the education of “black, brown, yellow and white races in both hemispheres and in tropical and temperate regions …  with students in all grades from the kindergarten to the university,” after his death in 1950 also referred to as ‘a schoolmaster to his race’ by educators and students alike. His observations and reflections on those forty years of teaching, and his own experiences as a student, not least at Harvard, one of America’s leading universities, form the basis for Woodson’s polemical classic, The Mis-education of the Negro.  

Everywhere he went – Virginia where he was born and where he began his education in a one-room schoolhouse and read the newspaper for his illiterate and formerly enslaved father, West Virginia where he was hired as a reader for a group of illiterate coal miners while attending the Frederick Douglass High School, Kentucky’s Berea College, at the time the only southern college to enroll both black and white students, as a teacher in the Philippines, controlled by the U.S. after defeating Spain in the Spanish-American war of 1898, and the M Street School in Washington, D.C., then the most prestigious black high school in the country – the picture was roughly the same:

Black history and culture not taught or maligned by insisting that people of African descent lack a history and culture worthy of respect. “Negroes are taught to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin and the Teuton and to despise the African,” Woodson writes. “The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies.”

Woodson’s “conceptual breakthrough.” Mis-education, then, refers to “black students’ induction into the dominant white curriculum,” even as that system of knowledge not only maligns but at times denies the very existence of black history and culture, as Givens writes in his Introduction.

Edward Channing, Woodson’s original doctoral adviser at Harvard, rejected the idea that there was any such thing as Negro history, believing that black individuals in Africa and America were inferior “in race stamina and race achievement” and accrediting any academic accomplishments made by DuBois and Woodson – and later on Charles H. Wesley – to their mixed-race ancestry.

Woodson switched to Albert Bushnell Hart, who had been DuBois’ doctoral adviser. Though not opposed to black people’s educational uplift, Hart too believed they were an inferior race.

At Yale there was Ulrich B. Phillips, at Columbia William A. Dunning with similar anti-black ideas. Woodson years later would tell a black newspaper that it had taken him twenty years to ‘recover’ from his education at one of America’s most elite universities (see the article “Twenty Years Wasted, Says D.C. Historian,” Negro World, 1931, excerpt reprinted in the Appendix).

Witnessing a lynching in Washington D.C. during the Red Summer of 1919, when riots erupted across the country as black soldiers returned from World War I, reinforced Woodson’s belief that there was a connection between what students were taught in the schoolroom and their behavior in the streets – what Jamaican Black Studies scholar Sylvia Wynter has called “The Conceptual Breakthrough of Carter G. Woodson” in her 1990 essay Textbooks and What They Do.

The father of black history. Woodson’s meeting during his formative years with hundreds of black Civil War veterans – one of whom was his own father – and listening to their stories, described at some length in the essay “My Recollections of Veterans of the Civil War” (Negro History Bulettin, 1944, see Appendix), intensified his interest in studying black history and culture.

From his father he learned the essential lesson and ethos to ‘think and do for yourself’. Woodson writes: “He never permitted one to go to any man’s back door. If the business could not be transacted through the front door, we had no business with that person.” (See again the Appendix: “And the Negro Loses His Soul,” The Chicago Defender, 1932).

And Woodson, the polemicist, will tell this pointed story more than once in The Mis-education … : “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told … His education will make it necessary.”

The education of black people was almost entirely in the hands of “those who have enslaved them and now segregate them,” the omission of black life in formal curricula and the overrepresentation of white achievement exaggerating white people’s importance in the history of human progress.

Woodson had no use for “highly educated” Negroes, a term he will use again and again in the book, always in quotation marks, (mis)educated in this system of knowledge. He became increasingly critical of white paternalism and philanthropy as an instrument of white control over black education, and by 1933 Woodson had severed all formal ties to public schools and universities.

Givens: “Woodson’s life work became rewriting the script of knowledge to account for the humanity of black people – and in doing so revising what constituted human history altogether.” 

Carter G. Woodson’s legacy. Woodson was a pioneer in “the art of black teaching,” as Givens puts is in the title of his book Fugitive Pedagogy. In 1915 he co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, serving as a forerunner to Black Studies in American universities in the post-Civil Rights era. And “History 30: The Negro in American History” at Howard University, where Woodson taught from 1919 to 1920 as a professor of history, Givens notes, was quite possibly the first course on black history and culture offered in an American university.

Widely celebrated among black educators, The Negro in Our History (Associated Publishers, 1920) was Woodson’s first textbook – one of his many books and other publications on the subject.

And then there is the case of Mis-education. It has been ninety years since Woodson published the most popular if least scholarly of his books, and much of the material and his examples are clearly outdated. But the conclusions and lessons he drew from his observations and reflections are not.

In 1969 the Associated Publishers released a new edition of  The Mis-education, with a new introduction co-written by veteran educator and Harvard graduate Charles H. Wesley, then president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. There are several paperbacks in print, but this Penguin Classics edition is the first being released by a mainstream publisher.

Givens: “Just as Woodson’s words were relevant in 1933 during the height of Jim Crow, and just as they spoke to the heart of black students’ demand for Black Studies in 1968, his words continue to resonate in a particularly powerful way in 2023 … As I write this introduction, massive legislative campaigns are being waged across the United States to limit how histories of race and racial injustice are taught in schools … to block intellectual frameworks that directly extend from the legacy of scholars like Woodson and his contemporaries from entering classrooms and textbooks.”

UFI // 26 March 2023   

*The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the United States of America, 1638-1871, published the following year, 1896, as the first volume of the Harvard Historical Studies series.

CARTER G. WOODSON’S ROLE as an institution builder is an important part of his legacy. In 1915 he co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, mentioned above, followed in 1916 by The Journal of Negro History and in 1926 Negro History Week – since 1976 Black History Month (February, celebrating the birth of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln). And finally, in 1937 came Negro History Bulletin – all of these institutions still here (if under slightly different names, with ‘Negro’ changed to ‘Black’ or ‘African American’).

Founded in 1920 Associated Publishers published over 200 books before it closed its doors in 2005. (We have already written about one other title originally published by the Associated Publishers, see the Random Notes article Effie Lee Newsome’s Nature Poetry for Children Revisited).   

As for GEORG FRIEDRICH HEGEL and his views on Africa and Africans, see Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader, edited by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (Blackwell Publishers, 1997).