Education and Liberation: A CBFS Conversation

Professor Jewel McCann’s typing class c. 1955 (Digital Public Library of America/Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library)

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn C. Spencer-Antoine with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. On May 2nd, CBFS hosted a virtual discussion on “Educational Injustice and the Struggle for Liberatory Education.” Today we are highlighting the scholarship of four of the guests, Leslie Alexander, Keith Mayes, Zebulon Miletsky, and Conor Tomás Reed.

Leslie Alexander is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of History at Rutgers University. She specializes in early African American and African Diaspora history, focusing on late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Black culture, political consciousness, and resistance movements. Dr. Alexander’s newest research project, tentatively titled How We Got Here: Slavery and the Making of the Modern Police State analyzes how modern-day systems of policing, surveillance, and punitive control of Black communities are traceable to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Supporters of enslavement and slaveholders sought to control a large unfree population who refused to submit to their enslavement. A portion of this research appears in a chapter co-authored with Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow) in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. Her 2022 book, Fear of a Black Republic: Haiti and the Birth of Black Internationalism, examines how Haiti’s rise as the first Black sovereign nation in the western hemisphere inspired Black political activism in the United States during the nineteenth century, especially in the realm of foreign policy. Specifically, it charts the long history of US foreign policy towards Haiti from 1804 to the present, and reveals how the struggle for Haitian sovereignty inspired US Black activists to develop a transnational political consciousness and to shape US foreign policy towards African diasporic nations.

Keith Mayes, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of African American & African Studies in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. Mayes is an expert on African American history primarily from the 1960s to present and he has special expertise on social and political movements and current issues of race and perception. Mayes is available for media interview on the topics of race in the news, race and perception, Black men, civil rights commemorations, civil rights policies, Black Power Movement (leaders and organizations, e.g., Stokely Carmichael, Black Panther Party), Black History Month, Kwanzaa and other Black holidays, social and racial justice, and policy outcomes of the movements.

Dr. Zebulon Vance Miletsky is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University. His book, Before Busing: A History of Boston’s Long Black Freedom Struggle, charted the efforts of Black men, women, and children to desegregate schools in Boston. Miletsky is an historian specializing in recent African-American history, Civil Rights and Black Power, Urban History, Mixed Race and Biracial identity, and Hip-Hop Studies. His research interests include African-Americans in Boston; Northern freedom movements outside of the South; Mixed race history in the US and passing; and the Afro-Latin diaspora. He is the author of numerous articles, reviews, essays, and book chapters and is currently working on an edited volume on new directions in Boston African American history and school desegregation. He is also at work on his second monograph, a history of interracial marriage and racial passing in Boston and in Massachusetts.

Conor ‘Coco’ Tomás Reed (all) is a Puerto Rican/Irish gender-fluid scholar-organizer of radical cultural/pedagogical movements in the Americas and the Caribbean, and the Program Director of the Shape of Cities to Come Institute. Coco’s new book New York Liberation School: Study and Movement for the People’s University (Common Notions) chronicles the rise of Black, Puerto Rican, and Women’s Studies and movements at the City College of New York and in New York City, as well as CUNY’s post-9/11 opposition to US imperialism, colonialism, and carcerality. Coco is also developing the quadrilingual anthology Black Feminist Studies in the Americas and the Caribbean (Malpaís Ediciones) with co-editors Diarenis Calderón Tartabull, Makeba Lavan, Tito Mitjans Alayón, Violeta Orozco Barrera, and Layla Zami. They are the current co-managing editor of LÁPIZ Journal and a contributing editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. Coco has been immersed in almost two decades of struggles at the City University of New York and in New York City around transforming education and public space, anti-imperialism, police and prison abolition, solidarity with Palestine and Puerto Rico, reproductive rights, housing justice, and beyond. Their work can be found in print and online via AK Press, ASAP/Journal, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Distributaries, El Centro Press, The New Inquiry, Verso Books, Viewpoint Magazine, Wendy’s Subway, and elsewhere.

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS): What led you to write or edit your recent books?

Leslie Alexander (LA): The idea for the project came from an African American Intellectual History Society conference. The theme was focused on expanding the definition of African American intellectual history, and the conference brought together scholars from across the country to consider fundamental questions about who can be an intellectual and what constitutes intellectual history. Based on the quality of the papers, the conference organizers decided to create an edited volume, and they invited Brandon, Russell, and I to edit it.

Keith Mayes (KM): As a historian of the civil rights and Black Power movement, I was convinced that the overrepresentation of Black students in special education had its origins in the desegregation policies and practices of white schools. As I conducted my research, this belief proved only partially correct. I discovered that racial disproportionality in EMR (Educable Mentally Retarded), LD (Learning Disabled), and EBD (Emotional and Behavioral Disorders) classes had its beginnings when the system of special education began in the early twentieth century. Though racial disproportionality in special education emerged as a grand challenge in the 1990s and the early 2000s, the foundational policies and practices started during the era of progressive educational reform and were exacerbated during the 1960s and 1970s.

Zebulon Miletsky (ZM): I wrote Before Busing because I felt that a new narrative of Boston was needed, one that revealed the ways in which Black self-assertion and white supremacy have long coexisted as major drivers of economic, social, and political life throughout the city’s history. These tensions were front and center in Boston’s infamous school desegregation crisis, in which busing was ordered to achieve racial balance in the schools by a federal judge in 1974. I feel that this is an important case study in the Northern civil rights story that has not been fully told because Boston has its own distinctive ethnic and class dynamics that set it apart from other spaces in the Jim Crow North. Also, the fact that what I call “the Long Black Freedom struggle” had been completely erased and occluded by a larger history of white working-class angst and victimhood expressed in books like Common Ground. This narrative ignored the effective organizing tactics of Black families and children which led to the lawsuit and ultimately improved the city by helping it live up to its own stated ideals as a “City upon a Hill” and as a special place that would eventually become known as “Freedom’s Birthplace.” I wanted to highlight that central paradox of race in Boston.

Conor Tomás Reed (CTR): The 1969 Harlem University takeover by Black and Puerto Rican students and teachers at the City College of New York—involving such luminaries as Toni Cade Bambara, David Henderson, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich—transformed higher education and US social movements. This extraordinary legacy and its participants’ subsequent work continue to animate current struggles in classrooms and streets, even if many may be unfamiliar with these inciting origins. New York Liberation School celebrates our story of anti-racist feminist pedagogies and poetics, radical coalitions, and counter-institutional strategies, written from within the long CUNY movement for a new generation endeavoring to remake this world.

CBFS: How has making this book shaped you thinking about the role of education in the Black freedom struggle?

LA: Editing this book was such a dynamic, inspiring experience. The process was so intellectually stimulating, largely because we convened the group for an in-person meeting to reflect on our contributions collectively. It really got the participants thinking creatively about the Black freedom struggle across time and across national boundaries.

KM: The field of education must continue to occupy a central role in Black freedom dreaming. The Black struggle for a just education must account not only for the misplacement of Black students in high incidence categories like emotional behavior disorder, but also address long-standing inequities such as discipline and push-out practices; the pandemic’s impact on school attendance and non-completion rates; the over-policing of Black students by school resource officers and city police; and the gender violence against Black girls, Black queer and Black trans students. Black educational struggles must locate and understand how Black students are marginalized in the twenty-first century. Educational justice must re-emerge as a central focus in today’s Black freedom movements.

ZM: Schools in Boston’s Black neighborhoods were underfunded, falling down, and in a general state of disrepair. By issuing a federal order, district court judge W. Arthur Garrity essentially ruled in favor of Black parents and families who had sued the Boston School Committee. In so doing, the court found the committee guilty of robbing Black students in Boston of a quality education by essentially maintaining two separate and unequal school systems. Education is indicative of the nature of the problem of race in the North. De facto segregation is a consequence of the triangulation of housing, neighborhood segregation and a long history of redlining, gerrymandering and the many ways in which municipalities are able to skirt the social ideals of integration and desegregation. By looking at the role of education, we come to the heart of the matter as it were in terms of the next level of engagement of the Black freedom movement. Children represent the hope and the possibility of tomorrow. Like America, Boston finds its civil rights struggle—its own effort to break the back of Jim Crow—starting as a fight in the schoolhouses. So if we can deal with that issue, and the underlying issues of race, housing and economic divestment, then we will have gone a long way toward solving the problem of race and inequality in America, and how it plays out in Northern cities like Boston.

CTR: Education is the practice of freedom, as Paulo Freire and bell hooks enjoin us. But emancipation needs praxis—both study and movement—not just bright ideas shared among enclosed circles. In such anthologies as Bambara’s The Black Woman, poems as Henderson’s “Keep On Pushing” and Lorde’s “Blackstudies,” and partisan journalism as Jordan’s “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person,” we inherit an open curriculum of mobile liberation zones to be passed hand to hand, generation to generation. While conjuring this book, I also kept hearing the improvisational melody of dual power across these Black and Puerto Rican freedom struggles: confronting racist-gendered-capitalist barriers to educational access by any means necessary, while also fostering independent methods of collective learning and living.

CBFS: How can learning about histories of Black educational organizing help us to get free today?

LA: I think I would modify the question a bit in order to reflect on the importance of the histories of organizing in various venues. Certainly educational organizing, but also community, political, social, organizing as well. As someone who specializes in eighteenth and nineteenth century history, I think we have a lot to learn from our ancestors about how to organize collectively and advance the liberation struggle. From them, we can see what worked, what didn’t work, as well as where we need to draw on the past and where we need new ideas.

There exists a long organizing tradition for liberation in Black education. Black education activists have helped develop the models for citizenship and freedom schools, independent Black schools, and liberation schools that have led the way in our movements. Movement activists were clear about one thing: diverse Black communities should never allow their children to be educated by the enemy, by those who were in the position to do the greatest harm to the minds of young Black people that held implications for posterity. Insisting that Black families and members of the community dictate and determine the course of the educational experience of Black children must become the primary motivation of Black educational struggle today.

ZM: Education continues to be a central touchstone of struggles over equality and opportunity, community and belonging, and democracy and social justice throughout the United States. The struggle over education intersects with other fundamental issues, such as economic inequality, housing, social segregation, transportation, political power, policing, nutrition, and mental health. Black Bostonians—from students, parents, and teachers to administrators and political leaders, as well as business and religious figures—have continued to fight for their own vision of educational equality. To provide every child with a high-quality education, we must grapple with these complexities and develop a broad plan of action. The act of educating oneself or “getting an education” is a deeply political act because it equips one to fight the system to create social change. As political beings in the making, students play a special role in shaping the future. Learning about histories of Black educational organizing therefore provide a model for what a truly free society may come to look like as they bring about a new world order in which the idea of freedom is a serious proposition.

CTR: Tell no lies, claim no easy victories, Amilcar Cabral warns. Sometimes, our coalitional movement legacies are sanitized into (neo)liberal individualized narratives that silo these participants’ emergence apart from each other. Simplistic mythologies of such periods as the 1970 creation of Open Admissions distort a more complex reality that CUNY was desegregated by being unsustainably deluged and resource-starved—a tragic instance of reform-as-sabotage. In this present moment of escalating campus rebellions, abolitionist and antifascist militancies, Palestine solidarity, and hard-fought advances in labor, housing, and migrant justice, we must heed both the setbacks and breakthroughs of previous eras of struggle. As both a demand and a promise, we proclaim that “CUNY will be free!” to inspire broader horizons of liberation.

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Lucien Baskin

Lucien Baskin is a doctoral student in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center, a fellow with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and an instructor of Sociology at John Jay College. Their work focuses on social movements, the Black Radical Tradition, abolition, and education. Much of Lucien’s work is rooted in the City University of New York, including a dissertation project on radical organizing at CUNY in the era following Open Admissions. They are also at work on a project about Stuart Hall’s educational and pedagogical work and the institutional contexts of his radical intellectualism. They organize with Free CUNY and the Cops Off Campus Coalition, and have written about campus policing and abolitionist organizing in the university, including “Looking to Get Cops Off Your Campus? Start Here.” with Erica Meiners in Truthout, and “Abolitionist Study and Struggle in and beyond the University” in the Abusable Past.

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