The Countercurriculum of Black Education

“Class in language,” 1904 (Courtesy of the Schomburg Center)

The discourse on anti-racist curriculum and praxis within educational spaces—both formal and informal—saw massive growth in the summer of 2020. The racial reckoning ignited by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery forced many to confront the racist foundation of the United States and grapple with how its past is remembered and interpreted. Historical narratives constructed from our understanding of the past permeate every aspect of our lives and Black educators have long identified schools as an important site for reconciling the distortion that characterizes the nation’s normative historical discourse. In the words of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and Black History Month, “there would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.” As we reassess our collective historical consciousness, reckoning with the past and knowing how we carry it with us today is incomplete without a proper understanding of the “veiled world” of “Black educational heritage” (viii). Between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Black teachers in this tradition laid the foundation for the antiracist system of knowledge and educational practices we immensely benefit from today.

In Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, Jarvis R. Givens offers “a new grammar” (9) for the historical study of Black education in the United States and its legacy. Using Woodson’s educational development coupled with his collaborative educational and knowledge system, Givens underscores the collective efforts of Black teachers with regard to the methodology embedded in Black educational thought and the art of Black teaching. He also addresses the ideals and values evident within Black educational heritage. The “counterhistorical narrative and way of knowing” (3) these teachers presented in their classrooms played a vital role in the Black freedom struggle. Givens notes that “a sizeable contingency, if not a majority of Black Studies scholars and institution builders were former students of Black schoolteachers during Jim Crow, many of whom have explicitly referred to their early education as formative to their Black studies orientation” (236). 

The theoretical framework Givens offers in Fugitive Pedagogy attends to the “political and spiritual underpinnings” (19) evident within the countercurriculum that informed the theory and practice of Black educational heritage. He argues that when mining this historical tradition, “traditional methods of history and storytelling prove to be insufficient” (19). Accordingly, Givens equips readers with tools that allow for a richer understanding of the means by which Black teachers curated and enacted an intellectual and political culture. As Givens works to capture the art of Black teaching as theorized and experienced by these educators, he also engages with how students o challenged racist ideas by putting to practice and conceptualizing Black educational thought. Givens characterizes this metalanguage of Black educational history “fugitive pedagogy.” This theory, Givens posits, “accounts for the physical and intellectual acts of subversion engaged in by Black people over the course of their educational strivings” (9). As Givens “look[s] beyond (or beneath) what is spoken and written…[and for] embodied meanings…hidden in context” (35), his approach to this theory also addresses how students employed these tools to draw a connection between their history and their lived realities. His sources consist of a wide array of historical records. They include, but are not limited to, Woodson’s Journal of Negro History and Negro History Bulletin, children’s textbooks, testimonials, autobiographies, poems, reports conducted by school districts, notes from ASALH’s annual meeting, plays, and newspapers.

Fugitive Pedagogy is written for both a general and academic audience. In his meticulously researched monograph, Givens explores various components of the anti-racist theories and practices Black teachers and their students engaged with. In the first chapter, he delves into the “origin story of Black education” (24) by focusing on the experiences of freed and enslaved people. Givens posits that during slavery, literate enslaved and formerly enslaved people were political actors in their own rights in their unlawful, dangerous, and discreet pursuit for education. The framework for learning and teaching they created and participated in created a knowledge system that challenged the Eurocentric worldview. Using Carter G. Woodson and his first teachers—his formerly enslaved uncles—as a point of departure, Givens also discusses the role communal literacy played in the Black community, specifically with regards to the means by which education was tied to freedom. 

In the second chapter, Givens explores the pivotal role that ASALH played in the body of knowledge and the new epistemological order that marked the methods by which Black teachers challenged hegemonic “scripts of knowledge” (230). He focuses on the “role of schoolteachers and their pedagogical insights in the building and sustaining of this organization” (64). In this chapter, Givens also examines the educational program of Woodson and the centrality of community engagement in his work. 

In chapter three, Givens addresses the absence of a language that allows us to adequately mine the Black educational criticism Woodson developed in response to the “systemic cognitive distortions” (112) in Western historical thought. The methodological approach Givens employs as he excavates the history of Black education enriches our understanding of the politics and value of Black educational criticism. He also broadens his discourse to include the decolonial texts of international scholars like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Sylvia Wynter, Aimé Césaire, Bernard Coard and Adelaide Casely-Hayford. With regard to this intellectual tradition, he writes, fugitive pedagogy as evident within Black educational criticism “was a theory in its own rights and should therefore be studied based on the unique conditions under which Black educators were living and striving” (124).  

The fourth chapter explores how authors of Black children’s textbooks constructed new scripts of knowledge for the curricular imaginations of Black children. These books empowered students with the “resources for imagining a new social order” (127). As part of the Black countercurriculum tradition, these resources were also important to Black cultural expression. Givens employs the use of textbooks written by Edward A. Johnson, Leila Amos Pendleton, and Woodson in exploring the heroic traditions within the narrative frames of “fugitive pedagogy.”

In chapter five, Givens engages Woodson’s “abroad mentorship”—the nationwide mentorship networks Woodson developed with Black teachers who contributed to the effectiveness of his program, and, in turn, added to their inventory of knowledge. In chapter six, Givens offers an in-depth analysis of the participatory role of students in Black education and what the learning experience teaches us about the “shared vulnerability” (213) they had with their teachers—broadening the operative landscape of fugitive pedagogy. The educational activities (plays, competitions, etc.) that coincided with the system of counterideology within Black education was a “ritual of embodied learning” that left a “deep impression” on their understandings of themselves and their world. The “Black learning aesthetic” evident within this tradition also underscores the underlying politics within the “continuum of consciousness” (222) that Black students engaged with. 

Givens’ account of the “veiled world” and “heroic tradition” of Black teaching is a fresh and illuminating take on the intellectual acts of subversion Black teachers participated in between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their commitment to the truth, coupled with the methodological strategies they crafted, illustrates the importance of their contribution to the tradition of the antiracist system of knowledge—as they embodied the fugitive spirit of their enslaved forbearers. The “humanizing and affirming” (11) philosophical ideals these teachers lived out troubled the underpinnings of the American social order and institutional realms of American schools. This laudatory effort supplies readers with a much-needed critical analysis of the transformational educational practices embedded within Black educational heritage and how Black teachers and their students “dreamed up new worlds and new ways of being” (vii). 

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Gloria Ashaolu

Gloria Ashaolu is a doctoral student in the Department of History at Michigan State University. In spring 2020, she graduated from UC Berkeley with a B.A. from the Department of History, a B.A. from the Department of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies, and a minor certificate in Education. Her fields of interest include Black women’s history, Black intellectual history, the Black historical enterprise, and the history of Black education.