African-American Perspectives on Education for African-Americans
Education has been an issue at the forefront of the African-American community since the first Africans were brought to the colonies hundreds of years ago. For centuries, education was forbidden to enslaved Africans in the United States with penalties such as whipping and lynching for demonstrating such skills as literacy. As the abolitionist movement gained strength and the Civil War commenced, more and more enslaved Africans saw education as a sign of freedom and a representation of the many ways in which they were held back yet simultaneously integral to American culture. Two African-American writers, scholars, and leaders, W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass, discuss the power and the potential for education in the African-American Community. Douglass wrote his seminal work, his autobiography, in the middle of the 19th century, before the Civil War, Reconstruction, the industrial revolution, and the turn of the 20th century. Du Bois, as part of his larger work, The Souls of Black Folk, published "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" as Chapter 1 of the opus. The other works to be referenced in this paper were written by African-American Psychologists studying secondary school and undergraduate students who are African-American; they conduct their studies just before the turn of the 21st century. Therefore, the paper will offer a fairly comprehensive perspective on education in the African-American community, with more current references as a way to see how the theories of the early leaders Du Bois & Douglass impacted their progeny. The paper will argue that for any group of people in any country or society where they have suffered systemic & institutional oppression, education proves to be both a blessing and a curse, providing bittersweet enlightenment and the tools to foster hope & initiate action.
The master's wife of the house where Douglass was enslaved taught him how to read as a young boy. When the master of the house, Mr. Auld, caught his wife, Mrs. Auld, teaching young Douglass to read, he went on a tirade: "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master -- to do as he is told to do. Learning would -- spoil -- the best nigger in the world." (Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Page 36) Douglass understood from this experience that education is valuable to the individual and lack of education is valuable for slavery to function. Slavery works better when the enslaved are kept illiterate and inarticulate. He knew that an education was essential to his survival, his escape, and his individual growth. In an indirect manner, Douglass harbors gratitude to his master for such a deleterious attitude:
"What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both." (Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Page 37)
Douglass continued the pursuit of his education in secret for several years. In 1838, as a young man not knowing his precise age, he escaped from slavery and fled to New York City.
Literate and free, Douglass pursued his education adamantly and the ideas he studied spurned him to action. Though motivated, Douglass suffered a comparable feeling of loathing toward his newfound literacy:
"As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast." (Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Page 41)
Douglass makes plain the state of enlightenment and torture that education brought to the early educated African-Americans. Douglass gained enough education and insight to have a…