Carter G. Woodson was a historian and educator with a prominent role in the Black community and a great interest in issues facing the Black community. Especially in terms of the role of education in the first half of the twentieth century, aspects of the Black experience that impacted the education of Black people, and what they themselves might want to achieve through an education. His book The Mis-Education of the Negro addresses such issues in terms of a number of specific dimensions, such as the impact of slavery on the African-American psyche, the degree to which African-Americans had been mis-educated, the need for greater self-reliance among members of the Black population, that Blacks needed to develop their own social order and not imitate the white order, and the meaning of political education in the African-American community.
The Mis-Education of the Negro
Woodson wrote his book in 1933, and certainly the world has changed greatly since that time. Yet his book still has much to say to the Black community of today, a community still separated from the white majority to a great degree, and still a community both relying on an education for advancement and yet thwarted in gaining full access to the schools and the teachers needed. In some areas, what appeared to be advances would prove to push Black Americans even further down the social and educational scale, as Dr. Jawanza Kunjofu notes in the Introduction with reference to the fact that no one realized that the decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 "would close African-American schools, demote African-American principals to teachers, reduce the number of African-American teachers, that the bus would go one way for long hours requiring early risings and little African-American parental involvement" (Kunjofu vi). The system simply found new ways to discriminate, in essence, and it would be a long time before that system started shifting to create somewhat more equal educational opportunities, though there are still major differences in terms of funding for inner city (and largely Black) schools as opposed to suburban white schools.
Woodson did not live to see many of these changes, and Kunjofu notes this and the many unfortunate facts about Black education today that support much of Woodson's view of the failure of Black education in his time. Indeed, as Kunjofu also points out, even improved education for the Black community has not solved all of the problems of that community, as was once promised, so that the effectiveness of the education is questioned, as are the various promises made and hopes placed on the system. Kunjofu asks,
How do we explain having in excess of two million African-Americans with college degrees, earn almost $600 billion annually, and the African-American community is in shambles? How can foreigners make more money in the Black community than African-Americans? Why do we only spend three percent of our money with African-American businesses? (Kunjofu viii)
The emphasis Woodson places on creating a viable African-American community in and of itself suggest an answer to these questions -- such a community has not been created, and African-Americans continue to try to imitate whites instead. Kunjofu states that Woodson's book asks what the people in this community are being educated for, and Kunjofu reiterates that the oppression of the slave era has simply become a different sort of oppression in later periods, as he writes,
If you are educated by people, White or Black who are victims of White supremacy, you will hate yourself. You will possess a European definition of beauty, a White image of Jesus, despise Black professionals and businesses, and to any length to be accepted by the oppressor. (Kunjofu ix)
Woodson himself begins his book with a statement of the problem in his time, that even the educated African-American has a contemptuous attitude toward his or her own people "because in their own as well as in their mixed schools, Negroes are taught to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin and the Teuton and to despise the African" (Woodson 1). The form of education offered in itself generates these feelings of self-hatred among Black students and perpetuates a sense of inferior status in the Black community:
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. If he happens to leave school after he masters the fundamentals, before he finishes high school, or reaches college, he will naturally escape some of this bias and may recover in time to be of service to his people. (Woodson 2)
This statement seems to recommend dropping out as a way of maintaining a sense of self and of the value of the Black community, and indeed Woodson does give this impression when he writes,
Practically all of the successful Negroes in this country are of the uneducated type or of that of Negroes who have had no formal education at all. The large majority of the Negroes who have put on the finishing touches of out best colleges are all but worthless in the development of their people. (Woodson 2)
This is a harsh judgment to offer, but Woodson does have reasons for making it and offers evidence in his book.
Legacy of Slavery
Many in addition to Woodson have noted the legacy of slavery and the way it created an inferior status for the African-American and was perpetuated through White responses in the era after slavery was ended. Woodson blames a number of forces in society, but in particular he singles out theologians for justifying slavery: "They have drifted away from righteousness into an effort to make wrong seem to be right" (Woodson 60). Slavery created a Black population in a country where there was none, so of course slavery has to be seen as directly responsible for all that follows. More than this, though, slavery is seen as a state of mind as much as it was a physical reality, and the state of mind continues after the physical reality has been outlawed. For Woodson, the Negro church has been "the avenue of the oppressor's propaganda" (Woodson 61). In addition, the educate Negro does not lead his or her people but instead leaves them, emulating whites in terms of jobs and other behaviors and leaving the masses to fend for themselves. This is also a legacy of slavery, for they view education as an escape not just from slavery but from the society of other Blacks.
The image of the Black community as agreeing to its own oppression is strong in Woodson, and this is an image seen in other writers from the Black perspective as well. Racism in the United States has been related to the issue of slavery. What followed the slave era was the development of a racist society, with whites setting themselves up as if chosen by God while Blacks were increasingly viewed as inferior in every way, good only for manual labor and requiring whites as overlords for their own protection. Many Americans probably believe that the problem of racism has been virtually eliminated from American life, though there is ample evidence to the contrary. The slave trade developed at the same time as Europe began exploring new realms and encountering new peoples, and it was necessary for the white European to develop some philosophical attitude which placed himself and the "noble savage" he encountered in the wild on some sort of scale. The idea of the noble savage would give way to the view that the savage was simply inferior, but in the beginning explorers like Charles Wheeler saw the savage as closer to nature and thus more noble and happier in contrast to the European. This attitude would be brought to bear in antislavery campaigns as some Europeans fought against the institution, and ennobling the victims was one way of showing how pernicious the institution itself might be. As a consequence, two opposing conceptions developed in Europe:
Henceforward, Europeans would be increasingly divided into two opposed views: one, the traditional, tending to hold that Africa had never possessed cultures that were worthy of respect or even of serious investigation; the other, the scientific, tending to argue the reverse. (Davidson 100)
The slave trade itself drove European attitudes as they came to see the people of Africa not as people but as commodities to be capture, bought, and sold. In the eighteenth century, interestingly, there was more tolerance and acceptance of African ways and of the African people, but the continuation of the slave trade produced a change, as if Europeans could not continue in this trade in human beings and still think of them as human beings:
. . . The judgments of the nineteenth century, the period of outright invasion and occupation, would abound in convictions of a European superiority which was moral as well as material. (Davidson 160)
As long as Europeans were superior in morality they could view…