The minister had given no attention to the religious background of the Negroes to whom he was trying to preach. He knew nothing of their spiritual endowment and their religious experience as influenced by their traditions and environment in which the religion of the Negro has developed and expressed itself. He did not seem to know anything about their present condition. These honest people, therefore, knew nothing additional when he had finished his discourse. As communicant pointed out, their wants had not been supplied, and they wondered where they might go hear a word which had some bearing upon the life which they had to live.Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro
Some colleagues and I have been reading The Mis-education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson for a few weeks. Published in 1933, the book is a timeless indictment on anti-Blackness in our country and, more specifically, in our schools.
A major theme of the book is Woodson’s calling out of “highly educated” Black folks for doing things that work against the collective liberation of the race, included himself. As a white person discussing the book in the company of at least one Black educator, there are times that I’ve been made uncomfortable with our talks. It kind of feels like I’m part of a conversation between Woodson and other Black folks, a conversation I have no business being a part of. In this way, reading it on my own has been enlightening, but has made me question the cross-racial setting in which we’re studying it.
To deal with this personal dilemma, it’s been helpful for me to look inward and find ways to place myself in the crosshairs of Woodson’s criticism. For example, after coming across the passage I cited above, in which Woodson critiques Black ministers and how they show up for those they serve, I couldn’t help but draw connections to white teachers who serve Black and Brown students, especially in large numbers. In other words, teachers like myself.
The context of Woodson’s challenge, at least how I interpreted it, is how schools of religion have indoctrinated Black ministers with the values of white supremacy. This conditioning shows up in their interactions with their congregation. In his words, these schools “followed the traditional course for ministers, devoting most of the time to dead languages and dead issues.” He goes on to highlight an example of such a minister and says, “He went off to school, and when he came back the people could not understand what he was talking about. Then he began to find fault with the people because they would not come to church.”
This raises a stockpile of questions for me. Most directly, as a white teacher who teaches an overwhelming majority of Black and Brown students, how has my lived experiences, education, and continued professional development prevented me from interacting with my students in meaningful ways? Also, how has the euro-centric model of teaching and learning conditioned me to not center Black and Brown joy? How has it erased Black history from my instructional framework? How have I been trained in and perpetuate a system of deficit thinking that preys on Black and Brown students? How has it permitted me to downplay and then ultimately ignore the intellectual and emotional endowment of my students? How has it blinded me from comprehending gender and sexism? How has it separated me from my aging white body and mind and keeps pushing me, with every passing year, further and further away from the young people of color I serve? How does where I choose to live and do my business affect how I understand my students and the communities they inhabit? How has all this removed me from, as Woodson calls is it, my students’ “present condition”? How has it removed me from their realities?
In the end, I bring these questions with me into spaces that I occupy with students — and it shows. It shows in what I do or say, but also in what I don’t do or say. With these questions in mind, I’m not all that different from the Black ministers that Carter G. Woodson is calling out. Many of my students are disengaged, alienated from the content and class, or simply don’t come to class at all and, when this happens, I question their commitment to getting an education. It should come as no surprise, then, why many of my students leave me seeking a word which has some bearing on the life which they have to live. They’re not getting it from me or my pedagogy. My life and training as a teacher thus far has inescapably divorced us from reaching that point.