Black people’s concern with the U.S. public education system – it’s intent, policies, curriculum and practices – is longstanding. Our forced entry into the colonial system -later the United States- was anything but fair and democratic. Whites brought us here to exploit our labor and amass their industrial and agricultural wealth- at our expense. Craftily and wickedly, they used laws, propaganda and coercion to solidify our servile and powerless position in the social hierarchy. Education therefore, was an important weapon in their attempt to maintain and expand white supremacy. In other words, education as it related to Black people was hegemonic, not empowering or even neutral.
Nonetheless, even a cursory glance into the past demonstrates that our people, in every historical period, valued education and self-empowerment. Long before we endured the horrors of European imperialism, we not only developed educational philosophy but also family and societal institutions designed to transmit intergenerational knowledge.
Coming as this did before the development of capitalism (or modern considerations of”industrial development”) our educational philosophy was holistic and not focused solely on material gain, career advancement or social status. Unlike many people today, we viewed education both as a means of character/ethical development, cultural continuity, and life preparation. Without going into voluminous detail, proof of these facts are found in the Egyptian Books of Instruction, and the University of Sankore (containing over 700,000 manuscripts) for starters.
During the 18th century, when white planters legally prohibited our people from reading and writing, we enlisted the help of our free brethren and sympathetic whites to become literate. Scholar James Anderson notes that by the mid-19th century our enslaved ancestors created approximately 500 schools to educate themselves in this country.
This coalition of enslaved Africans that wanted to learn and those that knew how to read and write is instructive for those of us today who want rescue our children from miseducation and social conditioning.
Allow me to digress. As I explained in a previous essay, the “emancipation” of 4 million Black people during the mid 19th century concerned whites gravely – so much so, that they held three education conferences (Capon Springs Conferences For Christian Education) to determine:
- If Blacks should be educated at all
- What the content/nature of that education should be
These conferences gave rise to the creation of education boards across the country, and models of education designed to keep Black people disenfranchised, servile, non-resistant, protective of U.S. interests, and languishing in the lowest economic strata of this country for generations to come. We see the results of this educational agenda: Confused, culturally disconnected youth with inadequate social, emotional, leadership, financial, and academic skills who become easy prey for gangs, privatized prisons, broken families and unfulfilled lives.
Those of us who are serious about reclaiming the minds and hearts of our children realize that education is the primary tool in this regard. The problem is that noble intentions in this area and rigid political ideology are simply not enough to accomplish this task.
First, we must be clear about the function of a proper education from our perspective. An adequate education empowers people to understand, participate in or transform the world they inherit. It prepares a person to sustain themselves, solve problems, make decisions and embrace/manifest values that are beneficial, and that allow them to exert power in their lives. From the perspective of an oppressive society however, education as noted by Paolo Friere, is a project in social control and hegemony.
Understanding education in this way, we also acknowledge that the educational systems we develop will include but involve far more than teaching African history, Black pride and Black solidarity. Our alternative and reformative educational theories and systems cannot be guided by political ideology alone. We must be thoroughly and accurately familiar with our children’s holistic educational needs (i.e. academic, psychological/emotional, cultural, sociopolitical, ethical, professional, and economic). We need a nation-building education, and nothing less!
In confronting the problem of Black miseducation, we must be careful not to oversimplify the problem and instead develop solutions that are practical and take into consideration the realities we face, rather than imposing our political ideology alone.
We must understand our children’s preferred learning styles, effective and humane methods of discipline, effective and alternative diagnostic methods, and how to create structures that can combine all the above effectively and affordably so that the majority (if not all) of our children can benefit, not just those of privileged classes.
Just about every Afrocentric or Black Power speaker, author or activist has said (or will say) “We can’t send our children to their oppressor to be educated!” The logic behind this is simple. Oppressors will never educate their subjects to become free and empowered. But simply acknowledging this fact is not enough. Several compelling questions remain: How do we create engaging, relevant and empowering curriculum, practices and environments that maximize our children’s ability to lead, solve community problems, love/value themselves and their people, and develop the creativity to sustain themselves and create much-needed community institutions/movements? How will independent Black schools be funded to make sure our poorest students can attend? How can we support via information and funding, the Black homeschooling movement? In summary, how do we properly educate almost 8 million Black children (most of whom are poor) in a country actively working to keep them ignorant, poor, and powerless?
To adequately address and resolve these questions, WE MUST INCLUDE PROGRESSIVE AND BLACK POWER EDUCATORS IN THE DISCUSSION! Education, contrary to popular belief, is a serious vocation like any other. Fiery rhetoric and political pontification without strategic thinking and educational expertise will not rescue our children and might even compound their problems! To make the point clearer, if you wanted to build a bridge you consult engineers and construction workers; To defend yourself in court you hire an attorney or someone well versed in the law; You expect a trained surgeon to perform your operation; You include an architect in a discussion of erecting a building. Education too, is a serious field requiring trained, experienced and knowledgeable theorists, teachers and administrators. That we don’t readily acknowledge this, only demonstrates the low regard we hold for education and teachers, even as we shout “Knowledge is power and Save our babies!” What all of this means is: the movement to properly educate our people absolutely must involve Black folk with classroom teaching and school administration experience, background in Afrocentric educational theory, and successful school creation.
By writing this, I do not come from an elitist perspective. I am not suggesting that non-educators cannot contribute meaningfully to the Black Education Movement. To the contrary, I am arguing that we cannot leave trained, experienced and conscious Black educators out of this discussion. Only a determined coalition of sincere, committed and informed organizers, parents, students, Black educators/scholars and Black philanthropists will accomplish the task of creating educational materials, theory, and institutions to provide our people with a liberatory education.
Black educators, education scholars and school administrators MUST take their rightful place in this movement by dispelling myths, identifying/modeling best practices in education, and lending our expertise. This might bruise the egos of some in our community. Others might become defensive, but it must be done. Our children’s very lives and the future of our people depend on it…..
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. In 2015, he wrote My Two Cents: Unsolicited Writings on Race, Politics, and Culture. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment. He is the founder and coordinator of Harlem Liberation School.
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at email@example.com.