Fixed as That of an Inferior? Antebellum Gens De Couleur Libres, Education, and the US Discourse of Black Deficiency

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:00 AM
Room 313/314 (Hilton Atlanta)
Alisha Johnson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
In 1933 Carter G. Woodson noted that the “status of the Negro… was justly fixed as that of an inferior… Negroes have no control over their education and have little voice in their other affairs pertaining thereto.” This piece uses my own work on the education of antebellum Louisiana’s gens de couleur libres in transnational context to consider the verity Woodson’s statement. Based on countless historical examples, Woodson’s words give us a simple yet deep understanding of the situation for racialized peoples in the U.S. But such a representation risks misinterpretation. Structural realities certainly delimited what blacks could achieve, but the notion that these limits precluded agency is merely one, decidedly American understanding of black experience. This work, informed by thinkers such as Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall, questions how American understandings about racial difference fostered a particular discourse of black deficiency which the U.S. exported from the time of slavery forward.

Painting such discourse as modern casts all non-western societies as “anachronistic subordinates,” pre-modern and temporally bound to remain indefinitely behind in the forward progress of history. However, transnational accounts of blacks in educational contexts, whether in America or in Africa, belie the assumed lack of capacity and agency for people of color. These cases unsettle the western discourse of essentialized racial degradation by which racialized peoples have been characterized. They show us that at the same time as western nations utilized similar strategies on a seemingly homogenous group of black actors, these actors utilized their own strategies to appropriate educational opportunity for their own ends. This historical nuance renders the “fixed” inferior position of blacks less certain; that they had “little voice in their affairs pertaining thereto” may be as much a discursive construction as it has been a material reality.

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