The Misconception of the Negro: Transnational Histories of Black Education in the 19th and 20th Centuries

AHA Session 145
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Room 313/314 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Ronald Butchart, University of Georgia
Ronald Butchart, University of Georgia

Session Abstract

Racialization and education are each processes of transmission. Authorities impart expectations for certain people’s behavior, typically in the service of existing social hierarchies. Historians of black education have long recognized the inherent inequalities and intersections of these processes. In The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), Carter G. Woodson described how white-led education had “fixed” blacks’ inferior status by instilling the idea that “the Negro…was an exception to the natural plan of things.” At the heart of black education lay a paradox, he said: “The present system…trains the Negro to be white, and at the same time convinces him of the impropriety or the impossibility of his becoming white.” This panel of papers reconsiders Woodson’s thesis by approaching these issues of transmission transnationally. Examining the effects of migration, exchange, and empire on black education in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, panelists demonstrate instances when these global forces managed to both reinforce and resist traditional patterns of white hegemony.    

Alisha Johnson uses the education of antebellum Louisiana’s gens de couleur libres to consider the verity of Woodson’s statement that “Negroes have no control over their education and have little voice in their other affairs pertaining thereto.” Her research shows that despite discourses of black deficiency prevalent in both nineteenth-century history and historiography, racialized actors employed their own self-determining strategies of education to make connections across the wider black Atlantic. John Bell recovers the educational experiences of West Africans at American abolitionist colleges from the 1840s through the 1860s to explore the interplay of race, agency, and accommodation within transatlantic social reform. Although college education subjected black students to white condescension, these experiences also provided Africans with valuable institutional knowledge that they employed to pursue personal material and religious goals. Hannah Higgin reevaluates the role of race in a later form of international development by examining historically black colleges’ staffing of American aid projects in Africa from the 1940s through the late 1960s. Recruited mainly to assuage recipient nations’ suspicions of white racism, college-educated African Americans nevertheless found uncommon opportunities for career advancement as agricultural technicians in Africa. Timothy Nicholson recounts how East African youth navigated the educational opportunities of the deteriorating British Empire to create new global networks of solidarity and self-advancement. Education helped empower black students and their allies as they forged postcolonial paradigms of authority and sovereignty.

Together, these papers expand our scholarly understanding of racialization and black education in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Transnational approaches illuminate currents of power and agency at work within systems of education, reaffirming the value of global perspectives for challenging historiographical paradigms and reframing historical narratives.

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