Black Pedagogies: From Emancipation to Self-Determination

This essay is part of a series entitled “From the Schoolhouse to the Field: Abolition Toward an Education for Liberation“.

In the early years of the United States, formal education was forbidden for enslaved people, first as a general understanding and practice, and then through explicit anti-literacy laws in the South, after Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt. Turner, after all, was highly literate, an\\d his conclusion that slavery was an intractable institution without violent struggle — the same conclusion abolitionist John Brown came to some twenty years later — was one that terrified the white planter class.

What the prohibition of Black learning communicated, in no uncertain terms, was that education was a form of power, and “a mechanism of survival”. So did many Black people seek to assure “literacy for themselves and their children in defiance of American slavery’s prohibitions against slave literacy”.[1]Butchart, R. E. (2016). Normalizing Subordination: White Fantasies of Black Identity in Textbooks Intended for Freed Slaves in the American South, 1863–1870. In (Re) Constructing Memory: Textbooks, … Continue reading 

Education was such a high priority for Black people, that after Emancipation, they became the driving force behind universal public education for at the state’s expense, which didn’t otherwise exist.[2]Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. Harcourt, Brace.

It was such local activities by ex-slaves that spurred the establishment of widespread elementary and literacy education and provided the grass- roots foundation for the educational activities of northern missionary societies and the Freedmen’s Bureau.[3]Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Univ of North Carolina Press.

Black pedagogies have always been “concerned with the acquisition of self-determination and self-sufficiency for African people”[4]Hughey, M. W. (2007). The pedagogy of Huey P. Newton: Critical reflections on education in his writings and speeches. Journal of Black Studies, 38(2), 209-231., that is, the “power to determine the destiny of our Black community”.[5]Newton, H. P. (1980). War against the Panthers: A study of repression in America (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz). Implicit in this understanding of the importance of education was that it had to take place on Black people’s own terms. Because the post-Emancipation agenda of white educators — whether from the planter class or the white northern elite — was essentially missionary work, or an an attempt to “reimpose racial control, to promote black docility and tractability, and to encourage black reintegration into the southern labor market”[6]Butchart, R. E. (2016). Normalizing Subordination: White Fantasies of Black Identity in Textbooks Intended for Freed Slaves in the American South, 1863–1870. In (Re) Constructing Memory: Textbooks, … Continue reading, Black people understood that we were best suited to educate ourselves. 

The newly freed preferred to send their children to “black-controlled private schools rather than supporting the less expensive northern white-dominated ‘free’ schools.[7]Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Univ of North Carolina Press. From the start, Black people were skeptical of white liberal paternalism, and perhaps had a clear sense of the ulterior motive of sociopolitical reproduction.

Enslaved people taught themselves and each other how to read and write through “a communal and clandestine process”[8]Baker, S. (2014). Uplift is Up to Us. In Johnson, K. A., Pitre, A., & Johnson, K. L. (Eds.). African American women educators: A critical examination of their pedagogies, educational ideas, and … Continue reading, under penalty of abuse, dismemberment, and death[9]Gundaker, G. (2007). Hidden education among African Americans during slavery. Teachers College Record, 109(7), 1591-1612., because it was seen as a contradiction of oppression, and therefore worth the risk. 

a slave by the name of Scipio was put to death for teaching a slave child how to read and spell, and the child was severely beaten to make him “forget what he had learned”.[10]Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Univ of North Carolina Press.

After Emancipation, the most immediate need for Black literacy revolved around the relationship to labor, specifically the “uses and abuses of written labor contracts”.[11]Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Univ of North Carolina Press. This invokes the modern emphasis on “financial literacy” for Black youth, which is important if the goal is “equality” under capitalism, but only a stopgap measure in the greater fight against systems of oppression.

Newly emancipated Black people “understood that their labor power was essential for the restoration of southern agriculture”[12]Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Univ of North Carolina Press., so the ability to read labor contracts enabled them to negotiate for not only fair wages, but opportunities for education. 

Education was also critical to the emergence of a new Black political class, who wasted no time in attempting to establish universal education a basic right during Reconstruction.[13]Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Univ of North Carolina Press.[14]Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. Harcourt, Brace. While learning how to navigate the white society and economy were important competencies, for Black educators, it was more important to understand the right to equality.

Matter and Spirit

There has always been a Black pedagogical focus on the whole person — the individual conceived as part of a larger community — addressing both the short and long term material needs, as well as the cognitive, emotional, and spiritual needs.  The first Black schools were run in churches, indicating how the quests for cognitive and spiritual growth were intertwined. The Black Panthers’ work began with an armed mobilization to defend Black bodies, then shifted to feeding young people and their parents, before inviting them into an educational experience, and engaging in various forms of community-building work. 

The survival programs later expanded to address other physical needs such as clothing and healthcare[15]Dyson, O. L. (2013). The Black Panther Party and Transformative Pedagogy: Place-Based Education in Philadelphia. United States: Lexington Books., and eventually sickle cell research.[16]Nelson, A. (2011). Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. University of Minnesota Press. Self-defense for the Panthers was understood to mean building resistance “against all negative forces in the world”[17]Pope, R. J., & Flanigan, S. T. (2013). Revolution for breakfast: Intersections of activism, service, and violence in the Black Panther Party’s community service programs. Social Justice … Continue reading — “poor medical care, unemployment, slum housing, under-representation in the political process, and other social ills that poor and oppressed people suffer”[18]Newton, H. P. (1980). War against the Panthers: A study of repression in America (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz)., whether coming from inside or outside of the Black community. 

State, missionary, and other white “philanthropic“ schools were focused on Black enfranchisement, which meant not only the implicit and explicit teaching of white supremacy and Black inferiority, but teaching those skills and modes of conduct that would see Black people remain subordinate. What these schools offered — and continue to offer today — were the “soft skills” (e.g. “professional conduct”, compliance, “respect”, “punctuality“) needed to work for others — the teachers, administrators, bosses, owners, who, through the mechanisms of the money economy, act as mediators between people and their fundamental needs. 

On the other hand, the Black pedagogical focus on material skill building emerged from an assessment of “the objective situation and environment of the black people to be affected”, and the need to develop the “tools and skills necessary to deal concretely with this reality”.[19]Churchville, J. (1970). On Correct Black Education. In Wright, N. (1970). What Black Educators are Saying. Hawthorn Books. It disrupted the alienation of our labor, dissolving the enclosure between labor and livelihood.

In Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois writes about the contradiction of Education for black people, then as now. What use is education if our lot is to ever be second-class citizens: the cooks and servants of Du Bois’s day, the retail, service workers, and prison inmates of today? If our votes are not counted, or do not count “by force or by fraud”, what more can education do, with respect to black people’s powers of self-determination? Du Bois suggested that an understanding of this futility predisposed Black people toward seeking a more practical education, one that equips us with the means to navigate a hostile society.[20]Du Bois, W. E. B. (2012). The Souls of Black Folk. Dover Publications.

The historic debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, with respect to the best strategy for Black liberation, initially concerned which competencies were more critical for us to learn: the academic, building both our capacity for self-governance as well as more fluently navigating the white world, vs. the cultivation of material skills which might enable some degree of self-determination. 

This difference in priorities preceded Du Bois and Washington’s debate, manifest on the level of individuals and families. For some, academic learning, including reading literacy, was understood as empowering for the very reason it was so violently prohibited: a better understanding of law, politics, labor contracts. Yet at the very moment of liberation, whether by flight, revolt, or civil war, it was also understood that Black people would need to know the material skills necessary for survival such as growing food, constructing shelter, and self-defense. 

In truth, this bifurcation of the intellectual and the material was a false one, and with emancipation, Black people immediately set to the task of educating themselves and each other along both pathways. The real difference in strategy between Du Bois and Washington did not concern which skills were most important, but whether or not Black people should prioritize self-determination and the realization of our inherently equal standing, or whether we should strive to enter the workforce, seen but not heard, as a means surviving the inevitable violence of white supremacy. 

Where this understanding of the synthesis of Black matter and spirit is lost, yielding to the mechanisms of enclosure, it effects a reversion into the contentious dialectic between the cultural and political, a core tension which tears through the broader corpus of Black pedagogy. 

Cultural Education

Black pedagogies, in addition to responding to the social, economic, and political domination of Black people, have always contained a strong cultural current, of restoration, preservation, and in some cases creation, as with those ideologues who sought to cultivate an “ahistorical mystique of global blackness and invented Africanness”. [21]Rickford, R. J. (2016). We are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. Oxford University Press.

The cultural imperative mostly extends from the Diaspora’s experience of cultural alienation, specifically the suppression and erasure of our African origins. The degree to which the cultural imperative informed the ideologies and practices within the broader set of Black pedagogies has varied widely throughout history, and even served as one of the principal dividing lines between Black liberation theorists and activists. 

This Black pedagogical tension was most pronounced during the Black Power era of the 1960s and 1970s, as theorists and activists responded to the general disillusionment with the limited victories of the Civil Rights Movement. While the debate is often reduced to a binary between race and class essentialists — a simplification both “sides” used against the “other” — the reality is far more nuanced. 

It has been generally, if not universally understood, that the fight for Black liberation necessarily involves both a political and a cultural dimension, and that the two are more or less inexorable. For the so-called “cultural nationalists”, cultural restoration was itself a political strategy, in how it grounded Black people in their own history, identity, and spirituality, in explicit rejection of what they saw as the spiritual vacuousness and hyper-materialism of white and European thought. They regarded black and white as “discrete and homogenous categories, hermetically sealed and locked in combat”.[22]Rickford, R. J. (2016). We are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. Oxford University Press.

The “revolutionary nationalists” agreed on this role of culture, but felt that a focus on culture alone was too limited in scope, for the fact that it did not inherently contend with the material, political, and economic realities of Black life.

Another point of contention had to do with the role of white people within Black movement ideology; ironically, both “sides” accused the others of being co-opted in some way by a white establishment, either ideologically, with the prevalence of European (especially Marxist) thought in some circles, or socially and economically, where Black movements relied on capital from white institutions, including the State.

The different approaches of the cultural and revolutionary nationalists were more aligned than they were different, and their goals were more or less the same: “to bolster the academic skills and self-image”, to decolonize minds, and to “nurture the next generation of activists” who would “pursue, indeed prefigure, black cultural and political sovereignty”. The ultimate expression of Black self-determination for both was Black nationhood, variably conceived as a shared cultural-intellectual formation within the existing structure, or a “material reality, crystallizing in an emerging network of independent enterprises”. For both, education was seen as a principal site of struggle, and they sought to create new institutions that could “function as self-contained communities and embryos of the coming nation”.[23]Rickford, R. J. (2016). We are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. Oxford University Press.

As the divergent streams of the Black Power movement crossed, clashed, converged, intertwined, and frayed, what is most revealing is how they ultimately withered. If the goals of Black pedagogy are self-determination and liberation, which are fundamentally incompatible with racial capitalism embodied by the state, then the true extent to which various Black pedagogies hew to those core goals is revealed through the state response: with attempts to assimilate or exterminate.

Cultural nationalism, due to its myopic focus, and strong patriarchal undercurrent, “threatened to reduce emancipation to an act of culture or a psychic quest”. Because it did not threaten the political and economic orthodoxy, it was an easy target for assimilation. It would be “commoditized, appropriated by liberal and conservative forces, and stripped of oppositional meaning”, while its institutions eventually capitulated to “the brittle tenets of corporate multiculturalism.”[24]Rickford, R. J. (2016). We are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. Oxford University Press. The revolutionary nationalists, on the other hand, faced a relentless and concentrated assault by the state, which included surveillance and infiltration, a highly publicized culture war, and blatant military-scale violence. 

Sprouting from this terrain of struggle, while rejecting the cultural/political divide, culturally relevant (or sustaining) pedagogy [25]Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 465–491.[26]Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. the Remix. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 74–84.[27]Paris, D. (2012). Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy: A Needed Change in Stance, Terminology, and Practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93–97. recognizes the need for education to provide students of color with sociopolitical awareness, that they may better navigate and challenge inequitable systems. It promotes the agency and self-efficacy of students of color, a recognition that our identities and culture can and must be sustained against erosion by white supremacy. 

Real education, voting power, social and economic mobility, personal sovereignty and self-efficacy for black people are viewed as direct threats to white supremacy. This is because black people, relieved of the burden of our presumed inferiority, are thereby initiated into our own power. It is the mere scent of this that has positioned the white power establishment in direct and often violent opposition, though in the case of CRP, the strategy has been to subsume its tenets, or at least its trappings, into white liberal hegemony.  

Political Education

If the overarching goal of Black pedagogies are to move Black people toward self-determination, then it is also understood that such a condition is impossible without a dismantling and reconstruction of a social and economic order which would see us remain subordinated to the state and capital. For the Black Panthers, political education “exposed the system that oppresses, its mechanisms, and the method by which it reproduces itself”, as a “precursor toward revolutionary action”.[28]Hughey, M. W. (2007). The pedagogy of Huey P. Newton: Critical reflections on education in his writings and speeches. Journal of Black Studies, 38(2), 209-231.

Accordingly, the Black Panthers’ Intercommunal Youth Institute taught “the skills necessary for survival in racist, fascist America [to] benefit the masses of people, as opposed to a small ruling elite.[29]Newton, H. P. (1971, March 27). Huey P. Newton Intercommunal Youth Institute. Black Panther, D, E. [PDF] The primary objectives of the Pan African nationalist schools which emerged around the same time, were “sociopolitical and counter-hegemonic”.[30]Rickford, R. J. (2016). We are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. Oxford University Press.

Political education begins with centering and listening to those who the program aims to liberate. It is not just about cultivating agency within the existing system, but really getting at what people need, what they want, and what are the barriers to fulfillment. The Mississippi Freedom Schools formed their curriculum around three key questions: 

  1. What does the majority culture have that we want? 
  2. What does the majority culture have that we don’t want? 
  3. What do we have that we want to keep?

As Moten points out, the third question of the Freedom School curriculum is the most essential, because it asks people to move beyond the presumption “they were living a life of absolute deprivation – that they were nothing and had nothing”.[31]Moten, F., & Harney, S. (2013). The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Minor Compositions. This requires an intentional positioning, for each person to “confront the questions of who he is, and what his world is like, and how he fits into it or is alienated from it”.[32]Fusco, L. (1991). Freedom Schools In Mississippi (1964). The Radical Teacher, 37-40. These questions situate the Freedom Schools in a long lineage of Black liberation work, expressed more recently in the work of the Black Youth Project (BYP 100). 

Everyone invested in collective liberation must answer the following questions critical to determining the health and success of our movements: Who am I? Who are my people? What do we want? What are we building? Are we ready to win?[33]Carruthers, C. (2018). Unapologetic: A Black, queer, and feminist mandate for radical movements. Beacon Press.

In the song K.O.S. (Determination), Talib Kweli asks:

at exactly which point do you start to realize
That (life without knowledge is death in disguise?)
That’s why, knowledge of self is like life after death
apply it to your life, let destiny manifest[34]Black Star (1998). K.O.S. (Self-Determination). On Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star. Rawkus Records.

Self-knowledge is an antidote to the “living death” of being Black in America; more specifically, the project of assimilation and subordination. The erasure of our history and connection to place — our indigeneity — comprised a kind of death; so the recovery/restoration of that knowledge is like a rebirth. So did the Black Panthers want “an educational system that will give our people a knowledge of self.”[35]Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. (1966). Ten-point Program. 

The Panthers’ educational programs strived to provide Black youth with an education that would make them “fully capable of analyzing the problems they will face and to develop creative solutions to deal with them”. Although the Intercommunal Youth Institute in Oakland taught a wide range of subjects in accordance with the community’s needs, from math and science to reading and history to dance and music, they were perhaps best known for their political education (PE) classes, which attempted to “teach the children how and why it is necessary to be critical of the situation the world is in, to foster an investigative attitude, and to provide a framework for the comparison of different peoples and their politics”[36]Hilliard, D. (2008). The Black Panther Party: Service to the people programs. University of New Mexico Press..

The goal was to foster, on the community level, a deeper systemic political analysis, steeped first in Marxist and Maoist thought, but eventually incorporating critiques of both. Party members were required to “engage in a constant transformative process that stemmed from reading, observing, dialogue, and civic engagement”.[37]Dyson, O. L. (2013). The Black Panther Party and Transformative Pedagogy: Place-Based Education in Philadelphia. United States: Lexington Books. Young people were invited to apply their learning to “the physical and social phenomena of their community firsthand and test out their theories for making basic changes through practical activity.[38]Hilliard, D. (2008). The Black Panther Party: Service to the people programs. University of New Mexico Press.

Yet revolutionary Black educators also understood that education was reproduction — the “transfer [of] our heritage of knowledge to succeeding generations”[39]Hilliard, D. (2008). The Black Panther Party: Service to the people programs. University of New Mexico Press., to “instill in its subjects the values, ideology, and vision of the system” [40]Churchville, J. (1970). On Correct Black Education. In Wright, N. (1970). What Black Educators are Saying. Hawthorn Books. —  and felt the gravity of their responsibility to provide young people with the skills to “translate what is known into their own experiences and thus discover more readily their own”.[41]Hilliard, D. (2008). The Black Panther Party: Service to the people programs. University of New Mexico Press.

Black political education has never been abstract or purely academic, because as Bissau-Guinean intellectual Amilcar Cabral recognized, “liberation requires sober confrontation of objective realities”, and that movements must be built around “material needs, not obtuse doctrines”. So did the Lynn Eusan Institute’s “grassroots, democratic tactics reflected the pragmatism and material needs of the people it endeavored to serve”.[42]Rickford, R. J. (2016). We are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. Oxford University Press.

Where the purpose of education is to reproduce relations of domination, the skin color of he who delivers such content and practices is irrelevant. Black pedagogies are not so-called for the identity of the practitioner, but for their role in affirming, sustaining, enhancing Black culture and Black life. Black pedagogies must cultivate different “modes of production”, different “productive activities” that are in service of the liberatory project. 

Where any of us use our education to join the establishment, to become an agent of an oppressive system, we are, as Guyanese scholar-activist Walter Rodney rightly identified “enemies to the people until we prove otherwise”.[43]Rodney, W. (2019). The Groundings with My Brothers. Verso Trade. Rodney understood his role as a “guerrilla intellectual”[44]Adeleke, T. (2000). Guerilla Intellectualism: Walter A. Rodney and the Weapon of Knowledge in the Struggle for Black Liberation. Journal of Thought, 35(1), 37-59. to encompass three fundamental obligations: 1) to “attack those distortions which white imperialism, white cultural imperialism, have produced in all branches of scholarship”; 2) to “move beyond his own discipline to challenge the social myth […] about the multiracial society”; 3) most critically, to “attach himself to the aativity of the black masses”.[45]Rodney, W. (2019). The Groundings with My Brothers. Verso Trade.

The guerrilla intellectual must “create a linkage between the theoretical underpinnings of his convictions and the practical realities of the experiences of the masses”.[46]Adeleke, T. (2000). Guerilla Intellectualism: Walter A. Rodney and the Weapon of Knowledge in the Struggle for Black Liberation. Journal of Thought, 35(1), 37-59. For Rodney, where these three charges were not taken up, the Black intellectual was “not fulfilling any function as far as our people are concerned, except the function of oppressing them”.[47]Rodney, W. (2019). The Groundings with My Brothers. Verso Trade.

As an educator, and as a scholar, Rodney’s work focused on teaching and writing Black people back into the histories from which we have been erased or subordinated to endless accounts of white achievement or greatness. He felt it was his responsibility to “reverse this trend through critical researches into African history and culture”.[48]Adeleke, T. (2000). Guerilla Intellectualism: Walter A. Rodney and the Weapon of Knowledge in the Struggle for Black Liberation. Journal of Thought, 35(1), 37-59. As with many others in the Black Radical Tradition, Rodney sought to highlight and elevate the rich cultural and material contributions of African people the world over, particularly powerful where they emerged from centuries of struggle. 

For Rodney, “academics and activism were integrated and inseparable in the pursuit of equality, justice and a common humanity”. His practice was one of “grounding“ — “a sitting-down together to reason” — with anyone who was willing to listen, converse, exchange ideas, and teach. Rodney “grounded” both inside and outside the university, in schools, sports clubs, garbage dumps, churches, or even the fugitive space of the Jamaican gullies — “dark, dismal places with a black population who have had to seek refuge”.[49]Rodney, W. (2019). The Groundings with My Brothers. Verso Trade.

The revolutionary pivot of grounding is in the explicit positioning of Black people, wherever they may live, however they may be positioned socially or economically, as people with intrinsic value, as experts who had something worthwhile to contribute: to culture, history, ethics, art, music, ontology — indeed, everything — and toward the larger conversation around struggle and liberation. This turn, which aligns with (though it predates) Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed, is critical to the Black pedagogical goal of self-determination, in how it removes the white settler as the fulcrum, as the prism through which we see each other, and the world. 

our historical experience has been speaking to white people, whether it be begging white people, justifying ourselves against white people or even vilifying white people.[50]Rodney, W. (2019). The Groundings with My Brothers. Verso Trade. 

This practice of grounding foreshadowed the emergence of participatory action research (PAR) as a viable epistemology, unsettling the often exploitative relationship between the academy and its “subjects”. Grounding provided novel “insights into the true character of society and culture” and, in the process, undergoing what [Amilcar] Cabral called ‘a spiritual reconversion of mentalities,’ indeed a ’re-Africanization’ process that is a prerequisite for liberation”.[51]Adeleke, T. (2000). Guerilla Intellectualism: Walter A. Rodney and the Weapon of Knowledge in the Struggle for Black Liberation. Journal of Thought, 35(1), 37-59. 

Community Education

One of the very first projects of newly emancipated Black people was to build and run their own schools. As the state schools began to proliferate, official records indicate that the vast majority of Black people — ninety percent — did not attend. But these figures excluded attendance at Black church schools, which had been in operation since just prior to emancipation.[52]Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Univ of North Carolina Press. After generations upon generations of white paternalism, Black people were skeptical of the ability of white institutions to educate their children in the ways that mattered. This commitment to community control reflects the larger goal of self-determination, and runs through the continuum of Black education, from the original church schools, through the Liberation and Pan-African Schools in the 70s, up through the present day practice of Black-operated charter schools.

The insistence on community control was about more than distrust for the white establishment; it was about a fundamental difference in values. The hyper-individualism of the white middle class was an affront to Black values, which were “communal rather than individualist, cooperative rather than competitive”, and based upon “principles of collective work and responsibility.[53]Podair, J. E. (1994). “White” Values,“Black” Values: The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Controversy and New York City Culture, 1965–1975. Radical History Review, 1994(59), 36-59.

This clash between white individualism and radical Black pluralism came to a head during the Ocean-HIll Brownsville conflict in New York. In the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education, there was much disillusionment with its actual impacts in Black communities across the country. Forced integration on the one hand resulted in a pronounced backlash in the form of white flight, with white families fleeing to the suburbs to escape the “threat” of Black proximity. Where schools were funded by the tax base, these white families took their financial resources with them, as well as their social capital — their “wages of whiteness”. 

On the other hand, Black students entering white schools often found themselves embedded within small sociopolitical war zones, fodder for the culture wars as they were subjected to both emotional and physical abuse. Back in the neighborhoods from which they came, resources remained scarce — that is, withheld — by the state, or squandered by white school staff who “were convinced lower-class black students could not learn, and responded to this self-fulfilling prophesy with indifference and benign neglect”.[54]Podair, J. E. (1994). “White” Values,“Black” Values: The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Controversy and New York City Culture, 1965–1975. Radical History Review, 1994(59), 36-59.

At the same time, there was a growing rift within the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), between a smaller caucus of Black teachers known as the African-American Teachers Association, and the majority white and Jewish membership, which would eventually see the ATA split from the UFT entirely in 1967. The fault line ran through a fundamental difference in values, between the white middle class values of individualism and “race-blind meritocracy”, and the radical vision of pluralism  espoused by the ATA which gave primacy to racial identity, and “viewed groups, not individuals, as the defining units of American society”.[55]Podair, J. E. (2008). The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis. United States: Yale University Press. 

The race-blind meritocratic view obscured the unique challenges of being Black in America behind the premise of a “culture of poverty”, which pathologized poor and working class Black families. Although some proponents of this ideology attempted to say the culture of poverty was not race-specific, the Moynihan Report in 1965 made the explicit connection to Black families. In The pretense of race-blind meritocracy was exposed as a fraud in the derogatory sentiments of white teachers toward Black students. 

The push for community control finally gained some traction when the New York Board of Education, with support from the mayor, and funding from the Ford foundation and the New York Urban Coalition, allowed for the creation of three smaller “demonstration” school districts[56]Podair, J. E. (2008). The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis. United States: Yale University Press., one of which was in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville area of Brooklyn. 

The new community-appointed school board developed its own rubric for hiring new teachers, dispensing with the civil service examination that many Jewish teachers had relied upon as “objective” evidence of their qualifications to teach at any school. The new school board “demanded control over personnel, curriculum, and finances within the Ocean Hill district, further inflaming relations with a UFT rank-and-file fearful of displacement“[57]Podair, J. E. (1994). “White” Values,“Black” Values: The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Controversy and New York City Culture, 1965–1975. Radical History Review, 1994(59), 36-59.. These fears would be realized when the board moved to reassign eighteen staff (eleven teachers and eight administrators) — all white — which returned accusations of racism, anti-Semitism in particular, and eventually precipitated a city-wide teacher’s strike. 

While the story of Ocean-Hill Brownsville is rich in its historical significance and implications for race relations in the nation at large, my interest here is in the social and cultural shifts effected by the transfer of power to community control. The experiment was rife with quintessentially Black innovations, such as the implementation of nongraded instruction, and the removal of grade levels altogether, implicitly resisting enclosures of community, space, and time. Black culture and history were taught “on their own terms, in its own right, and from a black perspective”, as opposed to “emphasizing the black ‘contribution’ to Western or American culture”.[58]Podair, J. E. (1994). “White” Values,“Black” Values: The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Controversy and New York City Culture, 1965–1975. Radical History Review, 1994(59), 36-59. This reframing de-prioritizes enfranchisement as the goal of Black pedagogy, and rejects enclosures of experience wherein the narrative of Black life is mediated by encounters with the state, capital, and the dominant culture. 

This fundmental difference in practice — collectivist instead of individualist, cooperative instead of competitive, steeped in culture rather than “race-blind”, and rooted in specific community contexts instead of standardized and universalized — has been exemplify in many places around the country, throughout history, wherever Black people have created their own educational models.

BLKARTSOUTH, a community-based writing and acting workshop in New Orleans, turned radical study group and Black nationalist collective, “bought and prepared food collectively and practiced communal child care, striving to eradicate individualism and model the transition to a communitarian society”. The Pan African Nationalist Schools of the 60s and 70s served as “cooperatives, collectives, cultural centers, organs of community action and agitprop, and laboratories for a spectrum of ideas”. The Nairobi Day School “sought to nurture a future cohort of selfless, dedicated East Palo Alto leaders”, who would contribute to the larger project of nation building. This community-mindedness was not limited to the immediate locality, but extended to the perceived global African nation, to which they would export their knowledge, skills, and practitioners as needed.[59]Rickford, R. J. (2016). We are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. Oxford University Press.

The Black Panthers, as laid out in their Ten Point Program, understood that liberation required “the means of production [to] be taken from [white] businessmen and placed in the community” and for “housing and the land [to] be made into cooperatives so that our community […] can build and make decent housing for its people”.[60]Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. (1966). Ten-point Program. Aligned with their core value of intercommunalism, the Panthers’ political education classes “extended the educational parameters beyond the four rooms of a typical classroom to that of a globalized community”.[61]Dyson, O. L. (2013). The Black Panther Party and Transformative Pedagogy: Place-Based Education in Philadelphia. United States: Lexington Books. At the aptly named Intercommunal Youth Institute, “everything [was] done collectively in order to develop an understanding of solidarity and camaraderie in a practical way”.[62]Hilliard, D. (2008). The Black Panther Party: Service to the people programs. University of New Mexico Press. 

The Institute was situated within a larger Community Learning Center (CLC), which offered adult education classes, hosted community events, held political rallies, and provided a meeting place for political groups. The intergenerational character of the CLC is emblematic of Black refusal of the the school-imposed enclosures which separate young people’s education from the broader set of community needs. Young people were taught to see “the community and the world [as] classrooms wherein learning occurs through observation and experience as well as study”.[63]Hilliard, D. (2008). The Black Panther Party: Service to the people programs. University of New Mexico Press.

Where Black pedagogies have been in conflict with, suppressed or subsumed by dominant culture and praxis — informed by white supremacy, capitalism, and “middle-class values” — Black people have had to carve out fugitive spaces within these oppressive systems, or even escape them entirely. 

Fugitivity & Marronage

Since the time of our first dislocation and dispossession, Black people have to continued to “engage in a rich cultural tradition of resistance and renewal to construct alternate forms of reality”.[64]Schnyder, D. (2010). Enclosures abound: Black cultural autonomy, prison regime and public education. Race Ethnicity and Education, 13(3), 349-365. In order to survive in a white supremacist capitalist system, we  have resorted to fugitivity and marronage. In the literal sense, fugitivity refers to physical escape from oppressive structures or systems, the most obvious example being flight from slave plantations. Marronage refers to the creation of hidden safe spaces, most often in uncolonized wilderness, where the Maroons — escaped prisoners of the slave economy — set up their own communities. These communities, while mostly Black, also provided sanctuary to Indigenous and white people fleeing from the settler colonial system, because they operated by expressly oppositional logics. 

Marronage has been essential to the Black freedom struggle, serving as both physical spaces of refuge, and operating as mythical spaces within the Black imaginary. As Malm suggests, if “the New World had all been cleared and turned into one giant plantation”[65]Malm, A. (2018). In wildness is the liberation of the world: On maroon ecology and partisan nature. Historical Materialism, 26(3), 3-37., taking away the possibility of marronage inherent to the wild, slavery itself might have persisted indefinitely. In this section I will provide some historical context on fugitivity and marronage before exploring how these two strategies — or better yet, lifeways — have manifested in Black pedagogies past to present. 

Black fugitivity has always been a revolutionary practice, our way of “actively running towards versions of liberation…that explicitly and proactively refuse black people’s oppression”.[66]Warren, C. A., & Coles, J. A. (2020). Trading spaces: Antiblackness and reflections on Black education futures. Equity & Excellence in Education, 1-17. Where direct escape from the plantation was not possible, fugitivity took other forms, particularly with respect to education, as Black people risked dismemberment and death to carve out fugitive spaces where they learned to read, strengthened community ties, and even made plans for more sustained revolt. It was in these spaces where Black — that is, African — cultures were stitched back together from the tatters of generational memory, and ways of being in right-relationship with each other once again became possible, in resistance to enclosures of the house and field, language, and history. 

While the conceptual boundaries between marronage and fugitive spaces are fluid, I contend that the critical difference is that marronage requires a particular connection to a land base “that might offer the space and allegiance necessary to create new cultures, new societies, and new worlds antithetical to the exploitative aims of the agents of capitalism”.[67]Wright, W. J. (2020). The morphology of marronage. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 110(4), 1134-1149.

In this, marronage is the ultimate rejection of the logics of exploitation and extraction, by not only divesting Black bodies from exploited labor, but moving toward a kind of “re-indigenization”, restoring some semblance of the connection — spiritual if not also physical — between those bodies and the lands from which they were dislocated. This is a return to more “African-centered perspectives”, which are “particularly effective in facilitating people’s reconnection to places and the environments/lands they inhabit”.[68]Engel-Di Mauro, S., & Carroll, K. K. (2014). An African-centred approach to land education. Environmental Education Research, 20(1), 70-81.

However, Wright distinguishes “petit” and “grand” marronage, the former being temporary, even fleeting, and operating within the broader confines of an oppressive system, while the latter speaks to a more permanent refuge, geographically and topographically situated so as to resist or even obstruct encroachment from oppressive agents.[69]Wright, W. J. (2020). The morphology of marronage. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 110(4), 1134-1149. I would say that fugitivity and marronage occupy a spectrum of relations between domination and liberation. 

Domination → Fugitivity → Petit Marronage →
Grand Marronage → Liberation

Both before and immediately following emancipation, Black people were building our own “schools” — fugitive spaces which operated fearlessly in the face of both physical and symbolic violences, whether from the planter classes, the state, or white liberal paternalism. As discussed in Native Assimilation, Black Subordination, and the Enclosure of Knowledge, Northern and Southern elites found common cause in the project of Black subordination, the difference between them a matter of means, not ends. While the planters scrambled to have laws passed forbidding Black education, the northerners descended in droves to set up new schools that would properly situate newly freed Black people as subservient and dependent upon the alleged intellectual and moral superiority of white people. 

In response, the vast majority of Black children did not go to these schools run by white northerners, opting instead for education programs run out of Black churches.[70]Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Univ of North Carolina Press. While some accounts held that most Black people were uneducated during this period, they disregarded Black people’s efforts to educate ourselves in these fugitive spaces.

Fugitivity “dealt three blows to the system”[71]Malm, A. (2018). In wildness is the liberation of the world: On maroon ecology and partisan nature. Historical Materialism, 26(3), 3-37.. by divesting from it property, labor and its products, and reproductive capacity. In similar fashion, schools literally cannot operate without students — or where those students occupy spaces outside the physical or social enclosures. Without student labor, or rather, the product of it: test scores, projects, other “deliverables”, schools have no claim to legitimacy or even purpose. So those students who do not comply, who do not “work”, threaten to delegitimize the school as an institution. 

Without students in their designated physical spaces attending to their designated social and academic roles, there are no subjects upon which to reproduce the capitalist mode. There are no more compliant workers, no more eager consumers, and no more future teachers — a product of schooling themselves — to perpetuate the system. 

For students of color, who make up the majority of students in U.S. public schools, self-efficacy can be damaged by teacher bias, “matter-of-fact acceptance of black underachievement”[72]Podair, J. E. (1994). “White” Values,“Black” Values: The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Controversy and New York City Culture, 1965–1975. Radical History Review, 1994(59), 36-59., often subtle and unobserved by the teachers themselves. Institutional racism can effects an erasure of students of color, where they do not see themselves represented in curriculum or instruction. 

During those long years in the Oakland public schools, I did not have one teacher who taught me anything relevant to my own life or experience. Not one instructor ever awoke in me a desire to learn more or question or explore the worlds of literature, science, and history. All they did was try to rob me of the sense of my own uniqueness and worth, and in the process they nearly killed my urge to inquire.[73]Newton, H. P. (1995). Revolutionary suicide. Writers and Readers Publishing.

Where students see disproportionate implementation of “zero tolerance” or other punitive disciplinary measures, it replicates their experiences with law enforcement and society at large.[74]Butler-Barnes, S. T., Chavous, T. M., Hurd, N., & Varner, F. (2013). African American adolescents’ academic persistence: A strengths-based approach. Journal of youth and adolescence, 42(9), … Continue reading

The significance of self-efficacy cannot be overstated. Where a student loses self-efficacy, they “give up”, not on learning itself, but in their ability to operate within particular school settings. They disengage, because no one wants to occupy a space — physically or mentally — where they feel incompetent. It is better, then, to immerse themselves in spaces where they feel validated, often social spaces, whether online or among their peers. Some turn to escapism, such as TV, movies, or video games, the latter particularly enticing for how it allows players to occupy a different reality, a different version of “self” wherein they regain that lost self-efficacy.

Within the school, students carve out fugitive spaces[75]Warren, C. A., & Coles, J. A. (2020). Trading spaces: Antiblackness and reflections on Black education futures. Equity & Excellence in Education, 1-17., such as stairwells, where they can “reduce some of the alienation and ‘otherness”[76]Carter, D. J. (2007). Why the Black kids sit together at the stairs: The role of identity-affirming counter-spaces in a predominantly White high school. The Journal of Negro Education, 542-554., seldom-trafficked hallways, and video camera blindspots — or by clustering together at the same tables in the cafeteria.[77]Tatum, B. D. (2017). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?: And other conversations about race. Hachette UK. What is rightfully seen as “disruptive behavior” is often misunderstood in terms of what exactly is being disrupted. 

Where the carceral dimensions of schools make physical fugitivity too high risk or even impossible, Black students may create fugitive space within the classroom, defying white middle class norms and expectations of compliance and uncritical knowledge reproduction. This, in effect “redraw[s] the boundaries of race and gender performance,” and “decenter[s] traditional Eurocentric norms for what counts as knowledge”.[78]Warren, C. A., & Coles, J. A. (2020). Trading spaces: Antiblackness and reflections on Black education futures. Equity & Excellence in Education, 1-17. 

The Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia had a culture of constantly recycling and repurposing material from their natural surroundings, not out of fear of engaging with the outside world (where re-enslavement was always a threat), but in an explicit “critique of the [Capitalistic Enslavement Mode of Production] and the exploitative labor, sexual, and social conditions it fostered”.[79]Sayers, D. O. (2014). A Desolate Place for a Defiant People

Perhaps this same disposition is embodied in the ways students “repurpose” classroom materials, to create something of more immediate interest or greater utility in resisting the exploitative conditions of schooling. In the capitalist mode, where “play” and “work” are situated in diametric opposition, the very act of repurposing a school object as a toy — which often means destroying it with respect to its assigned purpose — is both an act of rebellion and a recognition of the intrinsic material value of the object before and beyond its school purpose. In the same way, fugitivity transforms the student from the object of schooling, to a subject with intrinsic, rather than mere use or exchange value, “a notion utterly indigestible for capital”[80]Malm, A. (2018). In wildness is the liberation of the world: On maroon ecology and partisan nature. Historical Materialism, 26(3), 3-37.

Yet while this provides young people with some reprieve, it offers no sustained resistance to schooling. The most “disruptive” are either coerced back into compliance, detained, suspended, or expelled, setting them on a path toward carceral control. 

Those who ask why and question too often are labeled trouble makeres and asked eto be quiet and love it or leave it. And those who recognize the situation as a farce and rebel through disruption are banned forever.[81]Newton, H. P. (1971, March 27). Huey P. Newton Intercommunal Youth Institute. Black Panther, D, E. [PDF]

I would agree with Malm that “all sustained slave revolts must acquire a Maroon dimension”[82]Malm, A. (2018). In wildness is the liberation of the world: On maroon ecology and partisan nature. Historical Materialism, 26(3), 3-37., which means that any education for liberation must take place in physical and social spaces outside the school. Black people — youth in particular — understand that liberation is impossible within schools because the school’s very purpose is to maintain the status quo of capitalist exploitation and extraction. Even where they are unable to articulate it in those terms, young people’s sense of their own intrinsic freedom, reinforced by the USAmerican mythos of freedom, is ever at odds with the country’s and therby the school’s material reality. So they instinctively seek out spaces where some measure of freedom might be exercised.

The most radical incarnation of fugitivity in this case would be the total rejection of the school. Higher school dropout rates amongst Black, Brown, and Indigenous youth are most often pathologized, as character flaws or cultural deficits, but within the context of schooling as domination, dropping out of school amounts to an act of refusal — a form of fugitivity in the explicit, embodied rejection of subordination. It is only outside the schools that young people experience real community, not always mediated by capital or contigent upon their subordination. It is usually outside the school where students can “work” in ways that feel meaningful, connected, and directly relevant to their material needs and concerns. Even before the first schools for Black people were set up by the state and wealthy northern “benefactors” post-emancipation, we have sought and created our own educational alternatives. 

Though our relationship had been strained, fraught, mediated by the institution of slavery, there has remained some ancestral grasp of the primacy of land. Black people have understood the connection to land as rooted in survival, because land contains both the mode and means of life outside of — free of — capitalist production, whether in the form of slavery, tenant farming, or industrial labor. 

Even in micro, engagement with land can allow one to tap into something deep and ancestral, dissolving enclosures of space, time, and culture to facilitate a dialectic reversal “into the cipher of a possible future freedom”.[83]Malm, A. (2018). In wildness is the liberation of the world: On maroon ecology and partisan nature. Historical Materialism, 26(3), 3-37.. Where people exist in right-relationship to land, as in Indigenous African thought systems, it allows the cultivation of “communalism, interconnectedness, spirituality and interrelationship […] centered on the interconnected nature of reality”.[84]Engel-Di Mauro, S., & Carroll, K. K. (2014). An African-centred approach to land education. Environmental Education Research, 20(1), 70-81.

In Green Pedagogies: The (Re)turn to Land-Based Learning I discuss the potential for urban agriculture as both pedagogy and site of refusal, grounded in a deep relationship to land, and thereby also a kind of petit marronage. Moving toward a praxis of grand marronage in the contemporary context will require would require a complete restructuring of society — geographic, topographic, social, political, economic — that is, decolonization in the most literal sense. From an educational standpoint, this means orientation toward land-based pedagogies, and explicit political education. 



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