This essay is part of a series entitled “From the Schoolhouse to the Field: Abolition Toward an Education for Liberation“.
Schooling as an institution, particularly as constructed by the state and the planter class, formulated education as “part and parcel of the larger political subordination of blacks”Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Univ of North Carolina Press., the assimilation of Native AmericansAdams, D. W. (1995). Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1875-1928. University Press of Kansas., and the overarching project of settler colonial exploitation.
Poka Laenui identifies five stages of colonialism: 1) the denial of the value of Indigenous cultures, which in turn causes indigenous people themselves to withdraw from their own cultures and even be complicit in ongoing devaluation; 2) the physical destruction of Indigenous symbols, art, sacred sites; 3) the reduction of indigenous cultural practices as “witchcraft” or “superstition”, juxtaposing them with pre-existing colonial representations of “evil”; 4) giving what remains of indigenous cultures a superficial, token respect, relegating them to a mythical/folkoric status; and 5) the complete appropriation and transformation of the remaining Indigenous culture, and its assimilation into the culture of the colonizers.Laenui, P. (2000). Processes of decolonization. Reclaiming Indigenous voice and vision, 150-160. Schooling was the primary apparatus used to “destroy minority cultures and to indoctrinate children into mainstream cultures”.Reyhner, J., Eder, J. (2017). American Indian Education, 2nd Edition: A History. University of Oklahoma Press.
White settlers, in viewing Black and Indigenous people as inferior, took distinct approaches to the two populations. For Black folx, the educational project was about subordination, a frequently reinforced reminder that we should be subordinate to white dominance, both as laborers, and as infantilized charges. The northern missionaries saw themselves as doing “God’s work“ by helping the “uncivilized victims” and teaching us “the values and rules of civil society.Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Univ of North Carolina Press.
Fears of a Revolutionary Literacy
The Haitian Revolution, Nat Turner’s rebellion, and the Denmark Vesey slave revolt created particular anxieties for the planter class who believed “an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro”Du Bois, W. E. B. (2012). The Souls of Black Folk. Dover Publications.. The power of literacy, after all, might encourage insurrection once enslaved people recognized that their conditions were neither ordained by God nor immutable. Bausell, S. B., Staton, T. A., & Hughes, S. (2020). Out of Site, Out of Mind: The Evolving Significance of Race in the Story of an Early Quaker-Freedmen School. American Educational Research … Continue readingGundaker, G. (2007). Hidden education among African Americans during slavery. Teachers College Record, 109(7), 1591-1612.
Southern states had already passed laws “making it a crime to teach enslaved children to read or writeAnderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Univ of North Carolina Press., but after the rebellions, the laws were more carefully enforced, and the penalties more severe. This reveals the correlation, in the slavers’ minds, between education and power, or rather, Black threat. As a result, by 1863, “less than 150,000 of the four million slaves emancipated could read and write”.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.
The planter class were of the belief that public education was an overreach by the state government, and that it “violated the natural evolution of society, threatened familial authority over children, upset the reciprocal relations and duties of owners to laborers, and usurped the functions of the church”.Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Univ of North Carolina Press.
There’s a clear ideological lineage between planter class beliefs and the 2012 Texas GOP platform, which opposed the teaching of “critical thinking skills”, which they felt would undermine parental authority. Not to mention the prevailing context of being against government intervention. It makes sense the south would be “against the government”, since “the government” was the one who ended the slavery economy. Another parallel, or lineage, is in the alignment of the attitudes of poor whites with planter class ideology, placing them in opposition to public education as well, against their own interests”.Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Univ of North Carolina Press.
Where the planters were against the education of poor white people, they saw Black people as incapable of learning, making any effort to educate us “an unjustifiable waste of private property for public disaster”.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. But when education widespread public education became inevitable, their agenda shifted to using education as a means of social control, which was perhaps more effective in quelling rebellion.
Schooling and the Reproduction of White Supremacy
The shift in thinking was that providing Black people with the right kind of education, as came to be offered at places like the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute —which would later become an Indian boarding school — then “caste distinctions and division of labor” (i.e. Black subordination) could be maintained. With this adjustment came the parallel belief that all white children must also be educated, so “they would be “properly prepared to maintain the supremacy of the white race”.Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Univ of North Carolina Press.
At the same time, settlers were debating the “Indian question” — that is whether indigenous people should be assimilated or killed. It was the position of “humanitarians” that education was the key to native assimilation, and that this effort could be even more effective if tribes were dissolved and reservations were broken up via allotment.Reyhner, J., Eder, J. (2017). American Indian Education, 2nd Edition: A History. University of Oklahoma Press.
Native students in boarding school environments were twice-condemned, left both unprepared to return to tribal life, but also unsuited to live like white people. In some cases, they were unable to speak either their Native language or English, leaving them “without a language”Reyhner, J., Eder, J. (2017). American Indian Education, 2nd Edition: A History. University of Oklahoma Press., which led to a breakdown in communication between children and elders, and weakened children’s sense of group identity. Native youth found themselves immersed in a world designed to erase their culture and identity.Criales, J. L. (2017). “My Obligation to the Doctor for his Paternal Care”: Eleazar Wheelock and the Female Students at Moor’s Indian Charity School, 1761–1769. Social Sciences and Missions, … Continue reading Again we see the logic of enclosure, applied here to both land and community.
In 2007, UN passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and only the US, Canada, and Australia — all three colonies that decimated and attempted to assimilate their indigenous populations — opposed it. Amongst the rights declared, was educational self-determination, the right to choose the kind of education children received, and to learn their native languages.Reyhner, J., Eder, J. (2017). American Indian Education, 2nd Edition: A History. University of Oklahoma Press.
Because native culture and family life outweighed the influence of missionary teaching, they sought to separate children from their families, placing them in white homes or boarding schools, effecting enclosures of family, community, and culture. The breakdown of Native families “led to the development of many of the social ills that still affect Native nations today, such as dysfunctional families and substance abuse”. Education for assimilation had a cascading effect across generations that inhibited the transfer of “the traditional skills, culture, and social connections of their Native community”, comprising enclosures of time, community, and experience.Almeida, D. (1997). The Hidden Half – A History of Native American Women’s Education. Harvard Educational Review, 67(4), 757-772.
There are few better examples of schooling as reproduction than the priority placed on learning Greek and Latin at Moor’s Charity School, founded in 1754 “with the goal of educating Indians, alongside a smaller number of whites, to become missionaries to various Indian tribes, where they would spread both the message of Christianity and the standards of English civilization.Criales, J. L. (2017). “My Obligation to the Doctor for his Paternal Care”: Eleazar Wheelock and the Female Students at Moor’s Indian Charity School, 1761–1769. Social Sciences and Missions, … Continue reading It was essentially a colonial pyramid scheme, by which Christianity and European values would continue to be reproduced and proliferated. The instruction at Moor’s Charity school was designed to assimilate Native women, while also being hyper-specialized that when they returned home to the reservation, they had no choice but to work as a servant in a white home.Almeida, D. (1997). The Hidden Half – A History of Native American Women’s Education. Harvard Educational Review, 67(4), 757-772.
Textbooks played a large role in the dual project of subordination and assimilation, by reproducing and projecting the racist ideas and values of white settlers.
by the stories they told and the ways they told them, the images they conjured, the language they employed, the futures they implied, and the futures they neglected, these texts also sought to promote particular identities among the freed people, to suggest particular aspirations, to privilege certain discourses and muffle, if not silence, others.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
The conservative textbooks stressed the expectation that Black people remain “faithful workers”, subservient to white people, and reserved no space at all for instruction in civics, let alone any ideas of political participation or power. They reinforced existing social roles wherein even free Black people were regarded as subordinate to their former slavers, a premium placed on “faithful labor”.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
Both the conservative and progressive texts saw fit to mention the Haitian Revolution, which for the previous seventy years was a source of great anxiety for the white landed class in the United States. The portrayals, as you might imagine, were quite distinct. In the conservative texts, liberation fighter Toussaint L’Ouverture was presented as a singular talent who guided his people to freedom, in stark contrast to other Black Haitians, who were depicted as devoid of agency or capacity for self-determination. The “freedom” secured by L’Ouverture took the form of a return to work on the plantation, albeit as paid laborers. The formerly enslaved were depicted as grateful and obedient.
Child on other hand, devoted fifty pages — by far the longest biography in The Freedmen’s Book — to a more comprehensive and nuanced account. She did not hesitate to portray the viciousness of the white planters, the duplicity of the petit-blanc, or the necessity of violence in the fight for liberation. L’Ouverture, for his part, was presented heroically, but also as a complex and flawed figure who after the war drew the ire of other Black Haitians for his conciliatory relationship with white planters. This is an important point, because presenting L’Ouverture simply as a hero would’ve been not only historically inaccurate, but created a narrow, unrealistic ideal, not allowing for all the complexity and nuance inherent to the human condition. The kind of unrealistic ideals that proliferate widely in textbook accounts of other famous figures from history, whitewashing some of their more egregious thoughts and actions.
The conservative texts crafted the paternalistic archetype of the benevolent white teacher, or former slaver turned magnanimous employer, who taught emancipated Black people how to work, how to behave according to white middle class norms, and how to maintain proper hygiene.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 Left to their own devices, the Black people in these texts were inherently lazy, predisposed to drunkenness and filth, and grateful for the patience and good will of the white masters who steered them in the right direction†.
The conservative texts constructed blacks as unrelentingly ignorant, retrograde, lazy, physically ugly, and immoral, a picture made more stark by the contrasting portrait of whites as cultured, benevolent, intelligent, constantly busy and efficient, handsome, and moral.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
The grateful and obedient worker was contrasted with the archetype of the Black criminal, he who refused common labor as a matter of pride, and turned to a life of thievery.†† This archetype is particularly instructive, because it juxtaposes the refusal to be subordinate with criminality. The not-so-subtle messaging here is that only through hard work, humility, and obedience, under the guidance of white masters, could a Black person’s inherent criminality be tamed. Resistance of any sort was to be rejected at every turn. It is not a leap to trace an ideological lineage to the paternalistic standards of today’s “classroom management”. Those who for whatever reason are unable or refuse to comply with school norms — deeply informed by white middle class norms of “proper” behavior — are inevitably the same ones who encounter disproportionate responses from school disciplinary mechanisms, which often segues into carceral control.
The conservative textbooks portrayed the former slavers in a positive light.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 The fact that all the writers of the textbooks were from the North indicates an empathy for Southern planters recently divested of their free labor force. Though these were same planters who were ostensibly their adversaries in the civil war, such class-based congeniality is easy to understand when one considers that these elite Northeners seldom shed blood for the cause. The war for them was perhaps equivalent to competition in the marketplace. For both the planters and the northern elites, the objective was “safe reform, that is, reform without revolt”.Watkins, W. H. (2001). The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954. United Kingdom: Teachers College Press.
These positive textbook depictions of white planters also suggest a sort of complicity between the landed classes North and South, in the transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. There was tacit agreement that in both contexts, Black people should be subordinate, expected to work dutifully for the white planters, as during enslavement, or to be chased north by white racial terrorists into the more complex mechanisms of subordination within the industrial system. Within the new economy, Black people would still be subordinate and dependent, alienated from both land and labor.
The slave catchers became the police, the overseers became the wardens, the managers, and the school principals. True power along this continuum remained in the hands of the “planters”, or “landed class”, now the wealthy elite of various industries — their wealth of course built on the original slavery economy.
† This kindly white savior archetype has found its cognate in any number of media since, from noble Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, to depictions of kindly white women in saccharine Hollywood melodramas like Dangerous Minds or The Blind Side.
†† Any initiative, toward or against subordination, was the province of men, while Black women were always portrayed as docile and subservient.
Regulation, Commodification, and the Enclosure of the Body