How Black Teachers Avoided White Surveillance to Teach the Truth

Feb 10, 2022 12:00:00 AM


A few weeks ago, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum gave a speech that disregarded the rich history of Indigenous people, saying that [white people] birthed a nation from nothing. It is this very thing, what W.E.B. DuBois termed the propaganda of history, which led Dr. Carter G. Woodson to create the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).

Much like Santorum, the “scholars” of Woodson’s time, some who taught him while at Harvard, believed that Black people offered very little to the culture of the United States. Such belief was crystallized with the advent of the film “Birth of a Nation.”

Certainly anti-Black sentiment helped lead to the creation of ASALH but as Dr. Jarvis Givens details in chapter two, Woodson’s inspiration ran deeper than simply an institution to refute white pseudo-scholarship per se:

Woodson’s Association was unprecedented… While no brick-and-mortar school, [ASALH] symbolized something much greater: an institution founded by a Black school teacher with the intent of rewriting the epistemological order, the basis of all curricula and school models.”

With the creation of ASALH, Woodson created an academic resource for Black educators to assure that the intellectual development of Black children happened in its proper context. Black teachers, along with Woodson, largely made up the membership, were a reliable source of financial support and provided pedagogical insights to build the organization.   

Basically, this was a brain trust for Black teachers, created by a Black teacher, to serve as the watchman on the wall. Through ASALH, Woodson gave Black teachers the resources to teach truth as he stood guard. Being the watchman on the wall placed ASALH in position to meet the needs of Black junior scholars as well. 

Woodson harkened back to his historical training where Black achievements were blatantly denied by his “teachers,” as well as his clashes at Howard University with the schools white president for censuring “communist-leaning” texts. 

Woodson was aware of the tightrope Black educators had to walk in order to satisfy white surveillance in order to teach Black children truth.

For that reason, Woodson became the watchman. He refused the suggestions of white philanthropists who sought to gain a measure of control over his advances. Thankfully, he could rely on Black people to contribute the funds to sustain the organization. Black educators knew the importance of ASALH and the importance of such an organization remaining independent of white people. 

It is important to note women’s centrality to the success of the organization.  Black women made up the majority of teaching professionals then, as they do now. 

The work of Woodson and ASALH was lauded by Malcolm X. He said that Woodson’s work “opened [his] eyes about Black empires before the Black slave was brought to the United States.” W.E.B. DuBois opined, “No white university ever recognized [Woodson’s] work; no white scientific society ever honored him. Perhaps this was his greatest reward.”

Black teachers may never be esteemed by white scholars and/or white institutions for their genius. But we must do as Woodson did: Look to Black people for our validation as they look to us to validate their humanity.

Rann Miller

Rann Miller is a director of a federally funded after-school and summer program in southern New Jersey. He spent six years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. Rann is the creator, writer and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. His writing on race and urban education has appeared in  SalonAlterNet, and the  Progressive, where he is an education fellow.

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