Communities and individuals often struggle with how to commemorate Black History Month, an occasion particularly relevant today given the resurgence of debates about race, historical knowledge, and school curricula. While there is no one “right” way to observe Black History Month, meaningful actions usually have characteristics in common: reflecting on the origins of Black History Month, engaging with Black culture in a way that draws connections between the past and present, and planning for sustained study and struggle against anti-Blackness year-round. To support this kind of thoughtful commemoration, I encourage everyone to read Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 classic, The Mis-education of the Negro, which advocated for all of these practices.
Black History Month, African American studies, and the many national initiatives designed to eliminate racism in education all have some ties to the work of a single man — Woodson — beginning more than a century ago. The child and student of formerly enslaved people, Woodson was a public school teacher for nearly 30 years, and in 1912, only the second Black person to earn a doctorate from Harvard. In 1926, Woodson inaugurated Negro History Week — now celebrated as Black History Month — through the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which he’d established years earlier (it’s the same organization that announces the annual Black history theme). Woodson’s critiques of American schooling emerged from rigorous academic study and a lifetime of personal experiences. He concluded that the violence Black people experienced was directly tied to systematic processes of mis-education experienced by all Americans, but they had particularly nefarious implications for Black people. As he proclaimed in the book, “There would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.”
In Mis-education, Woodson outlined why “Negro History” (the precursor to African American studies) and a commemorative holiday to popularize it were necessary for combatting the violent realities of anti-Blackness in the modern world. Distortions of Black life and culture were being systematically sustained through school curricula and societal representations, Woodson argued, and these narrative scripts justifying and motivating violence against Black people created an enduring social problem. Schools, education, and the system of knowledge had to be recognized, collectively, as a key battleground in Black people’s struggle for freedom. Perhaps, even, the primary battleground that set the terms for all others in the fight for racial justice. The book identified anti-Blackness in education as a fundamental problem at the heart of the Black freedom struggle.
Like Black History Month, Mis-education became iconic because it was deeply aligned with perennial struggles in African American life. Woodson named key dynamics in American education that generations of Black people worked to confront — underrepresentation of Black history and culture in curricula, the overrepresentation of European and white American history, white philanthropists’ and education officials’ paternalistic relationship to Black schools and educators, white suspicion of independent Black intellectual thought, and the need for a philosophy of education that was responsive to the needs of African Americans as a group forged through a distinct history (and ongoing reality) of anti-Black domination. Until Mis-education, no scholar of Woodson’s prominence had expressed so directly, or so forcefully, such an incisive social analysis of race, power, and education.
A central aim of Black History Month, as conceived by Woodson, was to infuse education for students (and the American public) with critical knowledge about racial domination, as well as complex portrayals of Black people’s resistance and human striving. The commemorative holiday, like the book, demanded that we redefine the social mission of education. More concerned with the kind of educational opportunities provided for Black students than with quantifying increases among the Black educated elite, Woodson demanded new metrics for measuring meaningful educational achievement, focusing on “whether these ‘educated’ persons are actually equipped to face the ordeal before them or unconsciously contribute to their own undoing by perpetuating the regime of the oppressor.”
For these reasons, Woodson wrote, “The education of any people should begin with the people themselves, but Negroes thus trained [in American schools] have been dreaming about the ancients of Europe and about those who have tried to imitate them.” Such mis-education diminished possibilities for a positive Black self-image, he insisted, and it impeded the development of necessary critiques of white supremacy.
The spirit of Woodson’s argument in Mis-education still resonates. The book widely circulated after Woodson’s 1950 death, especially following demands for Black studies in American colleges and universities in the late ‘60s. I first read it in the summer of 2007, after my freshman year of college, in a study group of five African American men. The book was required reading for the University of California, Berkeley chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the historically Black fraternity we hoped to join. We clung to Woodson’s words, shocked to be reading them for the first time — their relevance to our lives immediately apparent. Years later, Woodson’s text became central to my first book, Fugitive Pedagogy, and I regularly teach Mis-education in my courses at Harvard. Student responses are consistent: Woodson’s words from 90 years ago feel prescient to them. This could have been written today, many say.
I enjoy listening to hip-hop and R&B artist Lauryn Hill’s 1998 Grammy award-winning album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, probably the most popular memorialization of the book. But reading the book itself during Black History Month is my commemorative act, besides teaching the text year-round. My desire for a more teachable edition of Mis-education — one of the great books in Black studies — led me to prepare an updated version of this classic text. The 2023 Penguin Classics edition of The Mis-education of the Negro, to be released January 31, will be the first time this seminal book is published by a mainstream press, giving Woodson’s ideas broader reach. (My introduction in the new edition details Woodson’s biography and key educational and historical context.)
To honor Black History Month, I can think of nothing better than engaging in the kind of sustained study of Black life and culture that Woodson championed — the prerequisite for action.
Jarvis R. Givens is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a faculty affiliate in the department of African and African American studies at Harvard University. Send comments to email@example.com.