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Fugitive Pedagogy in Black Education

How Black educators worked together, often employing covert actions, to lead valuable learning for students in the Jim Crow South.
Jarvis Givens EdCast graphic

The history of Black education is complex and rich, but often remains untold.

The deficit narrative of Black education remains dominant, even though the research of Assistant Professor Jarvis Givens uncovers some of the early ways that Black teachers pushed back against that lens. Givens, an interdisciplinary historian, calls the ways Black educators worked together, often employing covert actions in the Jim Crow South classroom, a “fugitive pedagogy.”

"In this tradition of fugitive pedagogy, [these Black teachers] were operating in an oppressive school structure, but they were clear to draw distinctions about their political investments and those of the people in power shaping the school structures in which they're operating,” Givens says. “These were educators who chose to be more than just practitioners."

In this episode of the EdCast, Givens explains the term “fugitive pedagogy” and how the theory and practice was passed down from generation to generation of Black educators.

Read an Ed. magazine article on Givens and the Black Teacher Archive project.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Harvard's Jarvis Givens tells the history of black educators and what they did in the shadows of schooling during the Jim Crow South. Their actions often covert and passed down from the enslaved and beyond defy the deficit lens taken when we think of black education in America. Much of the story begins with Carter G. Woodson, a pivotal figure in black education and the pioneer of black history month. He was a central figure in what Jarvis calls a fugitive pedagogy that took place for generations among black educators and still impacts education today. I want to show more about fugitive pedagogy, but first I asked Jarvis what led him to study this history.

Jarvis Givens: My experience was that many of these teachers that I had at this school that I attended in Compton were actually Southern migrants, and in many ways were kind of putting into practice things that they themselves had experienced growing up in the Jim Crow South.

My experience growing up was very different. I did not live in the Jim Crow South. [inaudible 00:01:17] California is very different, but obviously there are certain kinds of politics that shaped the education that they experienced that carried over to the way in which they framed the work that they were doing in the school that I attended. I can just give you an example. Something very simple, for instance, every morning before we started school, we sang the black national anthem and recited poems by black poets like Langston Hughes. That was kind of a daily ritual of my educational experience from preschool up and through eighth grade.

Then even when I went to high school, I went to a high school that had a very large representation of black teachers. The school was over 75% black and had a very strong academic culture, but also a strong legacy of African-American educators there, some of whom also had ties to the South that I later found out. That kind of set me on a path to ask more questions about the history of black education.

I took more classes and then I learned about these textbooks. I was just fascinated by this idea that there were black teachers in the early 20th century, like Carter G. Woodson, who wrote textbooks. It raised a lot of questions about the dominant narratives of black education that often paint it to be just the stories of kind of dilapidated buildings and separate and unequal and that's it. Whereas this idea of Carter G. Woodson, the child of former slaves, writing curriculum as a critique of the curriculum imposed on African-Americans through the American school, that signaled for me a very different tradition and a more complicated story than the one I felt like I had been exposed to in kind of popular discourse and the narratives that circulate in the public imagination about the black educational past.

Jill Anderson: What is fugitive pedagogy and what led you to discovering that?

Jarvis Givens: Speaking in general terms, I use the term to frame African-Americans physical and intellectual acts that explicitly challenged their experiences of domination in the American school. For me, the term is important because it emphasizes how a lot of this tradition transpired in discreet or partially concealed fashion. A lot of the tradition that I'm interested in recuperating were things that black American educators did in the shadows of the public eye, things that they would have not necessarily have always publicized to white school authorities before thinking about these black educators in the Jim Crow South.

This is something that I just know to be true about black political life and black cultural life more broadly. We know that black people living under persecution, whether we think about in the period of slavery or during Jim Crow, much of black political life happens in this time of counter public space and kind of beyond the eyes of white surveillance. I started to find these stories from students, from teachers, that revealed this kind of veiled world of black education. Again, this is part of Vanessa Siddle Walker's work as well, that helped point us in that direction. I kind of just wanted to pick up and to talk about that and bring that out in the open for us to be able to study and to appreciate.

The language intentionally built from this premise that the origin story of black education is a story of subversion. When we think about the fact that during the period of enslavement, the overwhelming majority of black people were living in a context where anti-literacy laws and anti-literacy ideology really created barriers for African-Americans to have access to basic literacy. A lot of this kind of early traditions around the politics of black education are developed in that context where black education and criminality are essentially equal transgressions. The very act of learning was deemed criminal activity.

There's a quote from Frederick Douglass's slave narrative where he overhears his master talking to his mistress who had been teaching him, Frederick Douglas to read and write and master, as Douglas refers to him in the text, he says, "If he learns to read and write, he'll be 'running away with himself'."

There's a way in which this idea of black education and literacy and independent thought, if you will, was akin to black revolt, enslaved people running away, and essentially it threatened the very institution of slavery. When we think about the politics of black education that emerged in that context, where black literacy was literally understood as a fugitive practice, the language of fugitivity is really trying to draw a narrative line from those stories of enslaved people secretly learning to read and write, or as Carter G. Woodson put it in one of his books, as they were "snatching learning in forbidden fields."

I wanted to draw a narrative line from those subversive practices, those concealed practices in the time of enslavement to some of the kind of concealed political work that black teachers were doing even after black education was technically legal in the South, in the United States, more broadly. Because as we know, there continued to be this kind of violent white opposition to black education. Even as black people could kind of learn out in the open in ways that they weren't able to before prior to the civil war, there were still restraints and a lot of restrictions. They always had to kind of tow this line in terms of how much they could really reveal about their political desires to be recognized as fully equal to white Americans, their former masters, et cetera, et cetera.

This is still very complicated to reign when we think about this. A lot of the political desires and really the work that their education was supposed to do continue to be concealed and kind of held to themselves in a certain way. There's always just this kind of negotiation of what can and cannot be said and fully exposed as they're developing their own strategies for kind of trying to transform their material conditions and the politics shaping their lives, really. I wanted to kind of connect those things together.

Jill Anderson: You uncovered a lot of great examples of what fugitive pedagogy looks like. I'm hoping you can share maybe some of your favorite discoveries.

Jarvis Givens: The story that really spoke to me, and that really is the story that changed the entire frame and the kind of narrative arc of the text is when I wrote my dissertation I was really focusing on looking at Carter G. Woodson's ideas, exploring this legacy of black teachers writing textbooks, looking at Carter G. Woodson, but also black teachers before him. I started looking at Woodson's partnership with these black teacher associations. I was just trying to talk about all of these different moving parts of this very dynamic world that black educators were part of and that Woodson's life represented.

I came across this story by Jerry Moore, who was eventually moved to DC, but his family roots are in Webster Parish, Louisiana. But he's telling this story about his teacher, Tessie McGee, at the Webster Parish training school and how she introduced her students to Carter G. Woodson's textbooks. He tells the story about her secretly reading from Carter G. Woodson's textbook in their classroom because at this point, Louisiana is what we would call a textbook adoption state. There is a set curriculum that the Louisiana State Department of Education has established. There are two textbooks that are adopted and approved. In the absence of textbooks, there are outlines that teachers are given that they're supposed to teach for social studies and history curriculum.

Jerry Moore tells the story of her having that outline on the desk, but oftentimes she would, instead of reading to them from the outline, she would read from Carter G. Woodson's textbook that she kept in her lap. Then he talks about this moment when someone enters the classroom, and then she stops reading from Carter G. Woodson's textbooks and begins reading from the outline and then person leaves the classroom and he says, "Her eyes went back to the book in her lap."

For that moment that Jerry Moore recalls about this encounter between his teacher and the experience that he witnessed in the private space of their classroom just signaled so much about the meaning, not just of the textbooks and the importance of the narratives, but the kind of ecological context of these schools that shaped every interaction and how teachers and students had to kind of negotiate that in real time.

This idea of when power walks into the room and the teacher concealing what it is that she's actually trying to teach the students to kind of perform compliance in the presence of anyone could have potentially have walked in her classroom. That just signaled to me the kind of careful ways that black teachers worked to negotiate power in the context of Jim Crow schools. It just added a different layer of meaning to the importance of Woodson's textbooks. In that very textbook, he documents this kind of secret educational practices of black people during the period of enslavement.

There was a way in which this narrative of subversion just seems to be embedded in the story at multiple levels. I wanted to find a way to capture that and to talk about that. That's one of the stories that really came to mind that opened up this way of thinking about the stories of the teachers that I'm writing about.

I think about the experience of this one boy named Richard Parker. This is in a book called Slave Testimony that John Blasingame, the late historian, put together of all these different slave testimonies. Richard Parker talks about how he would carry a copy of the Webster Blue Back Speller on his head concealed underneath a hat. This is in the state of Virginia. Virginia has anti-literacy laws as early as 1819. That very idea of the kind of spelling book concealed under a hat on his head in my mind is directly connected to the textbook in Tessie McGee's lap underneath the desk, similar to stories about enslaved people going into the woods at night into what they called pit schools, literally into pits in the ground, literally under the earth, to try and engage in the practices of learning to read and write. All of those kinds of stories I think reflect a much broader tradition and a set of politics surrounding black education that these are examples of fugitive pedagogy, and they kind of demonstrate the range of the experiences that I'm trying to get at.

Jill Anderson: I think one of the things that's important to mention for people who maybe don't know, is this was incredibly bold, brave actions on the part of black educators to be concealing texts and doing these things because some did lose their lives because of it.

Jarvis Givens: Again, I'll mention the work that Vanessa Siddle Walker did in terms of revealing these kind of silent partnerships between black teachers and the NAACP. That's a part of this tradition of fugitive pedagogy, black teachers not being allowed to make it known that they are members of the NAACP after it becomes illegal in particular States in the South, or if white school authorities would have found this out, they would have been fired because they would have been understood as being kind of politically rebellious and challenging white authority in the Jim Crow regime in a particular way.

But Vanessa Siddle Walker demonstrates how you have all these black teachers secretly funneling money to the NAACP. That's not the story that we tend to think of because they were intentionally keeping themselves out of the public eye in terms of this political activity that they were doing. And so, yes, absolutely, black people in general, when we think about the context of Jim Crow, were living under the threat of violence, especially when you were engaging in this kind of political organizing and activity, you became even more susceptible to those forms of surveillance and violence.

Jill Anderson: You've spoken a little bit about the importance of changing the language that we use when we talk about black education and why it's so important to have this term fugitive pedagogy. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Jarvis Givens: There's a quote that comes to mind from James Baldwin in his book The Fire Next Time. He says something to the effect of, for the horrors of Negro life, we have almost no language. I think that's the quote. I just think that that is so true. It's just that there is such complexity to how we make sense of the precarity of black life, but also the kind of vibrant and important and rich and beautiful kind of cultural aspects, that it just becomes important to be careful in terms of how we represent the experiences of black people. I'm always trying to be careful in the ways in which I represent black people in the contemporary moment, but also especially people who did so much to create so many of the opportunities that I've been able to benefit from.

But in many ways, these deficit narratives are also embedded in the historical stories and narratives that we tell about black education. I think about when I teach classes on the history of African-American education, or if I do a workshop, whether it be with some teachers or other folks, and I'll ask, "What are the first that come to mind when you think of the history of African-American education?" You can imagine what the list of things that will come up. Overwhelmingly, the stories about unequal resources, it's about underachievement, the achievement gap. It's about segregation. It's about Brown verses the Board of Education, so on and so forth. Of course, there are some people that will talk about the importance of black teachers and some other things that might complicate the narrative, but the imbalance is noticeable, to say the least. The language is often flat. When in reality, the heritage of black education is quite robust and dynamic. While we can use the language of separate and unequal to talk about inequality embedded in the institutional structures of schooling and education, that doesn't do much about explaining the kind of human experience of black people on the ground.

I find the language of fugitivity to be dynamic. I like the language because for me, it allows me to be truthful and honest about the violence and the narratives of aggressive neglect that black people experience when we think about inequality, but at the same time, it allows us to appreciate the human struggle, the sacrifice, and the kind of pursuit of a new world that black people were collectively engaging in at the same time.

Jill Anderson: Shifting to today, do you think fugitive pedagogy is still happening?

Jarvis Givens: I think there are elements of the tradition that I'm writing about that surface in the contemporary world, yes. Yes, I do. However, we live in a very different moment as it pertains to the kinds of violent surveillance experienced by the teachers that I write about in my book. I say that because it's important not to lose sight of that or make any false equivalence between then and now. But yes, absolutely. There are teachers in the contemporary moment that put the needs of their students over protocols imposed by school authorities, and people in power.

But to be honest, by my assessment, it's nowhere near the scale of what we see with the teachers that come up in this kind of networked world when we think about these black teacher associations that really built up over the course of a century that kind of perfected their craft and really established a kind of professional culture among black educators that had a level of political clarity that I don't necessarily know that I see on the same scale in the contemporary moment, even as we see kind of remnants of this tradition absolutely surfacing in the contemporary moment.

Jill Anderson:
What is something that all teachers can learn from fugitive pedagogy?

Jarvis Givens: There's a distinction between being in schools as educators and being of them. That's a very important distinction. It's important to be clear about where one's pedagogical objectives ultimately lie. The black teachers that I write about, they were educators operating in the context of Jim Crow schools, but they were not of those systems. I think that it's important to kind of name that. They had a political clarity about what they were there to do and core parts of their lessons began with the critique of the very structure in which they were operating. That kind of political clarity proceeded subject matter expertise.

Subject matter expertise is important, but it's insufficient in many ways, when we think about the larger kind of political stakes of these people's lives. Really, and even in the contemporary moment, when we think about what's politically at stake for students in many of our classrooms, some larger pedagogical vision has to frame the work, has to give it meaning beyond a procedural sense.

The question becomes, how does the vision that these teachers have align or conflict with the long and short-term needs of students and their communities, which then leads to the question of whether or not the teachers even have intimate knowledge of the needs of their students in communities. I think that that question of political clarity, having some sense of a political clarity and allowing that to shape one's work and knowing the distinction between what it means to be in schools versus being of schools, I think is very important. These teachers that I write about in this tradition of fugitive pedagogy, they were operating in an oppressive school structure, but they were clear to draw distinctions about their political investments and those of the people in power shaping the school structures in which they're operating.

The reason I feel so inspired when writing about these educators is because these were educators who chose to be more than just practitioners. They were scholars of the practice. This is not to say anything bad about what it means to be a practitioner, but I'm just saying that these were people who were practitioners, but understood their identity as practitioners to also have been scholars of what it was that they were practicing as educators. The best among them were very well studied on the subject areas that they taught, but also on the dynamics of power that gave form to the context in which they and their students were having to operate.

Jill Anderson: Jarvis Givens is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the author of Fugitive Pedagogy, Carter G. Woodson and The Art of Black Teaching. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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