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A Portal into an Interior World

With the recent release of works both new and classic, historian Jarvis Givens provides a glimpse into the vibrancy of Black student life in America
Jarvis Givens
Photo: Ethiopiah Al-Mahdi

Associate Professor Jarvis Givens has spent his career working at the intersection of 19th- and 20th-century African American history, the history of education, and theories of race and power in education. His recent book, Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, which traces the history and unique challenges and conditions of Black teaching and learning in America, received six prizes, including the 2022 Outstanding Book Award from the American Educational Research Association and the 2022 ASALH Book Prize for the best new book in African American history and culture. 

The year 2023 promises to be an equally big one for Givens, starting with the publication of his latest book, School Clothes: A Collective Memoir of Black Student Witness. He also penned the introduction for a major new edition of Carter G. Woodson’s seminal The Mis-education of the Negro, which appeared in January.

Here, Givens offers his thoughts on Woodson’s legacy, his new book, and how Black History Month should be approached today.

What have you learned from your deep acquaintance with Carter G. Woodson that all educators and learners should know?

The Mis-Education of the Negro

I’m proud to have been asked to write an introduction to the newly published Penguin Classics edition of The Mis-education of the Negro — I’m hopeful this edition will expand the reach of Woodson’s ideas to whole new audiences. I’m also excited because it’s a teachable version of this classic work, with the new resources I’ve included in the edition, and it’s the first time since Woodson released the book through his own small publishing house 90 years ago that it is being published by a major press, allowing his words to have a broader reach. I think this is long overdue. 

Your new book School Clothes is a “collective memoir” of the experiences of Black students — tell us what these stories collectively mean, and what they memorialize for us as readers and learners?

School Clothes

I use these historical fragments, if you will, as portals into an interior world of Black student life. I call this a collective memoir because the individual stories become “a communal utterance” (to borrow a phrase from my colleague Skip Gates, which is how characterizes the slave narrative, a genre that is the foundation of all African American literature — and of Black education studies, for that matter). I guess what I’m trying to say is that each of the narratives is at once about the particular experience of an individual student while also teaching us something about a collective experience — what it has meant to be and become a Black student in American schools. 

And it’s clear from the accounts, and the events covered, that Black students were deeply aware of their collective experience as a distinct group of racialized learners, with a distinct and distinguishable history in U.S. schools. They were aware that people questioned their intelligence, not just as an individual, but as members of a larger group — they knew that their education was once criminalized, then heavily surveilled — they were aware that school boards shortened the Black school year so that African American children could work as field hands — they witnessed the capturing of fugitive slaves in the 19th century, in the South and the North; they witnessed the image Emmett Till’s mutilated body. And they understood that these things reflected their shared vulnerability. But they also witnessed teachers do things in their classrooms to subvert power, when white school officials visited their schools; they were equipped with cultural armor — songs, stories, and Black intellectual traditions they understood to be critical to their survival and their dignity as human beings. This is to say, they also experienced beautiful and affirming education at times. Black student life has always been lived and experienced at the interstices of such opposing forces; one imposed by the world, and another set forth from within the veil. 

The second reason I call the book a collective memoir has to do with my personal connection to the work. In a sense, School Clothes is part autobiographical — or at least, I name and take seriously my relationship to the work as a Black scholar, and, of course, a former Black student. I don’t rely on my personal narrative in excess — because while important, I think it is insufficient as a basis for any general claims about Black student life on its own. That being said, my life and my experiences do come to bear on my interpretations, and through my analysis; it even shaped a kind of intuition about where to look for the particular sources I assembled to write such a book. My decision to write the book in this way is deeply informed by my historical training in African American Studies — as well as my own education. In the process of writing Fugitive Pedagogy, I realized that my experiences as the student of nearly all-Black teachers, in all-Black or predominantly Black schools my entire life, until college, are deeply instructive for how and why I study the history of Black education. I was encouraged to lean into this part of the work by a dear friend and mentor, Theresa Perry [Ed.D.’82]. She helped me understand that I have a privileged perspective when it comes to this work, and that I shouldn’t throw that out. That it would be foolish to do so. The work demands all of that stuff I got from my education before and outside of graduate school seminars and my years studying primary and secondary historical sources. I had to find a way to bring those worlds together.  

So, it’s for those reasons that I call it a collective memoir. The methods employed to write the book, but also my posture as a scholar and that of the students — their looking back at a world that condemns them and then choosing to give an account of themselves and all that they witnessed.

What meaning should educators, students, and families make of Black History Month now, in 2023?  

We can look back to Woodson here, and to his work to expose and eliminate anti-Blackness in education and society, by asserting a more expansive vision of human experience that disrupted the prosthetic racial hierarchies structuring our world. Woodson was the child and student of formerly enslaved people, he was a teacher for nearly 30 years, and in 1912, he became only the second Black person to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. When he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, then initiated Negro History Week in 1926 — now celebrated as Black History Month — he drew from his own experiences, intent on redefining the social mission of education. He insisted on finding tangible and authentic ways to take stock of what a full education would mean for Black people — the opportunities it should provide, the cultural identities it should make room for, and the kind of outcomes it should deliver and value. The aims of education for Woodson were not about students becoming well-adjusted to the society as it existed, having recognized how violent it was, particularly for Black people. 

"It’s meaningful when we engage with Black culture and intellectual traditions in a way that illuminates the connections between the past and present."

So, Black History Month is meaningful when we are reflecting on those goals. It’s also meaningful when we engage with Black culture and intellectual traditions in a way that illuminates the connections between the past and present. And it’s meaningful when we use it as a launching pad for sustained study and struggle against anti-Blackness year-round, beyond February. That’s why it was originally created. 

Woodson saw that “Negro History” (what we know today as African American Studies, because it was always about more than history in any rigid disciplinary sense) and Negro History Week were necessary for combatting anti-Blackness in the modern world. His convictions remain relevant now, especially as we’re seeing new debates about race, historical knowledge, and school curricula. The attacks on the new AP African American Studies course, by Florida’s governor and others, is evidence of this. The assertion that African American Studies “lacks educational value” is no different — in my eyes — than the white professors Woodson encountered at Harvard in 1908 who told him that there was no such thing as Negro history and culture, or at least none worthy of respect. His entire mission in life was to refuse that lie, and to model a new way of thinking and knowing.  

Black History Month is an occasion to fully consider, and respond to, all of this — and to continue to engage deeply with the study of Black life as an essential part of our struggle for more justice, more truth, more beauty, and more good in our world.  


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