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On the Enormous Contributions of Black Autodidacts

On the Enormous Contributions of Black Autodidacts

“Philosophers have long conceded, however, that every man has two educators: 'that which is given to him, and the other that which he gives himself. Of the two kinds the latter is by far the more desirable.”

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 History scholar Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson (1875 – 1950) echoed this ancient wisdom for his 20th century African American audience in his groundbreaking book, The Mis-education of the Negro (1933).

He continued, 

“Indeed all that is most worthy in man he must work out and conquer for himself. It is that which constitutes our real and best nourishment. What we are merely taught seldom nourishes the mind like that which we teach ourselves.”

 African Americans have taken this principle to heart. Self-teaching was the one of the few ways open to enslaved African Americans for hundreds of years.  Any kind of “academic” learning by slaves was severely punished.  Yet many studied literacy and numeracy—all in absolute secrecy.

 Unbeknownst to the slave owners or even the enslaved persons themselves, auto-didacticism (or learning without the benefit of a teacher or institution) had been an honorable method of learning for centuries.  For many, it was a pathway to freedom, upward social and economic mobility, and entrance into the learned classes. 

African Americans—during slavery and beyond—understood the importance of education and fought hard to obtain academic-type skills. As noted by historian Heather Andrea Williams in her enlightening book, Self-taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (2007), they focused on literacy (reading and writing), but faced many obstacles.

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 “Why was literacy so sought after and forbidden? The motivations on each side were the same. Whites feared that literacy would render the slaves unmanageable. Blacks wanted access to reading and writing as a way to attain the very information and power that Whites strove to withhold from them. Literacy had practical implications for enslaved people. When James Fisher’s owner sold him away from his mother in Nashville, Tennessee, Fisher decided that he must learn to write in case he ever had the opportunity to forge a pass and escape.”

Writer, abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass (c. 1818 – 1895) displayed a rare fixation on self-learning.  Although he learned basic reading and writing from a slaveholder’s wife, he contemplated,  

"Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost or trouble, to learn how to read.”

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845)

Eventually, he discovered that, 

 “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.” 

And angrily recognized,

“To deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes against human nature. It is easy to deny them the means of freedom and the rightful pursuit of happiness and to defeat the very end of their being."

~ Blessings of Liberty and Education (1894)

 Frederick Douglass was, of course, talking about formal education in reading, writing and mathematics.  This “classical” form of education was strongly supported by scholar W.E.B. Dubois (1868 - 1963) but less valued by educator and activist, Booker T. Washington (1858 - 1915) who favored technical and vocational learning. 

But Frederick Douglass certainly was not the first auto-didactic, oppressed or otherwise.  

Greek philosopher and teacher, Socrates (c. 470 BC - 399 BC), was a firm believer in the auto-didactic approach to learning. Developing the Socratic method of learning in which the teacher questions the student in such a manner that the student discovers his or her own answers later laid the foundations for Western philosophy and logic. He acknowledged,

“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”

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An early and influential claim supporting auto-didacticism was proclaimed in the book, Alive, Son of the Vigilant. Written in 1160 by Arab Andalusian Islamic philosopher, Ibn Tufayl (1105 - 1185) whose story focuses on an auto-didactic, wild-boy prodigy. The boy eventually masters the study of nature through instruments and the study of God through meditation. 

Autodidacts are, indeed, found in nearly every discipline, some even creating their own. Notable (and upon reflection, unsurprising,) auto-didacts include Leonard da Vinci (artist, inventor), Frank Lloyd Wright (architect), William Faulkner (writer), Herman Hesse (writer), Abraham Lincoln (politician) and Isaac Asimov (writer) who proclaimed that “Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”

Less celebrated but equally important African American autodidacts have also emerged, producing “greats” such as Booker T. Washington (former slave/speaker/statesman), Matt Henson (Polar explorer), Bass Reeves (former slave/U.S. marshall), Granville Woods (inventor), Ida B. Wells (investigative journalist/educator/former slave), Stephen Bishop (Cave explorer/former slave), Benjamin Banneker (astronomer/cartologist), Nat Turner (minister/Slave rebellion leader), Malcolm X (activist/orator), Phillis Wheatley (poet/former slave), and many more. 

 Years later, Dr. Carter G. Woodson admiringly noted,  

 “Practically all of the successful Negroes in this country are of the uneducated type or of that of Negroes who have had no formal education at all. “ 

 Instead, they displayed the sheer will and determination  (traits commonly found in autodidacts) to overcome the racist system that aimed to diminish their abilities and relegate them to a permanent underclass. 

As observed by Heather Andrea Williams in her book, American Slavery: A Very Short Introduction (2014),

 “Jefferson and other whites had constructed a belief system that proclaimed black people their inferiors, then asserted that the alleged lack of intelligence actually rendered black people only suited for manual, mostly agricultural labor.”

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Yet self-taught African Americans—though less celebrated and accepted—continued to produce great literature, technological advancements, medical devices, educational institutions, personal care products and even routes to the North Pole!

Their curiosity, independent thought, self-discipline, hard work and dedication to learning--again, all attributes of autodidacts--enabled them to defeat the system that labeled them as “inferior.” It still does.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson summed up the auto-didactic potential of the individual:

 “No man knows what he can do until he tries.” 

 Now consider this…

In 1773, poet and former slave, Phillis Wheatley wrote,

 On Being Brought from Africa to America

 ‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither fought nor knew.

Some view our fable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’angelic train.

~ Phillis Wheatley

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Yet African Americans were still not considered capable of learning beyond basic manual skills. Despite their contributions in literature, science and other endeavors, most White people did not accept nor believe in their intellectual capabilities. Heather Andrea Williams discusses their disbelief in the prodigious Phillis Wheatley,

“Diminishing their intellect was yet another way to justify enslaving African Americans, and it had the added benefit of preserving some types of work for whites, and creating and maintaining clear social and economic boundaries between blacks and whites.” In an explicit challenge to African Americans’ intellect, eighteen prominent Massachusetts white men—including John Hancockand Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of the colony—examined Phillis Wheatley in Boston’s Town Hall in 1772 to determine whether she could possibly have produced the poetry she claimed to have written.” 

~ American Slavery: A Very Short Introduction (2014)

Heather Andrea Williams notes that Phillis Wheatley and other Black high-achieving autodidacts continued to threaten the White social order.  Black achievers were good not only for the individual but for the entire Black community. She says,

“Black teachers were not only the messenger; they were also the message.”

Autodidacts and other achievers learned the message.

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