On Striving for Education and Equality
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free,”
prophetically counseled the great abolitionist, orator, author and former enslaved African American, Frederick Douglass (~1818 – 1895).
Through his hard-won transformation from enslaved to free man, Douglass gained insight into two divergent worlds—one slave and one free. Through his oratory and written skills, he brought the slave world to the free world. Both worlds were forever changed.
Frederick Douglass also observed,
“Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”
With their newly acquired knowledge, formerly enslaved persons witnessed a different world in which “all men are created equal.” Learning and education became the “North Star” that would lead the people to their promised land of freedom and equality.
Our simultaneous longing for learning and equality has been a constant driving force in the African American community; it unifies us collectively while energizing us individually. Yet it also challenges us in ways that can splinter the community causing antagonism between the educated and the uneducated, the skilled and the unskilled, and, eventually, the economically mobile class and the stagnant, lower-class masses.
Far from intending to divide the Black community, Cambridge-educated theologian, Alexander Crummell (1819 – 1908) founded the American Negro Academy in 1897. Its primary goal was to foster scholarship and promote literature, science, and art among African Americans thus creating an educated Black elite that would serve as teachers and leaders in the Black community. After his death, W.E.B. Dubois took the helm and established the Academy's presence, which remains an issue of reflection and debate today.
A Harvard-educated sociologist, activist, historian and Pan-Africanist, W.E.B. Dubois (1868 – 1963) continued Dr. Crummell’s vision of creating a Black educated elite. In the book, The Negro Problem (1903), edited by Dr. W.E.B. DuBois and, paradoxically, Booker T. Washington discusses the Talented Tenth as “leaders of thought and missionaries of culture” that would be classically educated and constitute the leadership of the African American community.
“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.”
~ W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
This was the Talented Tenth. But W.E.B. Dubois's view on education expanded beyond the limitations of intellectualism:
"Education and work are levers to uplift a people. Work alone will not do it unless inspired by the right ideals and guided by intelligence. Education must not simply teach work—it must teach Life."
~ W.E.B. Dubois, The Negro Problem
Work was the focus of Booker T. Washington (1856 - 1915) who valued labor over intellectual pursuits. Although an educator, civil rights activist and Founder of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington stressed the need for vocational training.
“No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.”
~ Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery
In contrast to both men, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875 – 1955) brought a faith-based quality to education and learning, requiring all her students to study, work (bake pies) and attend church daily.
“Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without it, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.”
~ Mary McLeod Bethune
As an educator, civil rights activist, stateswoman, philanthropist and entrepreneur, her steadfast faith was a support rather than a burden and also pushed her to work for racial and gender equality. Teaching by example, Mary McLeod Bethune was committed to educating girls in basic reading and math skills as well as economic independence. In 1904, she founded the Daytona School for Girls, and later she owned several businesses, started civic and political organizations for women, organized the National Council of Negro Women, advised American presidents and founded the Bethune-Cookman College. Like Frederick Douglass (and countless others), Mary McLeod Bethune noted and experienced that,
“The whole world opened up to me when I learned to read.”
And Mary McLeod Bethune, saw clearly that education in the United States was directly linked to political and civil rights on a global scale.
"Education is the great American adventure, the world's most colossal democratic experiment."
Democratic values, civil rights and education are unquestionably linked. This is clearly shown by the denial of education to African Americans, even after the end of the slavery. Throughout the Jim Crow period, the major focus for African Americans was on achieving equality in employment, housing, and education. While the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund fought tenaciously for access to equality in education and other rights, many politicians and organizations in the southern United States worked consistently to restrict access to education.
The result of work by the NAACP, Legal Defense led by William Hastie (1904 - 1976), Thurgood Marshall (1908 - 1993), and Walter White (1893 - 1955) was a series of decisive victories before the Supreme Court, the most notable being Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which demanded integration in the public school system.
“WE conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate but equal is inherently unequal.”
Chief Justice Earl Warren,
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
May 17, 1954
Twenty-years before the landmark Brown case, foremost African American history scholar and Harvard graduate, Carter G. Woodson, spearheaded the movement for the proper education of Black children while observing that the American education system is so invidious and damaging that it is comparable to actual violence. In his groundbreaking and still relevant book, The Mis-education the Negro, he notes,
“To handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching.”
~ Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-education of the Negro (1933)
And the perennial educator in Dr. Woodson was undeniable.
"Real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better."
~ Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-education of the Negro (1933)
We can see that learning and equality are mirror causatives. Learning promotes the desire for equality. And equality undoubtedly results in learning in immeasurable ways. Without one, the other is diminished or even non-existent. The presence of both synergistically uplifts and expands our life experience.
Returning to W.E.B. Dubois in his legendary book, The Souls of Black Folk, we see that learning and equality transcend race and color and any perceived limitations imposed by law, society or the mind.
“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color-line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of the evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius... and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.”
~ W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
With learning, we live “above the Veil” in the space where freedom and equality reign supreme.
The vision and counsel of Frederick Douglass endures: Learn to read and you will be forever free.