Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Securing the Right to Learn: The Quest for an Empowering Curriculum for African American Citizens

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Securing the Right to Learn: The Quest for an Empowering Curriculum for African American Citizens

Article excerpt

This article chronicles a journey to achieve the type of education that focused on the battles to secure access to schooling and a curriculum for full citizenship. The pursuit of educational opportunity has been and continues to be tortuous, with each step toward progress met by a major societal set back. As the fate of individuals and nations is increasingly tied up in their ability to learn, the quest for access to an equitable, empowering education for African Americans has become a critical issue for the American nation as a whole.

Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental . . . . The freedom to learn . . . has been bought by bitter sacrifice. And whatever we may think of the curtailment of other civil rights, we should fight to the last ditch to keep open the right to learn, the right to have examined in our schools not only what we believe, but what we do not believe; not only what our leaders say, but what the leaders of other groups and nations, and the leaders of other centuries have said. We must insist upon this to give our children the fairness of a start which will equip them with such an array of facts and such an attitude toward truth that they can have a real chance to judge what the world is and what its greater minds have thought it might be. (Du Bois, 1949/1970, pp. 230-231)

In the early days of the Civil Rights Era, W. E. B. Du Bois (1949) made a case for the kind of empowering education that has, for more man 300 years, animated the African American quest. He argued strenuously not only for access to schools, but for the kind of education that would enable students to think critically and take control of the course of their own learning, to determine their own fate, and lead their own people.

On the occasion of The Journal of Negro Education's seventy-fifth anniversary, this article chronicles the journey to achieve the type of education Du Bois described, focusing on the battles to secure access not only to schooling, but also to a curriculum for full citizenship. The pursuit of educational opportunity has been and continues to be tortuous, with each step toward progress met by a major societal set back that has caused the losses of gains that appeared won and a continuing struggle to regain lost ground and move ahead. It is a history that flies in the face of recent descriptions of Black culture as anti-intellectual (Ogbu, 2003), demonstrating the tenacity, passion, and conviction with which Blacks have agitated for the right to a high quality education throughout American history.

One sign of this commitment is seen in the steep increases in African American educational attainment since the U.S. Census began keeping records by race in 1940, from under 8% with a high school education to over 80% in 2005, and from only 1% with a college education to nearly 18% (see Table 1). These gains have been hard-won. Still more difficult, though, has been the process of securing the kind of education that enables social empowerment as well as selfsufficiency, a struggle that continues today.

In order to understand the place of the curriculum in what Frederick Douglass (1845/1968) referred to as "the pathway from slavery to freedom" (p. 49), it is important to recognize that the denial of formal education was a cornerstone of the effort to maintain slavery and economic control over Blacks. Prior to the Civil War, a small number of free Blacks in both the North and South attended school; however, the vast majority were enslaved, illiterate, and, ultimately, legally prohibited from being taught to read.

In 1850, approximately 1.7% of the Black population ages 5-20 attended schools, mostly in the North (Bond, 1934). Still, Blacks in the South clearly understood the power of literacy and education. As Frederick Douglass (1845/1968) recalled of his experiences in a clandestine Sabbath school,

These dear souls came not to Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged. …

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