Counter-Memory and Race: An Examination of African American Scholars' Challenges to Early Twentieth Century K-12 Historical Discourses

Article excerpt

This article examines how African American scholars during the early twentieth century employed the genre of curriculum writing to challenge existing discourses of race. Drawing from the findings of a qualitative document analysis of textbooks created by Carter G. Woodson and Charles H. Wesley, this article illustrates how these authors used texts and images to counter dominant racial theories found in school text, academia, and the wider society. This work is significant because while the field of curriculum studies provides exhaustive texts about early twentieth-century contributions to curriculum, few of these texts seriously explore the foundational and theoretical insights of African American scholarship.


Social theorist and literary scholar Henry Louis Gates (1988) asserted that African Americans have been working to reconstruct the images constructed about them since the first boatload of enslaved Africans hit the shores of the United States. For example, from the nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, African American scholarship provided substantive counternarratives about African American history and imagery that would eventually trickle into the official academic and educational discourse (Banks, 1992; Ernest, 2004). However, the effort to reconstruct the imagery of the African American was in direct response to the existing racial theories about African Americans.

For example, several scholars (Fredrickson, 1979; Gates, 1988; Gould, 1996) illustrated that after Reconstruction, White supremacist ideologues used literature, science, social sciences, human sciences, news media, entertainment, school text, and advertisements to construct African Americans as lazy, unintelligent, ugly, and inferior to Whites. Although different texts had different purposes and strategies for describing African American life, the intended ideological purpose across media was to cast African Americans as a population that was inherently and culturally inferior. Furthermore, the attempt was to "detach [African Americans] from their 'moorings in reality' and convert them into 'stereotyped images' . . ." (Wynter, 1995, p. 21). Some scholars argue that the preponderance of these stereotyped images emerged at a time when the New South was feeling a sense of economic, political, and cultural loss after Reconstruction (Fredrickson, 1971; Shapiro, 1988). As a way to assuage feelings of loss, the White institutional structure (e.g., courts, media, and law enforcement) of the South employed physical, legal, and symbolic acts of racial violence to African Americans.

In addition to lynching and other forms of racial violence and intimidation, the sciences, media, arts, and literature during this period focused on the physicality, temperament, character, personality, social mores, and beliefs about African Americans. Interestingly, there was a duality in the construction of African Americans. On the one hand there were images of docility, obethence, and child-like submissiveness, while on the other, were discourses of African Americans, particularly males, as violent, dangerous, and criminally inclined. Educational texts, however, tended to be more implicit by rendering African Americans as a group of people who had no history or contributed little to the master narrative of American progress.

However, several African American scholars (Bond, 1935; Du Bois, 1935; Reddick, 1934; Woodson, 2000) during the early 1900s countered the explicit and implicit imagery of African Americans found in school text. These scholars found that typical historical school knowledge often silenced, omitted, truncated, or inaccurately rendered African Americans' historical experiences (Bontemps, 1948; Woodson & Wesley, 1922, 1935). Similar critiques persisted through most of the twentieth century, with scholars problematizing the content, representations and inaccuracies of textbooks and school materials' treatment of African American history (Alridge, 2006; Banks, 1969; Brown & Brown, 2010; Wynter, 1992). …