The Mis-Education of the Negro

Over the next few months I plan to take a personal journey. I invite you to consider joining me along the way, particularly if you are a part of Redemption Hill Church. Please take the time to see the motivation and reading list

The Mis-Education of the Negro, Carter Godwin Woodson

Carter Woodson was born in Virginia and lived in Washington, DC. He launched “Negro History Week,” which eventually led to the celebration of February as Black History Month. Woodson received his MA from the University of Chicago and PhD from Harvard. It’s hard for me not to like a guy who studied in Chicago, my home town, and lived in DC, my family’s adopted home. More than those ties, though, his writing is clear, incisive, and pointed. It’s hard to know where to start with this book, which was first published in 1933. It’s a fairly brief volume, just 139 pages in the copy that I read, but it is packed.

Woodson works hard to broadly assess societal structures that have shaped the African American culture, experience, and challenges. He does so with a focus that stretches from academic disciplines into broader systemic realities, and does so brilliantly. His grasp and understanding of the systemic realities for African American people in 1933 is still helpful today. Some things have changed and some opportunities have developed and advanced, and yet so many of the realities he describes and cries out against still have shadows and echoes, if not outright correlations to ongoing realities. Woodson’s brilliance comes through in that he is willing to take the risk of offering practical solutions rather than simply deconstructing reality. His is a perspective and history that is needed. It’s worth the time to read, consider, and encounter.

“The chief reason why so many give so little attention to the background of the Negro is the belief that this study is unimportant.”  - Woodson, 129

At first blush, I want to fight against this simple, biting statement. It think it’s the same impulse that white folks feel when they are torn about the celebration of things like Black History Month, or BET, or anything that specifies race at all. You know, the defensiveness that says, “Why isn’t there a white history month?”

So, let me just say this, to myself and to those reading who might be white: It’s time to learn the rest of history, locally and globally. Every bit of history, philosophy, politics, and even theology that we are taught in this country is a white history. It’s a westernized, Euro-centric presentation of reality that ignores the contributions of the broader global society. Sure, we pay some respect to developments in Asia, but largely ignore African history and development, along with Latin American and even Middle Eastern culture and history. Our systems and education are, for the most part, white washed. If you’re educated, chase down source documents through footnotes and get going. That you have that education and that capability is a great privilege. Let’s steward it well together.

We all need to broaden our education.

I have so much to learn.

Because I need to focus somewhere, I’m going to focus in on theological education, and the church and its leaders. Here are some of my own responses after reading Woodson.

The whitewashing of Christianity is devastating and wrong. Despite silly paintings and portrayals, Jesus and the Apostles were Middle Eastern, Jewish men. One of the first and most dramatic converts to Christianity was Ethiopian. Athanasius, Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine were all African men who became Early Church Fathers, shaping the theology of Christianity at its earliest stages. One of the things that made me sad in Woodson’s book is that he looked back only as far as Aquinas in his discussion of Christianity, and to do so makes it white and Euro-centric.

My own education fell woefully short in this area. Sure, I was trained some in the perspectives of the Early Church Fathers. The bulk of our study, though seemed to begin with the Reformation which, of course, happened in Europe. The study of American Church History I received in seminary was focused on Puritans, the Great Awakening, the controversies of the early 20th century with the divides between the mainline social gospel and the fundamentalists, leading to the rise of evangelicalism. Nowhere in any of that is there a study of the African American church. In fact, Woodson’s description of “educated” black folks tying into ritualistic white churches within which they will never hold any leadership or real voice, and rejecting the culture and background from which they’d come, assimilating into white Christianity – that stung.

He didn’t stop there. I was surprised at how much Woodson had to say about churches and clergy. The abuses committed by pastors against needy people are sickening. Woodson attacks clergy who contribute to the continued oppression of people while elevating themselves. His solution is strikingly biblical, “If we can finally succeed in translating the idea of leadership into that of service, we may soon find it possible to lift the Negro to a higher level” (81). The sickening nature of the so-called prosperity gospel continues to do its worst damage among people in the most need. And that extends globally. The call to pastors is to serve and equip their churches, not to rule over them.

I was also struck by Woodson’s recognition of the importance that pastors are not just educated in formal subjects, but students of the people they lead. He said, "This was the effect this sermon had on an earnest congregation. The minister had attended a school of theology but had merely memorized words and phrases, which meant little to him and nothing to those who heard his discourse. The school in which he had been trained followed the traditional course for ministers, devoting most of the time to dead languages and dead issues" (47).

Pair that with the call to teachers more generally, "Can you expect teachers to revolutionize the social order for the good of the community? Indeed we must expect this very thing. The educational system of a country is worthless unless it accomplishes this task. Men [and women] of scholarship and consequently of prophetic insight must show us the right way and lead us into the light which shines brighter and brighter” (100).

The last two books have made me realize how much I have to learn, and far I have to go in my own understanding. I want to continue to learn. I’m taking greater responsibility for my own education. This series is just scratching the surface. I am gaining new categories for understanding, which leads to new questions to consider, leading to a renewed empathy and care that is more deeply informed.


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