It’s been decades, but Durham County school board member Jovonia Lewis well remembers sitting in her grade school class when she was made to believe that enslaved people toiling on Southern plantations wanted to be slaves.

“I remember feeling ashamed,” Lewis says. 

This year marks the 90th anniversary of Carter G. Woodson’s classic work, The Mis-education of the Negro, and as proposed legislation to prohibit teaching “certain concepts” courses through the North Carolina General Assembly, the great scholar’s volume is still relevant.

Woodson died in 1950. Were he alive today and working on his slim albeit powerful manifesto, the Harvard-educated historian might scratch out the word “Negro” and instead title the work The Mis-education of America.

As a high schooler growing up in Richmond County, I had the opportunity to study African American History I and II. They were easily the most segregated classes on campus. Now, as an adult, I think white students would have also benefited from studying and appreciating the Black experience in America and the race’s contributions to civilization.

Turns out, so did one of Woodson’s admirers. Burnis R. Morris is the nation’s foremost Woodson scholar. In his 2021 essay Carter G. Woodson: A Century of Making Black Lives Matter Morris points to Martin Luther King, Jr., who in May 1967 said, “The white majority has been equally harmed and reinforced in its prejudices by its ignorance of Negro history. In the operation of a system of segregation, whites had little communication with Negroes, and without a literature that bridges the barriers, two peoples of the same nationality were substantially strangers to each other.”

The general assembly’s GOP-fueled House Bill 187, described by its critics as “anti–critical race theory” legislation, is akin to a noxious weed that purports to “ensure dignity and nondiscrimination” in the classrooms of the state’s public and charter schools. 

Critical race theory (CRT) begins with the premise that systemic racism is at the foundation of America’s legal system and policies. One of the academic discipline’s pioneers, the late legal scholar Derrick Bell, argued that civil rights gained by African Americans are, at best, ephemeral and destined to fail unless a majority of white people understand their own interests are also targeted.

In addition to bills whitewashing the nation’s history, evidence of Bell’s assertion about the impermanence of civil rights is apparent in ongoing attacks on the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the threat to Affirmative Action, book bans, and pervasive anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

As the INDY previously reported, the current anti-CRT bill was originally introduced in 2021. It passed along party lines in the state house and senate before Democratic governor Roy Cooper vetoed the measure in early fall of that year.

The resurrected bill passed in the house in March and is now in the senate’s Rules and Operations Committee. It may well pass now that former Democratic Party state senator Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County crossed the aisle in April and joined the Republicans, months after she was reelected, giving the GOP a supermajority able to override a gubernatorial veto

“It’s political, poll-based, ‘anti-woke’ legislation, and many of its supporters don’t even know what ‘woke’ means,” says state senator Natalie Murdock of Durham.

In a saner political environment, the prohibitions the bill would engender could address the white supremacist values that lay dormant until the nation elected its first Black president, and then bloomed while Donald Trump was in the Oval Office.

For instance, the bill would prohibit public schools from promoting that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.” The bill would also censure promoting that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.”

The bill would prohibit teaching that “the United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex,” the genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans notwithstanding.

And finally, in the aftermath of the GOP-led January 6 insurrection, the bill ironically prohibits teaching that “the United States should be violently overthrown.”

“No one is teaching that one race is inherently superior,” Lewis says. “That’s not [currently] being taught. It’s about telling the whole truth so that all of our kids can appreciate it and do better in the future.”

Other critics of HB 187 say its real aim is to foment fear and division while denying students the opportunity to learn the full, unvarnished truth about this nation’s history.

Ronda Taylor Bullock is the lead curator and executive director of we are (working to extend anti-racist education). The nonprofit based in Durham’s Hayti District “provides anti-racism training for children, families, and educators,” according to its website. 

Bullock says the nonprofit, housed at Student U, formerly the W. G. Pearson School, sponsors a summer camp that enrolls about 145 children from all racial backgrounds and provides workshops for thousands of parents, families, and educators throughout the year.

Bullock says the bill is about “erasure” and removing race as a factor in past instances of systemic discrimination.

“It’s trying to make sure we can’t teach that this country was built on racist laws and on the backs of enslaved people,” Bullock says. “It makes it easier for white people to believe the lies they tell themselves.”

Lewis says the legislation is “an attempt to handcuff and scare educators about what they can and cannot teach.” 

“We have educators who are determined to teach the truth by addressing inequality and making the connection to current social conditions to past laws,” she says. “It’s about the spirit of Sankofa, studying the past to determine our steps in the future. When history is being taught from the perspective of the oppressor, it serves their interest to hold minds hostage. To see this bill takes us back. Woodson’s work speaks to this.”

Morris, the Woodson scholar, notes that Woodson generally stayed out of politics.

“His focus was on economic uplift through education,” Morris says. “He was interested in going across party lines and reaching all segments of America.”

Morris notes that Woodson “used a racist education system as a metaphor for violence against Blacks.” Woodson asserted that his work was “much more important than the anti-lynching movement because there would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.” 

“Why not exploit, enslave, and exterminate a class that everybody is taught to regard as inferior?” Woodson famously questioned.

Woodson was born at the end of Reconstruction in 1875. The son of formerly enslaved parents, he is unquestionably the father of Black history in America and in 1926 created Negro History Week, the forerunner to Black History Month.

In addition to his pioneering work in Black history, Woodson was one of the nation’s first public historians, who served as a dean of Howard University. But most of his work took place outside of academia.

Woodson believed that the educational process should be tailored to an individual or group’s lived and shared experiences. Woodson taught adult education classes, and Morris notes that Woodson’s heroes included his illiterate father, a Civil War veteran who passed along to his son “the values of dignity and self-respect, despite hardship and other restricting issues.” 

Woodson said one of the best educated people he knew was an illiterate coal miner and Civil War veteran who had a library filled with books and newspapers, Morris adds.

The coal miner, Oliver Jones, compensated Woodson with food and access to the library for reading to other coal miners.

The late influential Durham historian John Hope Franklin noted that “the foundation of Wilson’s advocacy of education and well-designed instructional materials meeting the specific needs of students was developed from such experiences.”

Historians who study Woodson’s impact on the study of the Black experience in America and abroad describe the academic discipline as “Before Woodson” and “After Woodson.”

“There wasn’t any,” Morris replied when asked about the study of Black history before Woodson. “There might have been a few Black scholars who got together and discussed issues.” 

After Woodson’s pioneering work was published, departments of African American studies started appearing on college campuses, Morris adds.

Decades before the emergence of CRT as an academic discipline, Woodson’s Mis-education of the Negro, at the height of Jim Crow, noted that Blacks in America were systemically indoctrinated with an education that taught them they were inferior to their fellow white Americans.

Woodson surmised this in one of his most widely quoted observations:

“When you determine what a man shall think, you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”

“His education,” Woodson concluded, “makes it necessary.”

Meanwhile, Murdock thinks the strategy behind HB 187 is to deflect from the GOP majority’s failure to adequately fund rural schools across the state, particularly in classrooms where children of color are present.

This is evident, Murdock explains, in the Opportunity Scholarships that provide funds to parents to enroll their children in largely Christian-based direct payment schools, while taking needed funding away from the public school system.

Murdock notes that Republicans’ proposed $2.5 billion tax cut over the next two years will hurt public education and other needed services.

“So how will we fund schools, or pave roads?” she asks. “We can see the writing on the wall. It’s the children who will suffer. The red areas will feel it, too.”

Days before the onset of this nation’s Juneteenth celebrations, we would all do well to acknowledge that the Black experience in this country is American history.

To not collectively appreciate that immutable fact is at our own peril.

Kingdoms crumble from within.

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