In his 1933 book, “The Miseducation of the Negro,” Carter G. Woodson, the “father of Black history,” argued that Black people and “every individual of the social order” should be given the opportunity to make the most of themselves.

Woodson stressed that the opportunity to do so should not be determined by outside forces who want to direct education to “redound solely to the good of others.” In 2023, Black scholars are still pressing the same argument, for who benefits from taking Black studies out of the curriculum? 

Academic programs that center an understanding of what it has meant to be Black in America, and throughout the world, came into existence on university campuses after a tumultuous struggle and major sacrifice. Fed up with being fed a steady diet of history that deliberately excluded them, except in the most superficial manner, Black college students in the 1960s demanded curricula that would explore the Black experience.

They insisted on an honest examination of the large part their fathers, mothers, and fore parents played in shaping this country. They fought for a comprehensive analysis of the good, the bad and, yes, the ugly aspects of how this country was formed, for Malcolm X had exhorted, “Of all our studies, it is history that is best qualified to reward our research.” 

Black people have always understood the relationship between education and liberation. Booker T. Washington, born into slavery and best known for building up the then-Tuskegee Institute, is just one of many, Black and white, who wrote about the unwavering determination Black people displayed for the opportunity to get an education. He noted, “Few people who were not right in the midst of the scenes can form any exact idea of the intense desire which the people of my race showed for education.” 

Washington believed in self-determination through business enterprise, and he blended education and business acumen with astounding results. In 1900, he convened the National Negro Business League Conference where 300 delegates, from 30 states, many of them formerly enslaved and some newly college graduated, assembled to learn best business practices from each other. 

And it was the eminent scholar W.E.B. Du Bois who understood the vital importance of writing an inclusive history for the education of all. His masterpiece, “Black Reconstruction in America,” published in 1935, remains the sine quo non for telling the truth about how Black people, essentially, freed themselves by not only forcing a Civil War, but by intrepidly and brilliantly providing covert intelligence, working for the Union Army and fighting in the war. 

Black stories are not incidental to the making of America, they are central to every aspect of this country, from banking, insurance and finance to education, housing, medicine and beyond. No facet of American life is untouched by both Black struggle and ingenuity.

So, why are we still arguing about the merits of teaching students what Black people have been doing throughout history? 

Perhaps part of the answer lies in a question intrinsic to Woodson’s statement: Who benefits from Black studies? If we think in terms of capital, a literate populace can always profit from comprehensive, rather than colonized, enlightenment.

If knowledge is power, as the adage says, how much greater would this nation be if it was disabused of the mendacious and damaging notion that Blacks “didn’t contribute” to the building of this nation on every level of intellectual, commercial, cultural, social and military endeavor? 

Young Black people would get the additional benefit of having a healthier sense of self and the confidence and pride that comes with that. Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man,” once wrote, “When I discover who I am, I will be free.” The unvarnished truth that Black studies is poised to provide could free us all—while helping us reconstruct a stronger, safer and more equitable society for everyone. 


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