Against the Current: Collective works on State Violence, identity and Resistance

What is an Education?: An examination of the education system’s effect on the education of black children, between the late 1950’s and early 1970’s

           Education is one of the most important factors in human development, because it can shape how a person views the world. Between the mid-1950s and the early-1970s, the type of education received by black youth played a pivotal role in the development of their political views associated with the black power movement. Groups like the Black Panther Party believed that the formal education system in place during this time, especially in public schools, was failing black youth, because the curriculum lacked cultural input that reflected the issues faced by minorities. To combat this, the Black Panther Party created a new, informal school system, separate from the traditional school system. At this time, the traditional school system was commonly viewed by the Panthers as being entirely controlled by the state, and ineffective since their rigid curriculums did not consider the background and needs of students in each school.  The Black Panther School sought to rectify these deficiencies by explicitly developing a curriculum tailored to the cultural backgrounds of the students.  Angela Davis and Assata Shakur were going through the traditional education system at this between the mid-1950s and early-1970s and eventually circled back to participate in the informal education system when they were young adults. Each of them had different experiences in the traditional school system and the informal, Black Panther education system, and noted how it affected their views on education. 
            Using Angela Davis’ and Assata Shakur’s autobiographies I will examine how the traditional education system during the period between the mid-1950s and the early-1970s, which lacked relevant cultural input relating to black children, was ineffective at raising the political awareness of black children, while the how the informal education system promoted by the Black Panther Party was more effective, since it incorporated the culture of black students’ in the curriculums. 
            The idea of “what an education is” is a very complex idea, and an effective education really depends on defining and developing a curriculum for a target audience which is addressed. in the paper Education for Liberation, by Barbara A. Sizemore, she opens the paper by describing how a Tanzanian education advocate shapes his curriculum by defining his end goals, which are based off of his audience.  Sizemore wrote: “He wants education to prepare young people to live in and to serve the society, and to transmit the knowledge, skills, values, and attributes of that society ”. So, he desires an education system and curriculum that promotes the development of society enhancing values. Sizemore goes on to address certain values that the education system should have, but in many instances, fails to provide.  She wrote:

“the education provided must therefore encourage the development in each citizen of three things: an inquiring mind; an ability to learn from what others do, and reject or adapt it to his own needs; and a basic confidence in his own position as a free and equal member of society, who values others and is valued by them for what he does and not for what he obtains” 

          All of these points are addressing how an education should have a flexible element to it and should avoid rigidity.
 
          Later in Sizemore’s paper, education is broken up into two different views. The first view depicts a general education that provides people with enough knowledge to make judgments and reasonable decisions, so they will be prepared for life as an adult. This view is a good description of the traditional education between the mid-1950s and the early-1970s. With respect to African American children, especially those who did not come from “traditional families”, this type of education was particularly unfavorable because the education they receive is more likely not to benefit them in the environments they live in. Sizemore’s second view of education is described as “the socialization of the individual into the culture or mode of thought and feeling of the society, including training which is the practical application of education usually under the supervision of someone capable in an art, trade, or profession. Education provides both the means for transforming and for maintaining the social reality”. This view of education, which incorporates the flexibility mentioned earlier in this paper, and closely captures the themes upon which the Panthers chose when creating their schools. This view highlights the importance of taking into account the type of society students live. The last idea brought up in this quote is very complimentary with the Panthers beliefs, and their goal for giving African-American youth a better understanding of their history and culture, with the ultimate result leading them to possess a greater degree political awareness and social conscientiousness.
           Another very important point about culture brought up again later in Sizemore’s paper is illustrated in the following excerpt: by culture, we understand all the material and immaterial works of art and science, plus knowledge, manners, education, a mode of thought, behavior and attitudes accumulated by the people both through and by virtue of their struggle for freedom from the hold and dominion of nature” . This statement refines Sizemore’s second view of education and really highlights the importance of cultural input, especially to African-American students, with respect to “their struggle for freedom…”. This quote also previews how the Black Panther’s would ultimately develop their curriculums. Sizemore clearly articulates why cultural input is so important in designing an education program.
         Before becoming politically aware, Angela David and Assata Shakur had experiences with the traditional education system, and these experiences shaped their views on how they interpreted “what an education is?”.  Growing up, Angela Davis was afforded many educational opportunities, one of them being the chance to attend an integrated school in New York City when she was a teenager. A common fantasy that many black children had at this time was that the North was comparable to the “land of milk and honey” when compared to the South. Consequently, Davis hoped to receive a far better education in the North, as compared to one she would receive from the segregated education system in the South.  Davis addresses these expectations, which were quickly proven incorrect, in the following excerpt:

“The prospects both excited and worried me. I had already assumed an obligation to live and study with white people over the next two years, but could I accustom myself to being around them all the time? In spite of the fact that, theoretically at least, the white people I was going to relate to at home and at school were committed, on some level, to fight for the equality of my people, the impact of racism upon me had been so tremendous that I knew I would have to exercise great effort to fit into a predominantly white world. I would have to be open and guarded at the same time”

           As Davis entered her new educational environment, she was aware of how different her education would be from the one she might have received at other integrated schools in the area and knows there is a sense of separation even in this environment. She confirms her speculations about separation in this educational environment saying, “I had come to assume that in order to safeguard its unorthodoxy, Elisabeth Irwin had spun a cocoon around itself. During those two years in New York I never quite overcame the sense of being out of place, of being an outsider who had penetrated the cocoon by accident” . From her experience in New York, Davis sees education as an important aspect of life, and she specifically sees her school as especially enlightening since it is dedicated to learning about non-traditional subject matter, like socialism. Despite all of these positive aspects of the school’s curriculum, Davis still sees school as a place where she can be separated from her peers or seen differently by them, possibly because there are not many people who look like her and the lack of cultural diversity in her education.  Assata Shakur as a youth, shared a similar view of education with Davis. Like Davis, Shakur moved to New York during the third grade with the hope of receiving a better education. But the education she received at the integrated school was not a full education.  Shakur wrote: “I didn’t know what a fool they had made out of me until I grew up and started reading real history. Not only was George Washington probably a big liar, but he had once sold a slave for a keg of rum. Here they had this old craka slave master, who didn’t give a damn about black people, and they had me, an unwitting little Black Child, doing a play in his honor” .  Like Davis, Shakur felt seclusion at school, because she was the only black child in her class. But, unlike Davis, Shakur felt the traditional education system failed her, and she attributed that to a lack of inclusion of black culture in the curriculum and an inherent bias in the traditional education system that spun the truth about history to favor white people, while painting black people in a more negative fashion, while ignoring their realities and accomplishments. Davis and Shakur’s experiences complement the central theme from Sizemore’s Education for Liberation paper which states that an education should provide a student with confidence to thrive in their specific environment something that was absent in both of their experiences in traditional education systems. 
          In addition to Sizemore, others agree that incorporating children’s culture into their education is extremely beneficial. In the paper, Freedom Schooling: Stokely Carmichael and Critical Rhetorical Education, by Stephen Schneider, the inclusion of culture into designing educational programs is promoted.  While addressing Carmichael’s view on education, Schneider brings up one of Carmichael’s principle ideas, which is that education is supposed to prepare children to thrive in their own communities, as well as others. This principle is the foundation for the reasoning that educators should incorporate relevant culture into their curriculum. If children are not given an education that is culturally relevant, the probability that they thrive in their own communities is diminished, because they will lack an adequate understanding of the societal dynamics in their own communities. This reality was extremely problematic between the mid-1950s and the early-1970s and particularly acute with African-American children from poorer backgrounds, since they were more likely to remain in their communities into adulthood.  
            Early in both Davis and Shakur’s life, they both received an education where their culture was considered, and both acknowledged the benefits of their experiences. When Davis began her education, she attended a segregated school and knew her education was seen as second-class compared to school white students attended and, ironically, she attributed this “inferiority” to her at this school. She wrote:   

“Perhaps it was precisely these conditions that gave us a strong positive identification with our people and our history. We learned from some of our teachers all the traditional ingredients of ‘Negro History’. From the first grade on we all sang the ‘Negro National Anthem’ by James Weldon Johnson when assemblies were convened – either along with or sometimes instead of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ or ‘My Country Tis of Thee’. I recall being very impressed with the differences a fact for everybody in the country and the ‘Negro National Anthem,’ whose words were of resistance” .

          Davis’ participation in an educational system that explicitly integrated black culture gave her a sense of belonging and a deep sense of pride in being black, since she acquired a better understanding and appreciation of her race, which led to an intense affinity for the black struggle. Like Davis, Shakur’s first school experience was in a segregated school and, even though it may not have been seen like the best education, it provided her with a great cultural education.  She wrote: 

“Of course, our school was segregated, but the teachers took more of an interest in our lives because they lived in our world, in the same neighborhoods. They knew what we were up against as much as they could. More than once we were punished because some children had made fun of a student who was poor or badly dressed. I’m not saying that segregation was a good system. Our schools were inferior. The books were used and torn, handed down from white schools. We received only a fraction of the state money allotted to white schools, and the conditions under which many Black children received an education can only be described as horrible. But Black children encountered support and understanding and encouragement instead of the hostile indifference they often met in the ‘integrated’ school” .

         Shakur acknowledges faults in her public school but has the insight to also see far greater benefits in the form of support, understanding and encouragement provided by her segregated school, which helped prepare students to succeed in their communities. In addition, Shakur did not feel the sense of isolation felt in the integrated school, since the segregated school provided a more supportive environment nurtured by a curriculum that incorporated aspects of the students’ culture and teachers who understood and supported their students. 
         Ironically, both Davis and Shakur attributed the segregated environment in the South where their education took place in, as one of the reasons why their cultural education and education, in general, was successful. In a segregated environment, their “blackness” was not ignored; instead, it was acknowledged and supported.  Consequently, their black cultural education flourished, increasing their confidence and comfort level with themselves and increasing their ability to flourish in both segregated and integrated environments. 
       In between the late 1950s and early 1970s, black power advocates saw many differences between their education system and the traditional ones, and they believed that the Black Panthers more culturally inclusive education system would improve the lives of black children.
        One of the most significant efforts to incorporate aspects of black culture into the school system was the creation of the Liberation Schools by the Black Panther Party, with the goal of educating black children in their own culture, along with general topics, in order to raise the students level of political awareness and activism.  The Black Panthers’ goal was to teach their pupils about black history in a positive light and to acknowledge culturally significant persons such as Malcom X, who were commonly ignored by traditional education curriculums. One of the prime education principles that the Black Panthers espoused was captured in the following quote: “Education was not an instrument with which to socialize young adults into the dominant culture, but an instrument through which oppressed peoples could learn how to change society”.  This sentiment is similar to Stokely Carmichael’s thinking referenced earlier in this paper, regarding the importance of incorporating black culture into the school system in order for black children to thrive and improve their own communities.
        In the sixth chapter of, Black Protest Thought and Education, titled, “Community Control with a Black Nationalist Twist: The Black Panther Party’s Educational Programs”, by Joy Ann Williams, the differences between the traditional education system and the informal education system are clearly highlighted. Williams, makes the point that many Black Power Advocates thought of the desegregation of the traditional education system as a negative for black children because of the way many schools incorrectly perceived black culture .  Consequently, teaching children about black history in a negative light, or not at all, could cause black children to see their own culture as a negative part of their lives. At this time, educational researchers, recognizing that many black children were not succeeding in school, and this led to them devoting significant resources to determine how to improve the success rates of black children.  This research showed that the success rate for black children increased in classroom environments where curriculums included materials relating to black culture, since students could better identify with the subject matter.
       Cultural input caused students to feel connected to their work; consequently, black children became more likely to succeed in the classroom, and this new success caused them to feel more confident in their ability and proud of their culture. Williams believed that this increase in success in the classroom, would produce more black children who would be ready to participate in social reform and improve their communities.
        Although Davis and Shakur never actually received an education in an informal setting, like a Liberation school, they both were able to see the value of these types of schools to society. Davis had a very large role in one Liberation school, where she helped to design the curriculum.  She wrote: “My overall vision for the school I directed was of a place where political understanding was forged and sharpened, where consciousness became explicit and was urged in a revolutionary direction. This is why I taught courses on such topics as Current Developments in the Black Movement, Liberation Movements in the Third World, and Community Organizing Skills”. Davis knew how important it was to give the children who would be attending the Liberation school an education that would not only incorporate their own culture, but also provide a foundation upon which they could become active and productive members of their communities. The classes that Davis chose to teach at the school gave students detailed insights into the black struggle and efforts to overcome the forces of discrimination throughout history.  Davis’ courses also addressed the plight of oppressed groups outside of the U.S. and ways to help them create their own successful movements to promote change. 
       Shakur also worked in a Liberation school, and designed and taught her own class.  She wrote: “The Party decided at one point to open a Saturday Liberation School for children, and I was assigned to the project. I was really ecstatic about it because I love working with children and I was really tired of adults at the time. Being my usual reserved self, I threw every bit of energy I had into the project. I collected books, materials, paints, photographs, children’s Black history stories, children’s records, etc.” .
        Shakur’s excitement that is shown in the above passage makes it clear how important informal education was to Shakur. Shakur, like Davis, put her all into the project, because she wanted to ensure that the children had the best opportunity to succeed in life. The materials that Shakur chose to get would give the children both a general and a black education to prepare children for success in both black and non-black environments.
       In-between the mid-1950s and the early-1970s, black culture was often overlooked in the traditional, integrated education system; as a result, many black children were unable to thrive.  Ironically, during this period when the U.S. government was pressing for school integration (Brown vs. Board of Education), so black students could benefit from the white school system. But, black students, like Angela Davis and Assata Shakur, did find a degree of success in segregated schools in the south and alternative schools promoted by black activists such as the Black Panthers. These alternative forms of education found success by incorporating black culture into their curriculums, which gave many students a better sense of self, increased confidence, insight into relevant issues both inside and outside their immediate surroundings and a sense of empowerment to become active catalysts for positive change in their communities.    
 

This page references:

  1. Integrated primary school class and teacher, with notes about manners and math on blackboard
  2. Panther Free Food Program