The Mis-Education Of The Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

Miseducation of the NegroOverview

The Mid-Education of the Negro was originally published in January, 1933 by Carter Godwin Woodson. Since its original publication it has been reproduced many times by various publishers. Mr. Woodson was a historian, author and journalist and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. He was one of the first to see value in the study of African American history in this country. He is also credited with the founding of the Journal of Negro History in 1916, now known as the Journal of African-American History. Carter G. Woodson is considered to be the father of Black History studies.

His pinnacle work, the Mid-Education of the Negro, explores how the education system of the time was counterproductive to blacks. The primary reason being that the system intentionally culturally indoctrinated African Americans rather than educated them. This cultural indoctrination was primarily focused on keeping blacks dependent on white people for survival by leading them to believe they suffered from inferior intellect, that blacks had not contributed to American society, and they weren’t suited to professional jobs.

The book goes on to explore and uncover how the education system became the primary vehicle to carry out and embed institutionalized racism in America. The cultural indoctrination occurred on both sides. While blacks were being taught they weren’t worth much, so were whites. Whites, who had more access to education than blacks, were being taught the same things – blacks have low intellect, they were criminals and non-contributing members of society and they were more suited to being laborers. This indoctrination was carried out the exact same way in both instances, it was simply to erase black contributions from history. When discussing art, literature, philosophy and world leaders our education system then (and now) focuses on the contributions of those of European descent. The resulting desired effect was that blacks of the time would only aspire to be laborers and would rely on white people to employ them only after the more qualified whites had been “taken care of”.

One could argue that this system hasn’t changed in the 83 years since the publication of the book. People cannot be what they cannot see. Mr. Woodson challenges the African Americans of his time to teach themselves and to do for themselves and for their communities. For those who were blessed enough to go on to higher education they shouldn’t abandon their race. They are to return to their communities to help impart what they learned. More importantly they are to follow the examples of other great wealth builders of the time such as the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, Fords, etc. These men didn’t build their fortunes by getting an education and merely working hard for the rest of their lives. They also didn’t rely solely on their classroom education. They built their fortunes by identifying needs and using their unique skills to fill those needs. Throughout the book, Carter G. Woodson makes it very clear that black people should build wealth while at the same time providing employment and upliftment for other blacks.

He further explains how this indoctrination not only works to keep blacks in line and subservient to whites, but it also works to keep blacks from working with one another. The system, he points out, also teaches blacks to not want to do business with other blacks. A story he uses to illustrate this points is a man whose wife collapses. Rather than take her to the nearby black hospital he chose to take her across town to the white hospital even though he knew she wouldn’t get the best treatment there. Other examples he provides are how black banks serving black communities ultimately failed because they were in competition with one another rather than working together. This is a direct influence of the cultural indoctrination. If a black person was lucky enough to make it through grade school, advanced education and got a good job the base knowledge they were taught about themselves as black people is that they are not trustworthy and they shouldn’t do business with their own.

Lastly, he speaks throughout how the church in general and the black church in particular has contributed to all of the above.

What Worked For Me

Even though the book was written 83 years ago it still has merit when looking at today’s education system and how it hasn’t changed at a fundamental level. We rarely see the contributions of African Americans celebrated in grade school text books. To let these text books tell it blacks in America were enslaved then produced Martin Luther King Jr. Our contributions before, between and after are marginalized. The conclusion Mr. Woodson draws is that by removing the good works of African Americans from history it subtly teaches young black children that they come from nothing and therefore will be nothing. He provides the proof of this methodology either through letters, journals or in direct conversations with heads of universities. This indoctrination begins in grade school but is continued throughout advanced education. In such a discussion with a white male president of a black university he, the president, says they don’t teach the blacks anything that isn’t useful for them. One such example Mr. Woodson provides is that whites were being taught how to use industrial machines in the manufacturing of clothing while blacks were being taught hand-stitching methods that wouldn’t serve them in the work force. It would be useful only for tailoring, but in finding suitable employment to sustain their family.

The book isn’t about painting blacks of the time (or any time) as victims, it preaches accountability. While it’s true that the education system actively sought to keep blacks down through cultural indoctrination Mr. Woodson points out that blacks didn’t have to stay down. He points out that they fall back on their programming which tells them they aren’t good enough or they should be happy with where they are. He continues on to say that blacks of the time were not very likely to educate themselves further but would rather live beyond their means. Or if they got a good education they would only pursue studies of whites; or if they got a good job they would only spend money with whites. In a nutshell, Mr. Woodson summed it up by saying “this undesirable attitude toward life results from the fact that the Negro has learned from others how to spend money much more rapidly than he has learned how to earn it.”

The psychology of this is so obvious yet unseen by those it impacts the most. Mr. Woodson is expounding on something my father told me long ago, which is I have to take my education. But that education doesn’t stop in school. I had to read books over the summer assigned to me by my parents. My Mom, who is a doctor of molecular biology, always taught us to research and look beyond the surface. This is where the real learning is. School is meant to teach the basics, life is meant to teach lessons. In this work Carter G. Woodson employs a subtle running narrative that talks about the education of oneself. This concept is the number one hallmark of success – always be learning. In fact there are a great deal of similarities between this work and that of Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich released four years later in 1937.

Make no mistake this cultural indoctrination wasn’t limited to blacks. He makes mention of it in a minor way, but the system was also set up to disenfranchise poor whites as well. Poor whites were taught to be laborers and not to seek too much in life in addition to being taught that they were still superior to even the most educated black person. Mr. Woodson’s purpose is to speak mainly to the black community but lets it be known that the wealthy white wanted to maintain their ranks. The school system was actually set up so that children of working white families would only be taught just enough to be useful for industrial roles. This was during the industrial revolution and companies needed people that could read and be taught the job. They didn’t want them to be taught how to create their own wealth, who then would work in the factories? Private institutions and the homes of the wealthy is where the real education took place.

What Didn’t Work For Me

There’s not much to say against this book. Given that this was written over eight decades ago what I would expect from a book written today isn’t fair to expect from this one. There are a few things that I would like to see more content around. The book, thankfully, remains in the style of English used at the time. It can slow down the reader a bit, but once you get used to the style you’re able to pick up the pace.

He touches on it in several areas and even outright calls out the church for its contributions to the situation. I would have liked more exploration or discussion on how the southern churches came to be in such power in the black community. Part of it is easy to understand, during slavery the black church was the seat of hope. Even after slavery the black church is where blacks could go for acceptance and to be nourished spiritually. Though he eludes to it, I’m curious to know how much he feels whites were behind the uprising of the black church. At one point he talks about how it was actually whites that taught blacks to be loud and expressive during service as a means to intentionally separate them from white churches. Also, I’m not clear if he himself as a religious man and his thoughts on how the church contributes to keep black people small by constantly telling them to rely on God. The wealthy white also attended church but rarely waited on God to deliver their fortunes.

Even though the book is broken down into distinct chapters I almost felt at times as though it was a stream of consciousness. Several themes are repeated throughout. This could be more of the style of the day. It’s certainly not disruptive to what he is sharing.

Notable Quotes

This book has no shortage of quotes that drive his points directly into the hearts and minds of the reader. Here are a few of my favorite.

“As another has well said, to handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching.”

“In the schools of business administration Negroes are trained exclusively in the psychology and economics of Wall Street and are, therefore, made to despise the opportunities to run ice wagons, push banana carts, and sell peanuts among their own people. Foreigners, who have not studied economics but have studied Negroes, take up this business and grow rich.”

“While being a good American, he must above all things be a “good Negro”; and to perform this definite function he must learn to stay in a “Negro’s place.” 

“Real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better, but the instruction so far given Negroes in colleges and universities has worked to the contrary.”

“If the “highly educated” Negro would forget most of the untried theories taught him in school, if he could see through the propaganda which has been instilled into his mind under the pretext of education, if he would fall in love with his own people and begin to sacrifice for their uplift—if the “highly educated” Negro would do these things, he could solve some of the problems now confronting the race.”

“In many respects, then, the Negro church during recent generations has become corrupt. It could be improved, but those Negroes who can help the institution have deserted it to exploiters, grafters, and libertines. The “highly educated” Negroes have turned away from the people in the churches, and the gap between the masses and the “talented tenth” is rapidly widening.”

“If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action. “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.”

“He is restricted in his sphere to small things, and with these he becomes satisfied. His ambition, does not rise any higher than to plunge into the competition with his fellows for these trifles. At the same time those who have given the race such false ideals are busy in the higher spheres from which Negroes by their mis-education and racial guidance have been disbarred.”

“If you teach the Negro that he has accomplished as much good as any other race he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race Such an effort would upset the program of the oppressor in Africa and America. Play up before the Negro, then, his crimes and shortcomings. Let him learn to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin and the Teuton. Lead the Negro to detest the man of African blood—to hate himself. The oppressor then may conquer exploit, oppress and even annihilate the Negro by segregation without fear or trembling.”

“The lack of confidence of the Negro in himself and in his possibilities is what has kept him down. His mis-education has been a perfect success in this respect.”

The Verdict

The Mid-Education of the Negro is ubiquitous. It is not a mistake that it has been republished again and again. This is required reading for everyone, but especially African Americans and those in education.  The book is a wake up call from our past and judging from our education system today we are still not woke. White people need to read this as well in order to awaken to the fact that the cultural indoctrination is teaching them to believe something they were not born into the world believing. Our current education system is based on these fundamentals. We are seeing the effects of that as black men are incarcerated at higher rates than any other demographic. Black businesses are growing but black communities are under-served.

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Nile Harris
Nile Harris, the Chief Chick, is a word weaver and dream believer with 20 years of experience in healthcare, finance, and education. This aspiring motivational speaker, TED presenter and LinkedIn Influencer is committed to valuing people, driving healthcare access and innovation, and weaving words that move people to action. Her views are her own.
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Genre: American History, Historical, Non-Fiction, Social Science
Subjects: African American Studies, Education, Socio-Economics

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