“Listen to the Blood:” Du Bois, Cultural Memory, and the Black Radical Tradition in Education



The historical experiences and accumulated folk knowledge of Black Americans have long been marginalized or underutilized as a site of possibility for educational theorizing, curriculum development, and pedagogical practice. The underutilization of Black history and heritage knowledge contributes to the ongoing crisis in Black education, itself an offshoot of the broader crisis of Black ontology, survival/development, and maintenance of sanity within the context of White supremacy and its attendant institutional structures. Within this framework, two important points should be remembered and built upon: 1) for most of their existence, people of African heritage have lived as free, self-governing, and autonomous builders of societies and institutional structures reflective of their collective, cultural worldview; 2) people of African heritage (Black Americans, in this case), have always tended to recall and leverage cultural memory (Sankofa) as a way of making sense, making meaning; navigating and transcending crises.

W.E.B. Du Bois’ commitment to Black people’s centuries-long struggle for self-definition, self-determination, and self-actualization spanned over seven decades. Scholarship and social praxis evolved from his educational philosophy reflect Black America’s robust genealogy of intellectual, political, cultural, and spiritual engagement. One of the twentieth century’s most profound educational thinkers and scholar-activists, Du Bois’ insights and contributions endure as a lodestar for deeper, contextualized understanding of political, economic, and social realities and forces framing Black life. Du Bois keenly observed early on the importance of preserving African/African-American culture and cultural memory through the (re)claiming, (re)inscribing, and curricularizing of their rich, diverse folk experiences. For Du Bois, education, in order to be transformative, must be grounded in the heritage and history of a people, as well as in the sociopolitical conditions of their shifting reality. Situating the Black experience as a site for inquiry, theorizing, and intellectual liberation, Du Bois established himself as a foremost theorist and practitioner within the Black Radical Tradition in Education.

The Black Radical Tradition in Education is a cultural inheritance and a contemporary social and intellectual challenge. Essentially, it is a call for progressive Black educators and researchers to use education as a weapon and direction of struggle in order to dismantle systems of domination and to expand domains of Black freedom, autonomy, and imagination. Channeling and building on/with Du Boisian thought and practice, the work of reinscribing the Black Radical Tradition in Education is a call for conscientious Black educators (scholars, researchers, teaching-artists, etc.) to make worthwhile use of the history and heritage knowledge of Black people, resist and work to dismantle White supremacy, commit themselves to the physical and intellectual liberation of their people, and work to positively transform society.

This essay seeks to do three things: 1) call attention to and highlight the ways in which Black people have historically understood education and developed initiatives to educate themselves and their progeny; 2) explore aspects of Du Bois’ educational philosophy alongside ongoing challenges within Black education; 3) conceptualize and situate Du Bois’ educational philosophy, political stances, and critical praxes within the Black Radical Tradition in Education and the broader dimensions of the Black Freedom Struggle.

Black Americans and the Struggle for Education

For the people of African ancestry who would become Black or African American, their enslavement and forced adaptation to life in what would become the United States could be considered early exposure to the promise and peril of Western education. In the northeastern U.S., Black people’s exposure to systems of informal and formal education began as early as the 17th century. Those early models of education emphasized religious instruction, social decorum, character development, and European classical literature. And while such education (or training) was designed to encourage docility, subservience, and assimilation, it also afforded increased mobility, expanded thought, and enhanced desire for freedom and independence.

As early as 1779, Thomas Jefferson (serving as Governor of Virginia) proposed a two-tier educational system for the “laboring and the learned.” Jefferson’s elitist philosophy and approach to education was demonstrably racist and therefore aligned perfectly with the political orientation and aims of the slaveholding republic. For Black Americans, Jefferson’s apartheid stance and vision of education has proven remarkably durable across the centuries. While such attitudes were commonplace, they also heightened the motivation and deepened the desire of Black folks to attain education and to use it to liberate and make a life for themselves. Whether or not they articulated it, those in bondage intrinsically understood that education was the key to liberation and empowerment.

Two years after its founding in New York and nearly a half-century before the abolition of slavery, the New York Manumission Society created the African Free School. The school catered to formerly enslaved Blacks and free people of color. This early education for Black New Yorkers consisted (for boys) of reading, writing, geography, astronomy and (for girls) knitting and sewing. Following the abolition of slavery in New York in 1827, the African Free School expanded to seven sites which were ultimately absorbed by the New York Public School system. As the schools evolved, Black New Yorkers, in what Rury (1983) describes as possibly the first struggle for community control over urban schools, vied for control of educational policy and pedagogy at the African Free Schools. Roughly two hundred miles northeast of New York, Primus Hall, the formerly enslaved son of abolitionist and Revolutionary War soldier Prince Hall, had, in 1798, established an independent school for Black children in his Boston home (White 1973).

Throughout the south, the Black struggle for education was further complicated through vigorous and violent enforcement of anti-literacy laws (and broader Jim Crow legislation). As “Myth and contestation of [Black] illiteracy” writes Rasmussen (2010), had the unintended effect of fueling Black literacy and literary production for two full centuries (p. 203). Du Bois (1898) observed that the “peculiar environment” created by White racists, stoked “widespread conviction among Americans that no persons of Negro descent should become constituent members of the social body” (p. 8). From the perspective of slaveowners and proslavery advocates, denying Blacks access to education (and to other organs of society) was commensurate with ensuring the physical safety and psychological security of Whites. However, from the perspective of those enslaved, attaining education would prove an unlikely, dangerous, and perpetual struggle.

During the early antebellum period (1790s-1840s), free Blacks and White abolitionists in the North developed institutions to promote literacy and push the anti-slavery cause. As critical agents of resistance, McHenry (2002) informs us, these activists created scores of antebellum literary societies such as the Phoenix Society (New York, 1833), the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society (Boston, 1832), Theban Literary Society (Pittsburgh, 1831), and the African Clarkson Society (New York, 1829). Black literary societies were instrumental in promoting literacy traditions and creating gateways for social intercourse, activism, and educational empowerment among Black Americans.

As Anderson (1988) points out, the abolishment of slavery and passage of Reconstruction legislation paved the way for Black elected officials to enter and exert “significant influence in state governments” and to lay the “first foundation for universal public education in the south” (p. 4). Following the war, night schools and Sabbath schools were developed in Black communities throughout the south. Anderson (1988), drawing on records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, reports that (as of 1869), there were over 6,000 teachers employed at over 1,500 Sabbath schools serving over 100,000 students (p. 13). As reported by Anderson (1988); Du Bois (1903, 1950, 1965, 1973, 1990); Franklin 1970); Watkins (2005, 2011); Woodson (1919, 1922, 1926, 1933) and many others, this early educational movement underscored a Black Radical Tradition in Education that reflected Black people’s capacity to reshape their lives, assert their freedom, and write themselves into history. Writes Anderson (1988):

It was such local activities by ex-slaves that spurred the establishment of widespread elementary and literary education and provided the grassroots foundation for the educational activities of northern missionary societies and the Freedmen’s Bureau. To be sure, ex-slaves benefited greatly from the support of northern whites; but they were determined to achieve educational self-sufficiency in the long run with or without the aid of northerners (p. 15).

Consistent with the tenets of the Black Radical Tradition in Education, efforts by Reconstruction-era Black politicians to establish universal public schools in the south reflect a praxis and political thrust that is deeply human(izing), collective, and committed to shared social wealth. For their part, Black communities throughout the south engaged a host of methods to support the new educational movement including raising funds for teachers’ room and board, donating materials (lumber, land, etc.) for new schools, group-purchasing lots for schoolhouses, and double-taxing themselves (i.e., paying taxes for their own schools as well as taxes for White schools from which they were excluded).

White social engineers organized the 1890 and 1891 Mohonk Conferences on the Negro twenty-five years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States.2 The Mohonk Conferences represented the first of several such gatherings by White ruling-class elites to distill a strategy for the mass education of Black people. As the Black population had swelled to nearly 7.5 million, White businessmen, philanthropists, clergy, social reformers, and politicians were generally decided that education for Blacks be engineered to 1) evangelize them on a massive scale; 2) educate them for service (domestic and light industry). Two months after thousands of Black men were conscripted to fight in the Spanish-American War, Capon Springs, West Virginia was the site selected for a long series of education conferences to discuss the future of the American Negro. (Ogden, 1903). On June 29, 1898, White social engineers met to discuss the design of a new socio-industrial order for the U.S. south.

With its total emphasis on industrial and agricultural training, Booker T. Washington’s Hampton-Tuskegee model gained widespread appeal and critique. Perhaps eager to demonstrate their noblesse oblige, many White philanthropists embraced Washington’s educational approach and saw in it an efficient way for southern Blacks to improve their station and to contribute to a revitalized southern economy and social order. While many of Washington’s wealthy, White northern sponsors funneled funds in support of his educational vision, many of his detractors (Du Bois among them) criticized its totalizing aspect. As Alridge (1999) informs us, Du Bois’ main objection was with those who regarded industrial training as the exclusive solution to Black people’s educational needs. Moreover, the waning vogue and quiescence of the so-called Talented Tenth, a rapidly expanding U.S. industrial sector, and the nation’s growing overseas markets broadened Du Bois’ international perspective and outlook. In turn, his shifting educational philosophy advocated “a synthesis of classical and vocation education and economic cooperation,” as well as Blacks who were trained in the sciences and the other areas of work” (p. 192). Hopefully, such context can contribute to squashing démodé Washington vs. Du Bois either-or arguments.

The birth of the New Negro Movement during the 1920s was directly attributable to the upsurge in Black education and increasing literacy among Black Americans. In hindsight, all of this aligned directly with the Black Radical Tradition in Education as it led to an evolved Black consciousness and intracultural explorations of identity, culture, and being. Additionally, Black people’s ongoing involvement with national and international phenomena morphed into radical experiments with (competing and complimentary) forms of nationalism, socialism, and conservatism. Conversely, as their educational and social opportunities expanded, Blacks were simultaneously exposed to a systematic campaign of racial terror, violence, and lynching that reached a fever pitch between 1890-1950. Du Bois recalled his own life-altering political awakening after seeing the severed knuckles of a Black man who had been recently lynched,3 barbecued, and dismembered by a White mob in Atlanta. According to Du Bois, the horrific encounter promptly altered his thinking and made two things very clear: 1) his current scholarly disposition (purely scientific, neutral, detached) was useless in the face of ongoing racial terrorism against Blacks; 2) as a Black scholar, he must act to effect change, and not be distanced or disconnected from the Black struggle (Asch, 1961). The lynching of Sam Hose generated an intense political awakening that stayed with Du Bois throughout his life and influenced his increasingly radical philosophy and ideology, particularly with regard to the education, liberation, and souls of Black folk.

Elaborating on Du Bois’ politically-inspired intellectual disposition as a “new method,” Williams (2013) suggests that it was both informed and necessitated by a radical subjectivity and the bonding of research and activism on behalf of social and racial justice (p. 17). Importantly, Williams (2013) helps to make clear Du Bois’ evolution into scholar-activist by illustrating Du Bois’ scholarly orientation/output before the Sam Hose lynching (The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, The Philadelphia Negro) and his activism (The Crisis editor, NAACP involvement) following the lynching. The earlier works, while brilliant, was also typified by a scientist’s professional rigor and detachment. The later works were the products of a radical social scientist bent on social transformation via the liberation of Black people and explication of their full humanity. Viscerally, Du Bois came to realize that the realities of Black life vis-à-vis Jim Crow racial terrorism, would not allow him (a Black intellectual) to “pursue an egalitarian idea of humanity” (Williams, p. 23). This important political realization would radically reshape Du Bois’ educational philosophy, as well as affect the stock and tenor of his scholarship and thinking for the rest of his life.

While it mandated school desegregation, the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision resulted in a massive displacement of Black teachers throughout the south. By some estimates, nearly 40,000 Black teachers and administrators in twenty-one southern and southern-bordering states lost their jobs (Fultz 2004; Hudson and Holmes 1994; Tillman 2004). Subsequent decades post-Brown saw increased reductions of Black K12 teachers, which (as many researchers suggest), has negatively impacted the academic, social-emotional, and cultural development of Black children. Initially framed as a corrective, Brown has resulted in a widespread racial realignment and resegregation of U. S. public schools that is worsening.4

Beyond Brown, the Black struggle for education evolved through the 1960s and 70s in concert with the Black Power Movement and broader, global struggles against imperialism. As Blacks faced a society organized to dehumanize them, Du Bois and other Black progressive educators advocated an educational vision for Black Americans that was shaped by a broader vision of cultural autonomy via Black Nationalism and Pan-African liberation.

Emerging in the wake of the failed push for integration, the late 1960s/early 1970s Black Independent Schools Movement reflected a major push for cultural autonomy, institutional power, and intellectual freedom. Collectively, those three pillars constitute major cornerstones of the Black Radical Tradition in Education. More, the institutions that were developed espoused a new pedagogy of awareness and revolutionary social transformation undergirded by a dramatic shift from earlier forms of Black political expression. Du Bois’ (1968) earlier leanings toward Pan-Africanist education espoused a politics of resistance that questioned, challenged, and sought to dismantle a U.S. social order based on racism, sexism, militarism, and capitalist exploitation.

For Du Bois, Black-controlled education and culturally-informed movement schooling were compulsory in order for current and successive generations of Black children to develop (and act on) a revolutionary consciousness, and for Blacks to gain social power (Alridge, 1999; Du Bois, 1973; Provenzo, 2002; Rabaka, 2003, 2006). Du Bois’ political praxis called for a complete “reordering of priorities” among Blacks and recommended constant, “proactive engagement” between Black parents and the schools their children attend. Commenting on what he termed the “crisis of democracy” and the “hypocrisy of western institutions,” Du Bois warned that U.S. schools intentionally miseducate Black people with regard to knowledge about themselves and of the rest of the world (Du Bois, 1973, p. 199-202). Du Bois’ socialist vision of Black education stressed increased support for Black schools, “full development of the child” and (for Black educators) to actively confront and work to dismantle the “ideological problems of White supremacy” (Alridge, 1999, p. 190). If there is one critical lesson to be drawn from Du Boisian educational philosophy and the centuries-long struggle for Black education it was this: in order to be meaningful, education and educational transformation must always be accompanied by social transformation.

Contemporary Challenges to Black Education

Take for instance the current problem of the education of our children. By the law of the land today they should be admitted to the public schools. If and when they are admitted to these schools certain things will inevitably follow. Negro teachers will become rarer and in many cases will disappear. Negro children will be instructed in the public schools and taught under unpleasant if not discouraging circumstances. Even more largely than today they will fall out of school, cease to enter high school, and fewer and fewer will go to college. Theoretically Negro universities will disappear. Negro history will be taught less or not at all and as in so many cases in the past Negroes will remember their white or Indian ancestors and quite forget their Negro forebears. (Du Bois, 1960, p. 195).

When he made those dire predictions nearly six decades ago, Du Bois was in his 92nd year and had been invited to address the Association of Negro Social Science Teachers conference at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina.5 As Alridge (2015) points out, Du Bois’ understanding was shaped by his “pragmatic recognition that white supremacy was much more deeply ingrained in the fabric of American society than he had previously imagined” (p. 474). presaged a frighteningly accurate description of current educational challenges confronting Black people. In the speech, Du Bois predicted that as Africana-themed content made its way into the curriculum, Blacks, in turn, would experience increased racial hostility. Du Bois also intimated that efforts on the part of Black people to remember their past would consistently be “regarded as racism” (pp. 194-195). Tellingly, Du Bois made these observations six years after Brown, and therefore he would have been familiar with the condition of Black education both pre- and post-Brown. As mentioned previously, the mass expungement of Black teachers and administrators from public education was one of the unfortunate, unforeseen outcomes of Brown. Those (and other) historical outcomes are directly traceable to a host of contemporary challenges. And while researchers continue to document the full academic and social impact of adverse schooling on Black children and communities, enough is known to understand and treat this phenomenon as an epic threat to the future of Black education.6

The Black struggle for education in the U.S. has existed from the beginning of their experience in the West and is therefore linked inextricably to Black folks’ ongoing struggle for liberation and recognition of their basic humanity. Contemporary challenges to Black education are real and foreboding, but not insurmountable. Currently, Blacks are again on the receiving end of an accelerated racial onslaught bracketed by a precarious climate of economic uncertainty, rigid political austerity, and chaotic social upheavals. Indeed, the decisions, indecisions, and policies of President Donald J. Trump and his Cabinet-level appointees have bedeviled the lives of U.S. citizens and tested their faith in ideas and institutions once regarded as sacrosanct. Applying a Du Boisian critical lens to the current U. S. educational administration, one can espy the systematic dismantling of decades of hard-won federal civil rights protections for students attending public schools. More, education privatization, rightwing school reform projects, and other savage forms of neoliberalism present unique, insistent challenges to millions of Black children and families.

In a still deeper sense, the current market economy and culture of austerity has unleashed new assaults on public spaces and institutions – especially the domain of public education. The impetus for the assault on public education is the spread of a neoliberal agenda by powerful, ruling elite that leverages policy to shape ideology and practice. In turn, educational opportunities are expanded or constricted and education itself remains a contested space and site of struggle. In large metropolitan regions of our country (ex., New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, New Orleans), local, state, and federal lawmakers have been eager to align their interests with the business power of corporatists, the donor class, and the super elite in exchange for Brobdingnagian bites at the more than $70 billion apple that represents the U.S. government’s allocation for public education. The capitalist logic of profit-maximizing, financialization of education, and prioritizing dollars over the demos coalesce in a troika that Du Bois (1973) described as “the great maelstrom of the white civilization surrounding us” (p. 101). This authoritarian model for public education has, for decades, given rise to policies, processes, and practices that are inanely anti-human and pervade all aspects of economic and social life. For Du Bois (1973), the external challenges confronting the education of Black people were accompanied by the more proximal challenges of professionalization, governance, and institutional and personal integrity. Alridge (1999) asserts that Du Bois’ educational philosophy rightly includes a whole cloth critique of education including policy formation, curriculum development, teacher disposition, and practices (ex. teaching, research, curriculum development) not connected to or informed by the sociopolitical conditions of Black life. In this sense, Du Boisian educational philosophy functions as a sentient, radicalizing force necessitating insurgent Black intellectual activism and what Rabaka (2006) describes as the marriage of “critical theory to radical political praxis” (p. 732).

Du Bois and the Black Radical Tradition in Education

As coined by late political science professor Cedric J. Robinson, the Black Radical Tradition is an accumulation of the collective intelligence gained and leveraged by successive generations who struggled against and resisted enslavement, segregation, and exploitation (Robinson, 2000). In words, the Black Radical Tradition constitutes Black peoples’ centuries-long historical and political sojourn grounded in protracted struggle against White supremacy and racial capitalism materialized as a negation of Black bodies and being. Du Bois’ educational philosophy and pedagogical vision translate into an interrogation and praxis to locate and situate the Black Radical Tradition in Education and to locate and build upon historical and topical points of convergence in curriculum, culture, and meaning-making.

In contextualizing Du Bois’ educational philosophy, Alridge (1999) located six educational principles (African American-centered, Communal, Broad-based, Group Leadership, Pan-Africanist, Global) that align with the Black Radical Tradition in Education while also adhering to a Du Boisian-based model for Black education. Existing as an important site of Du Boisian intellectual scrutiny and critical resistance, the Black Radical Tradition in Education is an ongoing synthesis, cultural orientation, and praxis responsive to deep, shifting conditions and temporal realities of the Black Diasporic experience. As a response to White supremacy and “epistemic apartheid,” the Black Radical Tradition in Education functions as an intellectual and cultural formation through which Black people have articulated their educational vision, “cultural specificity,” and collective humanity (Rabaka, 2003, 2010).

Synthesized through Du Bois’ “creative intellectual evolution” (Alridge, 2015) and current reality, the Black Radical Tradition in Education is a sentient force requiring constant activation of Black cultural memory in order to stimulate educational and pedagogical imagination. Du Bois insisted that Black peoples’ very organic existence was at stake “unless we develop our full capabilities” and “raise the [B]lack race to its full humanity” (Du Bois, 1973). Watkins (2011) has described Du Bois as a “radical socialist educator” and the “father of radical Black pedagogy” who understood education as “social capital” that Black Americans leverage in order to purchase their present and future (p. 123). With due deference to Du Boisian critique of Western ideology and institutions, progressive Black educators have simultaneously advocated and promoted modes of cognition, philosophical inquiry, knowledge production, cultural organization, and collective, revolutionary action informed by the Black Radical Tradition.

With regard to the inheritors of the Black Radical Tradition in Education, one of the key assumptions is that their dispositions, pedagogical orientations, and practices are historically informed and motivated by a desire to transform society (Rabaka, 2003). Du Bois’ (1973) two-pronged challenge to stewards and stakeholders of the Black Radical Tradition in Education calls for an informed praxis geared toward “the utter disappearance of color discrimination in American life and the preservation of African history and culture as a valuable contribution to modern civilization” (p. 196). As Du Bois (1903) stated:

I willingly admit that each soul and each race-soul needs its own peculiar curriculum. But this is true: a university is a human invention for the transmission of knowledge and culture from generation to generation, through the training of quick minds and pure hearts, and for this work no other human invention will suffice, not even trade and industrial schools (p. 193).

The convergence of politics and pedagogy is a central tenet of the Black Freedom Struggle and continues to inform the Black Radical Tradition in Education both theoretically and in practice. In synchrony with the philosophical and functional aspects of Du Boisian educational thought, this tradition calls for a resurgence of insurrectionist Black educators to adopt critical and revolutionary pedagogical stances and modes of action to bring about several things including the:

  1. rescue, reconstruction, and reconveyance of Black (Africana) history, heritage knowledge, and cultural memory;

  2. intentional (read: unapologetic) and deep decentering of whiteness and decoupling of it from the Black imagination;

  3. deprojection of White ideas from the Black mind; a purging of the head, heart, home, and sacred places of the imagination and spiritual internal dialogue;

  4. development and sustainment of (new and existing) independent Black educational institutions, instructional practices, content, and curriculum orientations;

  5. systematic infiltration and progressive takeover of public-school districts serving majority-Black student populations;

  6. development, diversification, and retooling of teacher training programs;

  7. (re)training of a mass network of Black educators/pre-service candidates;

  8. training of Black educators, administrators, and content developers to create, publish, and disseminate African-centered instructional content at all grade levels;

  9. development, synthesis, and publishing of literature (articles, books, ‘black’ papers, position statements, etc.) articulating Black theoretical, philosophical, and pedagogical positions and future trajectories;

  10. development of progressive Black parent-school-community organizations with structured leadership, policies, and accountability frameworks;

  11. mass lobbying at the local, state, and national level on behalf of the educational needs of Black children, families, and communities;

  12. deep, ongoing interrogation, synthesis, and problematizing of critical Black pedagogy and a revolutionary model of education for current and successive generations of Black children and families.

The aforementioned are intended to serve as points of consideration toward the (re)claiming and (re)activation of a Black Radical Tradition in Education. The list is drawn directly from Du Bois’ own prescriptions from six decades ago. With full understanding of the machinations, inner workings, and historically anti-Black leanings of the U.S. government, Du Bois’ (1973) socialist praxis challenged and admonished Black educational stakeholders to [continue to] create and organize educational opportunities for Black children. However, as he indicated, what should come first is the “deliberate effort made toward the building of [Black] families (p. 197).

For Du Bois, engaging a Black radical tradition within education means fully exploring its foundations and contours; explicating its virtues and defects; embracing its revolutionary potential; extending its promise to future Black generations. Then and now, such efforts call for critical and committed Black educators, theorists, researchers, historiographers, and curricularists to modernize and reinvigorate the Black radical tradition as a broad, viable field of inquiry within education. As Watkins (2011) warns:

critical Black pedagogy has often been viewed narrowly as protest thought. While there can be no doubt that the policies and practices of racialism have shaped Black intellectual life, there remains a body of inquiry that needs further examination (p. 123).

That important point cannot be overemphasized as the aims and objectives of Black education are mischaracterized, maligned, or misfocused so as to mute the call for critical pedagogy, intellectual inquiry, and educational equity for Black children. Predictably, mainstream response to Black educational inquiry (ex. historiography, theorizing, curriculum development and inclusion) is typically reactionary, reductionist, or dismissive. Such dispositions challenge the Black Radical Tradition in Education while simultaneously invoking its necessity. Du Bois (1965) believed such attitudes sprung from “the habit, long fostered, of forgetting and detracting from the thought and acts of the people of Africa” and saw it as a “direct cause of our current plight” (p. 2).

Understanding Black people as human agents and global actors is a critical and foundational assumption of both the Black Freedom Struggle and the Black Radical Tradition in Education. This particular aspect of Du Bois’ position corresponds with his thinking on two interrelated dimensions of the Black Radical Tradition in Education: its emphasis on the centrality of culture and on the global dimensions of the Black Diasporic experience. As West (1982) observes, “the notion that black people are human beings is a relatively new discovery in the modern West” (p. 47). Du Bois understood the fundamental flaw in Western thought and materialist practices alongside hollow, essentialist claims (i.e, modern, democratic, civilized, scientific, Christian) which exist and function to:

  1. doubt, deny, distort, destroy, and/or ignore Black human beingness;

  2. privilege, value, normalize, and situate White ontology/agency/identity as predominant;

  3. position European/Euro-American agents, systems, institutions, ideologies, and thoughtforms as compulsory engines of progress.

Under such a hegemonic epistemological formation, Black radical imagination, subjectivity, and educational vision are (if not safeguarded) arrested and substituted with devalued, pseudo-intellectual, subjectivist stances rooted in ersatz notions of White superiority and Black inferiority. What must always be taken into account is the fact that White supremacy (its agents, conspirators, institutional structures, and ideological formations) has always functioned as a militant, anti-democratic thrust that runs counter to Black people’s educational, material, and other strivings. Offering a sociohistorical analysis of Du Bois’ Black Flame Trilogy, Christian and Rogers-Grantham (2014) locate Du Bois’ indictment of racialization, colonization, and globalization as “processes of domination and bastions of White supremacy that contribute to racism and dehumanization in education, broadly” and that “willfully and skillfully dehumanize Black students” (p. 19). In their research on historical dehumanization and contemporary consequences, Goff, Eberhardt, Jackson, and Williams (2008) frame dehumanization as “a method by which individuals and social groups are targeted for cruelty, social degradation, and state-sanctioned violence” (p. 305).

For inheritors and bearers of the Black Radical Tradition in Education, White society’s failure, reluctance, and/or unwillingness to acknowledge and arrest ideologies, discourses, and practices that negate the humanity of Black people is intentional and therefore designed to reinforce and extend White nationalism. Alternatively, ideologies, modes of inquiry, discourse, and practices that affirm and promote Black people’s humanity reflect liberatory, anti-hegemonic stances rooted in justice, civility, morality, and humaneness. As a social reconstructionist and pioneer in Black radical thought and action, Du Bois’ (1973) ideas on Black peoples’ global diversity and culture are worth quoting at length:

“What is a culture? It is a careful knowledge of the past out of which the group as such has emerged: in our case a knowledge of African history and social development – one of the richest and most intriguing which the world has known. Our history in America, north, south, and Caribbean, has been an extraordinary one which we must know to understand ourselves and the world. The experience through which our ancestors have gone for four hundred years is part of our bone and sinew whether we know it or not. The methods which we evolved for opposing slavery and fighting prejudice are not to be forgotten, but learned for our own and others’ instruction. We must understand the differences in social problems between Africa, the West Indies, south and Central America not only among the Negroes but those affecting Indians and other minority groups. Plans for the future of our group must be built on a base of our problems, our dreams and frustrations; they cannot stem from empty air or successfully be based on the experiences of others alone. The problem of our children is distinctive: when shall a colored child learn of the color line? At home, at school or suddenly on the street? what shall we do in art and literature? shall we seek to ignore our background and graft ourselves on a culture which does not wholly admit us, or build anew on that marvellous [sic] African art heritage, one of the world’s greatest as all critics now admit? Whence shall our drama come, from ourselves today or from Shakespeare in the English seventeenth century?” (p. 187).


The Black struggle for education is a dynamic, ongoing project of critical resistance that is deeply embedded in the DNA of the broader, protracted Black Freedom Struggle. This paper has attempted to locate and expound on critical assumptions and theoretical and practical underpinnings of the Black Radical Tradition in Education and to synchronize them with the radical, socialist praxis and educational philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois. As a rich site of pedagogical investigation and interrogation, the Black Radical Tradition in Education resides at the heart of the Black radical imagination and is part of the soundtrack of our centuries-long sojourn for liberation, definition, and recognition of our humanity. Historically, the Black Radical Tradition in Education functions as an antithesis to White supremacy and a corrective to right educational inequities, and to promote critical Black pedagogy, institutional autonomy, and cultural agency. As the scope and complexity of contemporary challenges to Black education increase, progressive Black educators are called upon to adopt and act on insurrectionary and critical stances and to pursue the possibilities inherent in engaging the Black Radical Tradition in Education.


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1 From Bennett (1981).

2 Prior to the Mohonk Conferences on ‘The Negro Question’, White social engineers, for twenty-two consecutive years, convened similar conferences at Lake Mohonk where they focused on Native Americans. (Lake Mohonk Conference, 1890).

3 During the recorded interview (Track 104, Atlanta U.), Du Bois shares specific memories of the graphic lynching and dismemberment of Sam Hose in Atlanta during April 1899. Accused of murder and rape, Hose ran away but was eventually found and lynched. A crowd of over 2,000 had gathered to watch the hanging. The White mob cut off Hose’s ears, doused him in kerosene, and burned him alive. Afterwards, Hose’s fingers and genitalia were removed and sold as souvenirs. Du Bois, a professor at Atlanta University at the time, had heard about the lynching. While on his way to a meeting, he reports seeing Hose’s fingers on display in the window of the butcher shop. For Du Bois, this event was a radical moment of clarity that totally altered his beliefs about the role of the scientist and scholar.

4 Additional coverage on the resegregation of U.S. schools is available from The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/the-department-of-justice-is-overseein... https://www.thenation.com/article/our-schools-are-actually-re-segregating/); The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/03/school-segregation...); U. S. Government Accountability Office (https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-345); EdBuild (https://edbuild.org/content/fractured).

5 This speech, entitled Whither Now and Why, was delivered on April 2, 1960. Audio of this speech is archived online courtesy of University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Du Bois Papers: http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b250-i003.

6 To further contextualize the contemporary struggle for Black education, it is necessary to study various issues plaguing public schools including race-based student discipline, academic performance, time out of school, teacher training/hiring/retention, education policy, funding disparities, and corporate-led school reform efforts. These issues are brought to bear in crucial ways where Black children are concerned. For examples, see: Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot: School Discipline, Issue Brief No. 1, (2014); Discipline Disparities for Black Students, U.S. Dept. of Education Office for Civil Rights, (2018); Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions? Gilliam, W. S. et al, Yale Child Study Center (2016); Disproportionate Impact of K-12 School Suspension and Expulsion on Black Students in Southern States, University of Pennsylvania, Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, Smith, E. J., & Harper, S. R. (2015); Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood. Georgetown University Center on Poverty and Inequality, Epstein, R., Blake, J., and González, T. (2017).