Conference Papers

The meaning of difference in discourse about black education in twentieth century America

The meaning of difference in discourse about black education in twentieth century America.

Prior to the 1960s, education of African Americans in historically black universities, and in many black-only schools, was a collaborative process between black and white members of local communities. Adam Fairclough (2007) demonstrates that education of the black population was often couched in the moral language of ‘race uplift’: an ideology that was associated with Booker. T. Washington and that depicted the education of blacks as a process that lifted them up from supposed racial inferiority. After the Freedom Rides of the 1960s, this ideology was publicly discredited and depicted as an acceptance of the white racist assumption that black people weren’t as good as whites, and needed special training to enter mainstream society. This paper is concerned with the process by which educators and researchers of the 1960s who got coverage in the black popular press deemed earlier ways of understanding black education as ‘unethical’, and how they carved out new ideas of what an ‘ethical’ education would look like in the future.

Firstly, I interrogate the degree to which black American educators after 1900 privately believed the rhetoric of ‘race uplift’ that they publicly advanced. Was ‘race uplift’ a necessary rhetoric to advance before the 1960s in order to make black education appear acceptable to white racists, and thus to secure progress for black people? Secondly, this paper will consider arguments for black separatist education in the 1960s advanced by political activists such as Stokely Carmichael, and given coverage in popular black magazines such as Ebony and Negro Digest. These arguments were often based on beliefs that black people had been ‘held back’ by white racism, and needed to work within their own communities in order to overcome the legacy of white American colonialism. Whilst these views of black education were often identified as different to ‘race-uplift’ at the time of publication and discussion, they bore striking resemblances to this earlier theory.

Finally, this paper considers social-scientific research of the 1960s and 1970s that has recently been considered by the historian Daniel Matlin (2012), gained exposure in the black press, and that identified the educational disabilities that black people experienced on account of continued economic and social deprivation. These researchers’ revelations prompted positive discrimination initiatives in education policy. This social-scientific research, again, bore resemblance to race-uplift narratives at the start of the century. Given this apparent continuity in the way that black education was understood amongst activists, academics, and their audiences across the twentieth century, this paper focuses on just what did change about the way that black ‘difference’ was understood, and why. By doing so, the paper hopes to break out of a-historical notions of black ‘difference’, ‘separatist’ education, or ‘integrationist’ education, and to identify how changes in the political, intellectual, and cultural arena altered the meanings of these terms, and thus the understanding of how black education could be ethical, across time.

Germain, R. (2017) 'The meaning of difference in discourse about black education in twentieth century America', paper presented to The 13th Annual Conference of the British Education Studies Association (BESA), 29–30 June, viewed 08 August 2020, <>