The Black Radical Tradition Can Help Us Imagine a More Just World

Just as quickly as protests mounted in cities and towns across the country after George Floyd joined the ever-growing list of Black people murdered by police, public health officials began to warn of upcoming spikes in COVID-19 cases due to the lack of social distancing. It is not as though the mostly masked protesters are ignorant of the health risks of participating in mass gatherings, it is just that some things are worth the risk. People are leaving the relative “safety” of their homes to confront the police, to sit-in at precincts, city halls and state capitals because they understand that what they are fighting for is important. Perhaps COVID-19 cases will spike as a result of the protests, but as we have seen in the case of Floyd, who ironically had already been exposed to the virus, Black folks are never truly safe from harm.

Juxtaposed to the massive displays of passion seen in the uprisings is the tepid response of educational leaders, who are uncertain of what K-12 and postsecondary institutions will look like in the fall. The uncertainty of returning to school is being couched in terms of public health and harm reduction. But an underlying dilemma for educational leaders is that the rewards of schooling now pale in comparison to the freedom struggle unfolding before their eyes. Equal protection under the “law,” the valuing of Black life, and fighting against massive social inequality are being seen as worth the risk of bodily harm or even death. The same cannot be said for educational institutions where these basic questions about social conditions are largely absent from standard curricula. This glaring distinction between the nation’s streets and its school buildings beg the question, “What kind of education is worth the risk to physical health?”

As some college presidents and superintendents make pronouncements of ongoing closures and double down on their online instruction, others have recognized that their educational “product” can’t compete in a market where online learning only serves to flatten experiences across geographies and institutions. Educators have quickly come to the realization that Zoom will not save us. What has become apparent across much of the educational landscape is that youth and families aren’t buying it. At the university level, they are not buying the idea that online classes, whether taught by world-renowned faculty or not, are worth the increasingly exorbitant, debt-producing price-tag. In K-12 schools, families are not buying the endless lists of contrived assignments, tantamount to a stack of worksheets, that are sent electronically week after week. Parents quickly grew tired of struggling to motivate their young children to participate in the skeletal remains of classrooms. Absent their social glue, kids are fatigued of classes built around remedial approaches to learning through the acquisition and regurgitation of decontextualized bits of knowledge, all while the vibrant and turbulent world around them is ignored.

If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic and the mass uprisings against racialized state violence have effectively exposed the farce of an education system largely built on the rationalizations of free-market economies, social hierarchies, and dehumanizing, technicized approaches to teaching and learning. Understanding that this pandemic, once survived, is simply one iteration of more to come in a configuration of global power that praises regimes of production at all human and non-human costs, the world’s only choice is to abandon these regimes and their inherent practices of social control.

Put simply, if education is not to fall into Émile Durkheim’s historically accurate sentiment that “schools are a mirror of society” — if schools, in George Counts’s terms, “dare to build a new social order” — then a different set of questions must be asked. Among them, perhaps it is time even to call into question the ongoing existence of schools as we know them.

Education at the Threat of Harm and/or Death

While this global pandemic is described as unprecedented — and in many ways, it is — the question of education at the threat of physical harm is not. The descendants of enslaved Africans in the U.S. have continually remained the conscience of the nation-state — a perpetual reminder of the distance between its rhetoric and its reality. The educational experiences of Black folks in this country, defined by political and social dispossession, have something to teach about education at its deepest levels. The study of educational dispossession is the study of education, its purpose, practices and potentials. In this time of pandemic and unrest, this claim is even truer.

Since the pursuit of education at the risk of physical harm or death has presented itself as a fundamental question, it becomes imperative to study the experiences and theorizations of Black communities in the U.S. who have perpetually experienced these risks. One need go no further than antebellum state legislation to understand the risk of educational access for Black folks in the U.S.:

Code of Mississippi, Article 3, Section 2, 1823

All meetings or assemblies of Slaves, or free negroes, or mulattoes, mixing and associating with such slaves above the number of five, at any place of public resort, or at any meeting house or houses, in the night, or at any school or schools, for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an unlawful assembly, and any Justice of the Peace, county or corporation . . . may issue his warrant . . . to inflict corporal punishment on the offender or offenders . . . not exceeding thirty-nine lashes. (An Act to reduce into one the several acts concerning Slaves, Free Negroes, and Mulattoes, 1823)

This is just one example of the less harsh anti-literacy statutes (others included the threat of lethal punishment) that came into existence in response to increased slave revolts in the early 1800s following the Haitian Revolution. The importance of understanding these statutes — which also supported de facto customs and practices of educational dispossession — is that those who have descended from this legacy have an intimate understanding with education at the threat of harm and death. It should not escape anyone that the anti-literacy codes included a now eerily familiar set of “social distancing” guidelines.

Black communities have historically been confronted with the risks of a health pandemic in the forms of white terror and social policy. From the legality of corporal punishment for literacy, to white mob attacks on the racially desegregated Noyes Academy in New Hampshire in 1835, to the threat of lynching the Little Rock Nine in 1957, school has never been a guaranteed safe space. And yet Black communities have marched on and educated themselves through developing multiliteracy practices, critical race legal studies, the disciplines of Africana Studies, and have had a central role in developing sociocultural educational theory. For Black people, the question of education at the threat of death has already been answered, and the question is not one of how to learn in relative safety, the question is: What is an education worth dying for?

Risk vs. Reward

Risk is always unequally distributed to those on the margins. For Black communities, physical and/or psychological risk was always a calculation in the pursuit of education. What remained variable was the reward, or the transmutation of that risk into a dramatically improved lived experience, or what some have articulated as “liberation.”

Through the lens of Black educational theory, an education worth dying for was directly attached in a linear, causal fashion, to freedom. Frederick Douglass argued that “knowledge unfits a child to be a slave.” Obviously, nothing “fits” anyone to be enslaved, but Douglass recognized that the child who had access to liberatory knowledge could conjure a world beyond the servitude they were born into. For the enslaved, print literacy was often the first step in building critical consciousness, and was thus deemed worth the risk of physical harm. Yet, basic education alone does not suffice, as Carter G. Woodson suggests in The Mis-Education of the Negro, where he argues that the political underpinnings of traditional education render Black people useless to their liberation struggle. Black educational theory forces schools to look beyond the basic transmission of content toward the immediate application of knowledge and skills to social transformation.

In detailing the essence of the study of Black education, Grey Gundaker writes, “‘hidden education’ in the [domain of the enslaved] addresses both the world as it ‘is’ and the world as it could or should be; the world that outsiders control and the one that insiders are continually educating each other to make…. [I]t seems the enslaved have contributed a more complex theory of education than that which informs much of today’s schooling.”

Taking this fundamental assertion as a starting point for rethinking current educational institutions, how can this more complex theory of education be operationalized? While “freedom” as a concept is an abstraction that has various links to power, agency and potential, the conditions that limit freedom are often simpler to name (e.g. poverty, degradation, exploitation, captivity, illegality). Education in the pursuit of freedom inevitably deconstructs these concepts, enabling learners to position themselves in a matrix of power relations to more accurately frame the constant of risk and the variable of reward.

The Metaphysics, Not the Material

The educational theory of the enslaved cannot be detached from the origins of the Black radical tradition, one that was forged in resistance, providing the empirical basis for freedom struggle. As Cedric Robinson suggests, the Black radical tradition was birthed from the spirit of revolt against the inherent conditions of the unfree. This tradition called for a new epistemological approach to the endeavor of freedom, one that “granted supremacy to the metaphysics not the material.”

The notion that the body is merely a vessel to transmit ideas across time between generations disrupts the egoistic pursuits of U.S. society and its desperate cling to individualism. It disrupts the dominant conceptions of educational institutions that seek to predict, with extreme hubris, the intellectual capacity of each student at any given point in time. It disrupts the emphasis on protecting the individual body from the ravages of COVID-19, because if bodies are merely vessels of transmission, then as conduits of what Robin D.G. Kelley calls “freedom dreams,” they are only worth protecting if they are serving this purpose.

This is not an argument for some indiscriminate, reckless spreading of COVID-19; rather, the suggestion is that an education worth dying for is one that prioritizes the intergenerational dissemination of freedom learning — the idea of freedom supersedes the protection of the body. This theory of education is what allowed the enslaved to steal away from the plantation to learn to read by the firelight at the threat of death. It is the theory that led Black students at Cornell University to continue to occupy Willard Straight Hall in 1969, demanding an Africana Studies Center, after being physically assaulted by a vigilante white fraternity. It is what led parents in the Bronzeville section of Chicago in 2015 to engage in a 34-day hunger strike over the closure of Dyett High School (among nearly 50 other school closures), their neighborhood school. Across time, Black communities have actualized this radical tradition in a direct effort to attain some version of freedom, whether it be a literacy practice, an ethnic studies institution or simply a school to call their own.

Don’t be fooled. The paradigm that governs the current social order is not lost on the notion of prioritizing ideas over protecting bodies. The idea of spreading a capitalistic version of democracy around the globe has come at the expense of the U.S. lives who are recruited to take the lives of others in economically exploited nations. The idea of profit has continuously been prioritized over preventative health care, living wages or access to healthy food. The idea of security and property has been held supreme over Black bodies. A Black radical theory of education recognizes that in each of these prioritizations, those who are constructed as Black are deemed expendable, and/or the fungible commodity to be profited from. As such, corporate democracy, profit and property rights are seen as antithetical to freedom.

Education for Liberation

Returning to the current unrest as a critical juncture in a human-centered world, it is increasingly evident that the status quo of racialized violence cannot proceed. COVID-19 has been inserted into an already existing matrix of disasters for communities of color. But COVID-19 is not a natural disaster. It is a consequence of processes of globalization that have created a complex activity system of relationships between the social and natural worlds, and serves to threaten each. If educational institutions are unwilling to see the role they have played to construct this world, then they will only be interested in basic safety measures that must be in place to continue to regulate children and young adults into standardized mechanisms of thought meant to adhere them to the dogma of economic law and racialism.

The insistence on restoring the economy and the educational paradigms that uphold it pretend that economics is a natural science rather than a social science; that its laws are immutable, and that there is no way, other than through an ever-growing web of production and consumption, to exist in this social world. Educational leaders could look to the examples of Black educational theory to create new metrics for rebirth. They could recognize not only this pandemic but the current uprising for Black lives as the inevitable death of a social order that prioritizes vulgar economics over human and non-human relationships. They could prioritize the freedom of marginalized communities as the pathway forward, questioning the roles of the constructs of race, gender, sexuality, ability, productivity and citizenship.

In more concrete terms, if educational leaders were to apply a theory of Black radical education, they may invest in the following:

In more direct terms, schools need only reopen if they join the social unrest and actively combat the greater public health crisis of systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality. Otherwise, the reward of “safety” is not worth the risk of perpetuating injustice. If nothing else, concerned people must understand themselves as educational leaders, and question the educational theories guiding the decisions being made for the vast majority in an attempt to restore the brutal consequences of the global economic order.