The Over-Educated Negro: A Manifesto

I wanted to launch into this next phase of my writing by providing a little bit of framing and explanation about this blog title, my dissertation title and my approach to the academic novel.  What follows is a modified version of a section of my dissertation. [Fair warning: about 5,000 words ahead. And yes, I did quote Kanye in the actual dissertation.]

So why “The Over-Educated Negro”?

Because I’ve come to believe in the value of embracing and owning the label of over-educated.

Because I’d like to see the term over-educated reclaimed in the proud tradition of reclaiming and refashioning the insult, in the same way that worlds like “black” and “queer” have been appropriated and repurposed into terms of empowerment.

Because the slur of over-educated is often a term directed towards those of us who don’t “deserve” to be educated, who are perceived to be operating above our station in life.

In The Over-Education of the Negro: Academic Novels, Higher Education and the Black Intellectual I use discourses of over-education to frame my study of black academic novels and other forms of fiction about black higher education.  Sometimes the use of the term over-education comes from very real concerns about the effectiveness of higher education and the way that its bureaucratic systems can serve to impede knowledge.  Sometimes the word over-educated is targeted at elitism among college educated folks who look down upon others who don’t have formal education, whether by choice or by lack of opportunity.  I try to take those critiques seriously.  And I hope that in my writing I always show respect for the black autodidactic tradition, because so much of African-American studies that is institutionalized in the academy now would never have been possible without historians, archivists, artists and intellectuals who worked on the margins of the academy or outside of it altogether.

At the same time, there are other usages of over-educated that have been specifically directed at black intellectuals, and which are pretty obviously rooted in white supremacist anxieties about black folks getting too big for our breeches. And those anxieties have a way of rubbing off on black intellectuals too, some of whom have questioned whether too much education might unintentionally create problems for us.

In fact, “over-education” might be a useful rubric for evaluating the history of black education and black literature.

You might say that the first phase in this “over-education” of the Negro began with the acquisition of basic literacy.  Few writers have articulated the importance of education as a tool of liberation better than the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.   In his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he explained how the wife of his owner taught him how to read in secret, and how her husband discovered what she was doing and scolded her for it. Douglass’s rendition of what his enslaver said to his wife about teaching the young boy to read remains one of the most powerful statements in American letters about the relationship between knowledge and power:

If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell.  A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do.  Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world…if you teach that nigger how to read there would be no keeping him.  It would forever unfit him to be a slave.  He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm.  It would make him discontent and unhappy. (49)

It is from Douglass’s narrative, and from many other stories like it about literacy and slavery that we see one of the fundamental precepts of American white supremacy:  Any education of Negroes is already too much.   Thus, the educated Negro is always already in a state of over-education.

When I came up with the title “The Over-Education of the Negro,” I did what I’m sure is now standard practice for anyone choosing a title for a major project: I Googled that precise phrase…and found two distinct hits.  One was a quote from a former governor of Mississippi, the other was from a (white) president of Howard University.

The first quote is attributed to Governor James Vardaman of my wonderful home state of Mississippi, and it appears in a January 2, 1904 issue of The Literary Digest.

The overeducation of the negro is an evil certainly, but there is small danger that he will be over-educated in the average rural public school of the South.  Education makes a criminal of the negro only when he is educated beyond that point which fits him for the state of life in which it hath pleased God to call him. (168)

The passage is reprinted from an article in the New Orleans Times-Democrat in which the governor is quoted. Both the Times-Democrat article and this one in the Literary Digest were reporting on the Governor’s comments about the prevalence of crime among the educated black population in Massachusetts.  Governor Vardaman seemed to be using those statistics as justification for the South’s own feeble educational policy toward its black population, and arguing that this “evil” practice of over-educating Negroes would surely lead to disobedience and criminal behavior.

The second quote comes from The Negro Problem, an anthology of articles on black social issues compiled by Julia E. Jehnsen and published by The H.W. Wilson Company in 1921.  The particular article in which the term is used was “The Higher Education of the Negro” by Wilbur B. Thirkield, who served as President of Howard University from 1906-1912:

The capacity of the Negro for the higher education has been settled.  We have learned, however, to distinguish between the intellectual capacity with which God has endowed all races, and the intellectual and moral equipment of a race which is the outcome of civilization and environment.  The last danger is the over-education of the Negro.  We have only touched the fringes of the race.  His real education is a task of generations. (193)

In these quotes we see two different ideas about the over-education of blacks in America; one, from a white supremacist governor of a Southern state warning that too much education will lead to criminality and insubordination among blacks, and the other, a statement from the white president of a black college who dismissed the idea that over-education was any real danger.  Both of these are examples of a persistent anxiety about black higher education, that the educated black person might somehow be dangerous for white Americans, and that higher education might also be ruinous, disadvantageous, or even dangerous for blacks themselves.

Education and literacy have played a significant role in the history of African-American literature.  The first black writers, such as Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, and the authors of 19th century slave narratives such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, were all held up as representations of the intellectual possibilities of black persons, as signs of black humanity being read with and against an overwhelming discourse of white supremacy and black intellectual inferiority.

In his book Figures in Black: Words, Signs and the “Racial” Self (1987)  Henry Louis Gates, Jr. identified  an intricate relationship between literary criticism and black literary production.  He states that “few literary traditions have begun or been sustained by such a complex ironic relation to their criticism: allegations of an absence led directly to a presence, a literature often inextricably bound in a dialogue with its potentially harshest critics” (26).  From Thomas Jefferson’s dismissal of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry in Notes on the State of Virginia to Hegel’s suggestion that “Africa is no historical part of the world, it has no movement or development to exhibit,” black literature was burdened with the need to prove its humanity against the weight of Western historical and philosophical theories.

Unlike almost every other literary tradition, the Afro-American literary tradition was generated as a response to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century allegations that persons of African descent did not, and could not, create literature.  Philosophers and literary critics, such as Hume, Kant, Jefferson, and Hegel, seemed to decide that the absence or presence of a written literature was the measure of the potential, innate humanity of a race.  The African living in Europe or in the New World seems to have felt compelled to create a literature both to demonstrate implicitly that blacks did indeed possess the intellectual ability to create a written art and to indict the several social and economic institutions that delimited the humanity of all black people in Western cultures. (26)

Gates also writes that, “For the ex-slave to become subjects, as it were, black ex-slaves had to demonstrate their language-using capacity before they could become social and historical entities.  In short, slaves could inscribe their selves only in language” (105).  Thus from the beginning, black writing and black education were always bound up with ideas of racial destiny, were always burdened with being referenda on the intellectual competence of the race, and were always pressured into performing the suitability of blacks for democratic citizenship.

In the years following the end of slavery, African-Americans in the South set about building schools to educate this population of former slaves, many of whom were deliberately kept illiterate under slavery through social customs and through laws that made it illegal for them to learn to read.  The postbellum era saw a Herculean collective effort by black educators, black churches and white philanthropists to build institutions of higher learning to ensure that the next generation would have educational opportunities not available to the ones who came before them.

However, the flipside of this proud history of black education, which overcame all that repression and hostility and fought its way into existence, is that there has also been a profound anxiety of over-education from within the black community as well, including concerns about cultivating insubordination, compromising employability, compromising racial authenticity, and losing one’s religious beliefs.

I started out by quoting Frederick Douglass, who helped us to understand that in white supremacist America, any education of Negroes is already too much.  But that’s only part of the story.  Under chattel slavery and in the post-emancipation era of Jim Crow, blacks did receive an education of sorts, but it was a particular kind of education that taught them the skills of laborers and servants, and taught them to accept that this would always be their place in society.  As James Anderson reminds us in The Education of Blacks in the South “both schooling for democratic citizenship and schooling for second-class citizenship have been basic traditions in American education” (3).

In the post-emancipation period, as black schools and colleges began to sprout up, an anxiety develops about the Negro’s educational advancement. One particularly vexing issue was that of the classical education in the humanities, an education which was seen by some as wasteful, dangerous and ruinous to the black work ethic as laborers, and as part of the ominous beginnings of a demand for civic equality.

Famously, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington duked it out over the proper educational curriculum for black advancement. In his 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington described his travels to black schools throughout the South and in one striking passage illustrates the tragic outcome of what could happen to blacks who were trained in a humanistic education, but without practical skills of physical labor.

It was also interesting to note how many big books some of them had studied, and how many high-sounding subjects some of them claimed to have mastered.  The bigger the book and the longer the name of the subject, the prouder they felt of their accomplishment.  Some had studied Latin, and one or two Greek.  This they thought entitled them to special distinction.

In fact, one of the saddest things I saw during the month of travel which I have described was a young man, who had attended some high school, sitting down in a one-room cabin, with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in a studying of French grammar. (58)

In this scene we see Booker T. Washington deploying the pejorative image of the “scholar-as-buffoon” and “the educated fool.” In this passage, and throughout Up From Slavery, Washington attempts to reassure sympathetic whites that the blacks who are interested in this sort of classical education are not representative of the race, and that he intends to steer black students away from such foolish and wasteful pursuits and help them develop practical skills in farming and skilled labor.  The depiction was also meant to reassure Southern whites that these black students were not interested in pursuing a political program of equality brought on by studying such lofty subjects which could plant the “dangerous” idea in their heads that blacks were themselves also heirs to, and contributors to, a Western intellectual tradition, and thus might be equal to white folks.

Also in the late 19th and early 20th century, black women educators such as Anna Julia Cooper advocated for the education of black women, a population for whom higher education was certainly not intended, except in some cases for training as schoolteachers in black elementary and high schools.   Her groundbreaking book A Voice from the South (1892) called for black women to play a more active role in racial progress, and her work also pre-dated and anticipated the classical/vocational education debates of Du Bois and Washington.

Now I claim that it is the prevalence of the Higher Education among women, the making it a common and everyday affair for women to reason and think and express their thought, the training and stimulus which enable and encourage women to administer to the world the bread it needs as well as the sugar it cries for; in short it is the transmitting the potential forces of her soul into dynamic factors that has given symmetry and completeness to the world’s agencies. (57)

In 1924, at the age of 67, Anna Julia Cooper received her Ph.D. from the University of Paris, Sorbonne, and became the fourth African-American woman to earn a doctorate.  She was the principle of the M Street Academy (later the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School), and also served for a decade as the president of the Frelinghuysen University, a night school for adults.  In a 2009 African-American Review article, “In Service for the Common Good:  Anna Julia Cooper and Adult Education,” Karen Johnson, a professor of education, examines Cooper’s ideas and activism in the field of adult education.  It was in her work on adult education that Cooper also resisted the idea of pure vocational training, and emphasized the importance of liberal arts education for working people, a population who many did not see worthy of such an education:

For Cooper, adult education should alleviate illiteracy, provide a liberal arts education for the working poor, and provide a vocational education combined with liberal arts course of study for the unskilled laborer. Most importantly, for Cooper, adult education should enable and inspire the African American adult learner to link up with others in social and civic programs as a way of promoting social change. (51)

Perhaps one of the most incisive statements about over-education, and the challenges it presented for black intellectuals, comes from one of the most important early black educational projects, The American Negro Academy.  The passage I cite here comes from one of the lesser known members of the Academy, William S. Scarborough, considered the first African-American scholar in classics. Scarborough, a graduate of Oberlin College, and President of Wilberforce University in Ohio from 1908 to 1920, contributed an essay to the published collection of occasional papers from the American Negro Academy titled “The Educated Negro and His Mission,” and in that essay he wrote:

The educated Negro is an absolute fact. The day is past when his ability to learn is scoffed at. But on the other hand is born that fear that he may go too far—excel or equal the Anglo-Saxon,—and that fear is a prime motive in the minds of many who seek to hedge the onward path of the race. But this path will not be hedged. This educated class, though few in number, has been keeping for years the torch aloft for the race. It must be with us for the future. It has a mission in the world and it is working in a brave endeavor to fulfill that mission. For the good of the whole country this class must multiply, not decrease in number.

Scarborough’s statement here captures the way in which this anxiety of over-education that originated with white supremacy had wormed its way into black political discourse, and in this strong statement, Scarborough defiantly resists it.

Moving ahead many years, into our own time, after the tumultuous social changes of the 20th century with the civil rights movement and integration, and now into the second decade of the 21st century, there have been substantial changes in higher education, to say the least.  The G.I. Bill led to a massive expansion of American higher education after World War II, particularly benefitting working class white men who entered universities in greater numbers.  There have also been substantial increases in enrollment for African-Americans, women and other racial and ethnic minority groups.  The progress is undeniable. Consider these recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Education:

  • Enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000. Between 2000 and 2010, enrollment increased 37 percent, from 15.3 million to 21.0 million. Much of the growth between 2000 and 2010 was in full-time enrollment; the number of full-time students rose 45 percent, while the number of part-time students rose 26 percent. During the same time period, the number of females rose 39 percent, while the number of males rose 35 percent. Enrollment increases can be affected both by population growth and by rising rates of enrollment.
  • Since 1988, the number of females in postbaccalaureate programs has exceeded the number of males. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of male full-time postbaccalaureate students increased by 38 percent, compared with a 62 percent increase in the number of females. Among part-time postbaccalaureate students, the number of males increased by 17 percent and the number of females increased by 26 percent.
  • The percentage of American college students who are Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Black has been increasing. From 1976 to 2010, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 3 percent to 13 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from 2 percent to 6 percent, and the percentage of Black students rose from 9 percent to 14 percent.

[U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics, 2011 (NCES 2012-001).]

Yet while we can celebrate these statistics as signs of growing educational opportunities, it would be a mistake to take this growth of higher education as an innocently positive development.  These numbers also depict the growth of higher education as a profitable industry.  Traditional universities are increasingly run like corporations with emphasis on data-driven managerialization, eliminating unproductive departments in the humanities and social sciences, and utilizing a “flexible” labor force of adjunct professors, which in some universities are as much as 60 to 70% of all faculty.  New for-profit colleges such as the popular University of Phoenix have aggressively recruited students and created opportunities for other for-profit colleges to get into the higher education game.   And with the rising cost of higher education, commercial banks have become more involved in a growth industry for student loans, encouraging students to go deep in debt in order to finance their educations. All to say, there are plenty of serious reasons to be skeptical about the university as it exists today.

One of my favorite recent iterations of the discourse of over-education comes from Kanye West’s multi-platinum college themed album College Dropout (2004), the first in a three part college-themed series that included Late Registration and Graduation.  Kanye’s mother, Donda West, was an English professor and the chair of the English Department at the historically black college Chicago State University. She retired to become her son’s business manager when his musical career took off, and tragically, she died in 2007 after complications following a surgical procedure.

College Dropout contains a series of comic sketches (narrated by comedian DeRay Davis) about a black man who proudly touts the fact that he has earned multiple degrees, even though he has made very little money from his education.

You keep it going, man. You keep those books rolling. You pick up all those books you’re going to read and not remember, and you roll, man. You get that associate’s degree, okay. Then you get your bachelor’s. Then you get your master’s. Then you get your master’s master’s. Then you get your doctrine (sic).  You go man. And then when everybody says quit, you show them those degrees, man. When everyone says hey, you’re not working, you’re not making any money, you say look at my degrees and you look at my life. Yeah I’m fifty-two. So what? Hate all you want, but I’m smart. I’m so smart, and I’m in school, and these guys are out here making money all these ways, and I’m spending mine to be smart. You know why? Because when I die, buddy, you know what’s going to keep me warm? That’s right, those degrees!

The final skit in the series picks up after the original narrator has died and now the son of the narrator speaks (also voiced by Davis) explaining that he was also in school during all the time that his father was in school, and that he is now broke and homeless, his only possessions being the degrees that his father left him. “I’m going to learn too. I’m going to get super smart so I too can die without money, but I’ll be the smartest dead guy.  Who has that?!”

West was taken to task by some critics who felt that the album was encouraging students to drop out of college to pursue their own faulty dreams of stardom.  On the contrary, I was impressed to see black college life depicted on a mainstream hip-hop album at all.  In fact, the album was probably as successful as it was precisely because it satirized aspects of college life that were familiar to a large segment of the hip-hop audience across racial lines – including classes, parties, step shows, and low paying part-time jobs.  (And of course, most people picked up on the fact that this was all satire and not something to be taken literally.)

But yes, there is a way in which these skits on the album do address some rather difficult questions about the efficacy of higher education.  Are the noble projects of uplift through formal higher education truly contributing to any kind of racial or economic equality?  Does encouraging black students to go to college really contribute to collective racial advancement and help to ameliorate social problems in black communities?  Or is this emphasis on formal education ensnaring a generation of young black people in irrelevant, outmoded and costly forms of education?   With so many students struggling with loan debt, and an obvious trend toward colleges targeting minority populations in the risky and expensive for-profit college sector, we can no longer innocently assume that higher education contributes to a better quality of life, however one might measure its benefits, whether economically, spiritually or politically.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, profit-driven higher education (whether by for-profit colleges or traditional colleges) often taps into the class aspirations and the hopes and dreams of working-class folks, to sell them on an education that will help improve their economic lot in life.  The evidence seems to be piling up that these students are getting sold a bill of goods, and are being entrapped in insurmountable debt, and that these admonitions to go to college need to be tempered with some critical conversations about what that means, and how to do that in a way that doesn’t place economically precarious students in even more financial risk.

The silver lining of all the recent crisis talk about higher education is that it has prompted more rigorous thinking about the meaning and purpose of higher education.  Sure, the need to justify and quantify educational outcomes is tiresome, and this pressure is in itself one of the bullying mechanisms of the corporate interests (banks, namely) that control the agenda of institutions of higher education today.  The very commodification of education on these terms is already problematic, but the criticism has prompted those of us who work in higher education, and who care about its future beyond immediate profits, to sharpen our beliefs about why the work we do is important.

Another obvious inspiration for this dissertation title which I haven’t mentioned so far is Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), a highly influential polemic on the politics of black education. I admit that what I have described thus far as over-education might also be described as “mis-education” in Woodson’s terms. I suspect that this is often what is meant when that slur of “over-educated” is directed toward the college-educated black intellectual by other blacks – not so much too much education, but too much “white” education.  Woodson’s book was directed toward an educated black elite who he felt had abandoned the black community and replaced the mission of uplift with their own individual personal advancement.  Though Woodson was a staunch advocate of black higher education, he also cautioned educated blacks about how their educations could lead them to betray the very communities from which they came.  More importantly, Woodson’s book questioned the efficacy of sending black intellectuals to be educated in institutions saturated in unchecked white supremacist ideology, and having them reproduce that ideology upon their own people.  In that most oft-repeated paragraph from the preface of the book Woodson stated:

No systematic effort toward change has been possible, for, taught the same economics, history, philosophy, literature and religion which have established the present code of morals, the Negro’s mind has been brought under the control of his oppressor. The problem of holding the Negro down, therefore, is easily solved. When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary. (xiii)

Indeed this problem of the oppressive underpinnings of these institutions remains, and Woodson’s critiques are still germane.  Consider Craig Wilder’s provocative new book Ebony and Ivy (2013) which retraces the history of slaveholding in America’s early colleges, showing how the generational institutional wealth that these institutions hold was built on the backs of black labor.  And while my dissertation also addresses the way that the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s transformed universities, it would also be a mistake to think that new programs in black studies and other areas have necessarily changed the fundamental ideology of these institutions.  In a recent review of Robyn Weigman’s book Object Lessons, Robert Reid-Pharr interrogates the white supremacist and capitalist and imperialistic underpinnings of the university, while also questioning the way that new “studies” programs, that claim to challenge these power structures, unwittingly serve to reinforce them:

I think that it gives far too much away to suggest that sexuality studies, gay and lesbian studies, Asian studies, Latin American studies, African American and Africana studies or postcolonial studies somehow concern themselves with identity, while those fields to which we most (un)consciously pay allegiance—English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch, to name the most obvious—do not. On the contrary, I suspect that one of the things announced by attaching the ugly label studies to identity knowledges forty years after they were first introduced  into American universities is to reiterate the notion that not only are they still “emerging,” but also that they can never be recognized as having arrived, never be understood to be fully engaged with “the universal” until they forthrightly substitute European and American provincialisms for their own cultural and ideological specificities. (150)

Over-Education and the Black Academic Novel

Given these debates over black intellectual life and the academic profession, the black academic novel, featuring professors and students as characters, is a creative form that is well-situated to examine the role of the university in the politics of the black intellectual. By exploring fictional representations of black intellectual life within the walls of the university and beyond them, the black academic novel has served as rich terrain for addressing the politics of the black intellectual.

I was drawn to black academic novels precisely because they confront this complex relationship between higher education and black identity.  In black academic fiction one finds depictions of black scholars wrestling with the meaning of higher education, and the expectations that are placed upon them to be racial representatives and spokespersons, whether or not they ever intended to apply for these positions, and even if they insist this should not be the case.

These novelists acknowledge that the academy is only one site of knowledge production, but reaffirm that it is an important one.  I am drawn to these novels in the way that they critically analyze the academy, and even because they tend to view the academy with some reticence and suspicion.  While these novels focus on institutions of higher education, I believe that they also represent some of the most productive thinking available about black intellectuals, whether those intellectuals work inside or outside of the academy. By addressing questions of race, community, authenticity, gender and sexuality, these works expand the potentials of black intellectual practice and provide valuable lessons on the ethics of intellectual practice itself.

In my dissertation I have tried to compile much of what I have learned about black academic novels so far, and this is just the beginning.  For now, I have a working bibliography of Black Academic Fiction posted on this blog, along with some short essays about a few specific academic novels, and I’ll be adding more close readings of specific works over the next few months. Though I’ve been laboring at this for a while, I know I’ve just scratched the surface.  I’m looking forward to discovering and reading more of these novels, stories, plays and films, and I fully expect that I will continue to revise and refine some of the ideas that I have begun to explore in this project.

Works Cited:

Anderson, James. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Cooper, Anna Julia.  The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper: Including A Voice from the South and Other Important Essays, Papers and Letters.  Edited by Charles Lemert and Esme Bahn.  Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 1998.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 1845. New York: Norton, 1996.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.  Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Johnson, Karen A. “‘In Service for the Common Good’: Anna Julia Cooper and Adult Education.” African American Review. 43.1 (Spring 2009): 45-56

Reid-Pharr, Robert.  “Tarrying with ‘Private Parts.’” Feminist Formations. 25.3 (2013): 149-153.  Muse. Web. 23 February 2014.

Scarborough, William Sanders.  “The Educated Negro and His Mission.”  Occasional Papers – American Negro Academy, Washington D.C.  8 (1903): 1-11.  The American Negro Academy Occasional Papers, 1-22.  New York: AMS, 1970.

West, Kanye.  “School Spirit Skit 1.” “School Spirit.”  “Lil Jimmy Skit.” College Dropout.  Roc-A-Fella, 2004. CD.

Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.  New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

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