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A truly scholarly education, I doubt, can fit well into either one of these paradigms.

What we should argue is that the present public school systems are not truly

scholarly  and that they tend more toward propaganda and programming.



Moratorium on Theory

A Response to Wilson J. Moses by Rudolph Lewis


Most formulae that are currently presented by well-meaning contemporary Brothers and Sisters are flawed by impatience, and haste, leading to a "magpies nest" of schemes informed by incomplete knowledge of our past, and a failure to engage in the painful and pessimist appraisal of black traditions, that Harold Cruse advised in his flawed, but brilliant masterpiece The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.   His central advisory was overlooked. What he said was:  Declare a moratorium on theory until you have studied our own past.Wilson


I just read a piece by Marvin X, titled "Bridging the Racial Gap in Education." Specifically, it is a complaint about schools in California and their seeming educational failure with regard to black as well as Hispanic students. One marker of this failure is the black dropout rate of 50%, which is similar to other black urban educational systems across the country; in some systems like Detroit and Baltimore they are even higher. Seemingly, these students, however, at some point get a GED, for over 75% of blacks above 25 have at least a high school equivalency. Marvin's indictment against the public school system as presently organized is that they are "Eurocentric" and ooze with Eurocentric values in the classroom, that is, "white supremacy" or colonial-like "domination" values. And thus he recommends independent black schools supported by blacks with curriculums influenced primarily by Afrocentrists like Dr.Wade Nobles.

These kinds of criticisms and recommendations made me take your advice to heart: "Most formulae that are currently presented by well-meaning contemporary Brothers and Sisters are flawed by impatience, and haste, leading to a "magpies nest" of schemes informed by incomplete knowledge of our past." Further, it makes me think of your book Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent (1992). Crummell was a priest and an above-average preacher. Of his writings we are mostly left with his sermons. But Crummell wanted to be a teacher. He wanted to transmit the principles of civilization into the minds of young black scholars. You point out his catalogue by which he would "introduce among our youthful citizens a sound and elevating English literature" (150). Among these one cannot find one black writer, not even Frederick Douglass' Narrative nor The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa.

Before he reached Cambridge, most of Crummell's learning took place in independent schools for blacks, beginning with the African Free School in New York. His schoolmates included Samuel Ringgold Ward, Henry Highland Garnet, and James McCune Smith.  Crummell’s education was thoroughly Eurocentric, yet he was by  turns a black nationalist, a Pan Africanist, a colonizationist, an abolitionist, a Liberian and African nationalist, a Civilizationist, an Ethiopianist, an Anglophile, and sometimes all at once. These ideological perspectives were more a commitment to black uplift rather than a pedagogical commitment to what we consider today cultural “blackness,” which Marvin (or Dr. M) thinks will make a difference in the scholarly commitment of black children. He proffers no evidence such a catalog or curriculum guarantees a different scholarly production.

For much of his life Crummell wanted to head a black college, to found black schools. Of course, he would not have wanted to start black schools to teach Afrocentric texts or black folklore, or the current black mythologies or any of the recommended texts for today's black independent schools. He would want his black students to master the European classics, be able to read Greek and Latin and know other European languages. One wonders indeed whether teaching Afrocentrist texts primarily would decrease black dropout rates. Crummell had no love for black popular education as we now formulate it. Popular culture did not then have the critical influence as it has now.

Wilson J. Moses' Alexander Crummell book can teach us much about the problems of founding independent black schools and other black "independent" institutions and their dependency on white benefactors. The problem is always money and usually the money among us do not go heavily into black educational commitments or experimental institutions and when they do they are geared toward getting one's students ready to pass entrance exams for the best Ivy League schools.

In his racial career, Crummell was concerned with "the spreading of a cosmopolitan civilization, rather than the nurturing of a cultural nationalism or separatism" (Alexander Crummell, 130).  Middle-class African American parents (on the whole) are more in line, it seems, with Crummell’s idea of education as a means of mastering the principles of Western civilization to assimilate and to become successful, goals which have very little to do with political rebellion or decolonization or creating cultural warriors as an advance guard against cultural oppression or establishing a separate distinct racial nationalism.

I am afraid that the curriculums imagined by some Pan Africanist, black nationalists, and Afrocentists won’t do that, in any event. American realities have their demands that must be satisfied. Marvin suggests that the Black Arts Movement (BAM) threw a “monkey wrench” into the assimilationist plans of American public education. He says “even though the [black] revolution was aborted, enough information made it through the Cointelpro operation to alter the consciousness of a generation of students whose children and grandchildren are now of age and even in their unconsciousness are in rebellion against the Eurocentric domestic colonial regime. The children know something is very very wrong here and hence over fifty per cent drop out of the school system before graduation.” Such transmission is speculative at best. But if mindless rebellion was indeed transmitted, all the worst for us. From this perspective we are as blameworthy as "Cointelpro."

So, according to Marvin (Dr. M), the 60s literary revolution is a cause, then, of the present scholarly revolt of public school students, as manifested in the 50% drop-out rates. It is not the lack of such BAM texts, even if the more important ones were available in print, existing in today's public school education. The problem is how we regard and approach such texts, or any black texts. I wonder indeed in such Afrocentric schools would there be a study of an Alexander Crummell or even a Martin Delany. Both Crummell and Delany would have serious criticisms of contemporary "blackism" or the "bitterness" found in Black Arts texts. These 60s' texts of rebellion, I doubt, would provide the skeptical scholarly approach to a well-rounded education that black students require to operate truly as liberated beings in our contemporary world.

In a recent black Canadian commentary, “Debunking myths about African centred schools” (The Star),  the authors George J. Sefa Dei and Arlo Kempf believe “Often integration means giving up one's identity in a so-called "multicultural mosaic." What “identity” these authors reference is unstated and unclear to me or any reader. If one seeks a Canadian identity, integration seems the path to take. Their characterization of the desired black independent school is similarly obscure: “They will be open to all who share Afrocentric ideals, who have high expectations of the learner and who are willing to go the extra mile to ensure success for all. The African-centred school is defined more by a set of principles and philosophies governing the conduct of school than the race of its students and teachers.” Most parents of black public school children would be similarly puzzled by the concept of “Afrocentric ideals.” I know that I am.

In such schools I wonder what use would be made of say the life of Martin R. Delany or his The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States (1852) and its criticism of black life in America. Or whether such schools would be willing to deal thoroughly with 19th century African American intellectual life at all, which has a Victorian cast to it, and their emphasis on the "civilization and Christianization of Africa." Of course, it could not be done adequately without a knowledge of white American, English, and European intellectual history and life.

The dualistic arguments about a white vs. a black education are indeed rationally problematic. Neither can fit neatly into a vacuum. It is to escape one evil and to enter another. A truly scholarly education, I doubt, can fit well into either one of these paradigms. What we should argue is that the present public school systems are not truly scholarly and that they tend more toward propaganda and programming. That is indeed to be avoided. But we do not want a black version of the same problem.

I haven't read Delany fully since the early 80s when I was writing my master's thesis. I need to read him again.  His The Condition and other black texts of the 19th century should indeed have their readings in public schools. But we do not have the teachers prepared to teach such texts in white or black systems and if they were prepared I do not think that they would be allowed to teach them. And if they were allowed to teach them I am uncertain that black students would respond any better to them than the ones they now seemingly reject.

I came across an interesting passage from The Condition, which maybe relevant to our present economic concerns:

White men are producers—we are consumers. They build houses, and we rent them. They raise produce, and we consume it. They manufacture clothes and wares, and we garnish ourselves with them. They build coaches, vessels, cars, hotels, saloons, and other vehicles and places of accommodations, and we deliberately wait until they have got them in readiness, then walk in, and contend with as much assurance for 'right,' as though the whole thing was bought, paid for, and belonged to us (The Condition 45).

With all our supposed wealth (buying power) and education and cosmopolitan sophistication, how many black spokesmen would make such a candid statement to our contemporary black middleclass consumers. And if they did, what indeed would be their recommendations in how to respond to it? It seems indeed that they should have enough study and scholarly background to be critical of the one that Delany offered over a century ago. So indeed Moses' advisory (cross) should be taken up by us all: "Declare a moratorium on theory until you have studied our own past."

Even those of us with advanced degrees have holes in our knowledge of the past whether it is black or white or Hispanic or other literatures. The search for knowledge indeed cannot cease at graduate ceremonies.

posted 17 November 2007

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Dear Rudy,
I want to thank you and Wilson J. Moses for advising that we be cautious in our race for theory.  I receive criticism for being against theory.  I am not anti-theory, but I detest how mindlessly it is used in contemporary literary, political, and cultural discussions. May both of you have peaceful holidays.— Jerry

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Yes, Jerry, I've paid attention to your writings and I have noted the carefulness of your responses and the nuanced expression. That is not to say that your writings do not have force and conviction. They do and can be very powerful.
I am quite fond of Wilson. His Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent (1992) is excellent and provides a wonderful portrait of 19th century African American intellectual life. I wish I could convince everyone that it is a masterpiece of scholarship and moreover it is exceedingly well written and nuanced, with numerous surprising expressions adequate and appropriate for the context.
Here's an example of what I mean:
"His voyage to England was not, as in the case of Frederick Douglass, an ambassador from the slave community, Crummell represented the black burghers of New York and had worked hard on their behalf. Then, with apparent suddenness, he had decided to enroll in Cambridge, but only the better (he told himself) to prepare for the continuation of his work in New York. Thus his friends who had sent him to England and continued to 'advise' him while he pursued his studies were shocked and disappointed when he seemed to be taking up the colonizationist cause. Crummell's letters to Jay on the eve of his departure for Africa—lengthy and defensive—indicate that he had found it necessary to convince not only his friends, but himself, that he was doing the right thing" (86).

I wish you too the best of the holiday season.Rudy

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We certainly seem stuck in the consumer class.—Kam

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Of course, business today does not operate in the same way as it did a century ago during the time of Martin R. Delany. How many blacks, if any, are among American manufacturers I am uncertain. I know of one, Michele Hoskins, CEO/founder of Michele Foods. Whether  capitalists operate racially, as Delany seemed to suggest, first and foremost, is rather suspect, in any case. For capitalists racial ideology is probably less important than profit making, though of course they can be quite brutal and unscrupulous.
Money making occurs in other fields today than just mining,  agriculture, manufacturing, oil and gas, e.g., media (radio, TV, newspapers), advertising, book publishing, entertainment (including sports), health care, financial, real estate, and other service industries, employ great numbers and produce great wealth for such institutions, their CEOs, and for other higher echelon employees. The black owners and higher echelon employees among these service industries may be greater, in which some blacks have become quite wealthy.

What ethnic responsibility or duty they may feel, in the manner of a Delany or a Crummell remains another matter. They are probably all good family men and women and probably are quite willing to pass down such success within the family or those on the periphery of family. They be involved as well in some philanthropy. How far out that kind of business success extends is probably rather limited. What kind of politics they indulge again is still another matter.
I just went to a family farm house dedication sponsored by the daughter of a black farmer who had 13 children. He died a few years back over a 100 years old. The youngest daughter now in her 60s owns a hair salon of considerable size in the Baltimore region,  which provides numerous customer services, including acupuncture, and thus she's an employer of numerous black women and maybe others as well. Her father left her the old farm house and she decided to restore and improve it, as a kind of family legacy or monument. At a gathering of family and friends here in the woods of southern Virginia this evening, she revealed that she's a multi-millionaire. Of course, she's a consumer as well.
You might call her a Christian capitalist, small relatively, I think. She seems to think that her early foundation in bible reading to her illiterate father, the family obligation of church going, and Christian activities, such as tithing, eventually after some torments and difficulties, made a difference in her business activities as a hair care specialist (then a business owner and manager) which all ended in a good measure of financial success, an enterprise that began some 30 years ago. Whether her millions are in the ones, tens, or hundreds, I would have been too embarrassed to enquire.
Where she would fit in a Marxist or neo-Marxist analysis, I am uncertain. We have probably since emancipation always produced such talented and wealthy individuals. I am uncertain how this little story relates to Delany's white producers and us as mostly black consumers. From my count most whites are consumers as well.Rudy

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Economic versus Cultural IssuesSuch ignorance of economics in favour of cultural issues has the active support of the ruling class: "For the sake of keeping the proles quiet, the super-rich will have to keep up the pretense that national politics might someday make a difference. Since economic decisions are their prerogative, they will encourage politicians, of both Left and Right, to specialize in cultural issues. The aim will be to keep the minds of the proles elsewhere . . . with ethnic and religious hostilities, and with debates about sexual mores" (87-8). In order to talk less about stigma and more about money, Rorty suggests that the Left should declare a "moratorium on theory" and should attempt to "mobilize what remains of our pride in being Americans" (91-2). American leftists today should derive their moral identity from their "citizenship in a democratic nation-state, and from leftist attempts to fulfill the promise of that nation" (97).Willem Maas’ Review of Richard Rorty. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998

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The White Masters of the World

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Ancient African Nations

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