Educating Harlem. A Century of Schooling and Resistance in a Black Community

Erickson, Ansley T.; Morrell, Ernest
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Rezensiert für die Historische Bildungsforschung Online bei H-Soz-Kult von:
Kevin Myers, School of Education, University of Birmingham

America’s Great Migration during which around six million people moved from the rural South to cities north and west between roughly 1915 and 1970 has become established as a defining moment of African-American history. It has inspired a whole range of cultural and artistic responses, including novels, plays and paintings and, of course, numerous histories, including the recent bestseller The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.1 Education may not have featured prominently in this body of work but, as the scholarly and absorbing collection under review makes clear, it was central to the hopes of those who arrived and settled in Central Harlem.

These migrants, and their descendants, are the key actors in Educating Harlem. Across thirteen substantive chapters, and in both introductory and concluding essays, authors examine struggles against racism and white privilege from the 1920s to the 2010s. Their campaigns addressed every aspect of both formal and non-formal education. Educational activists, as Thomas Harbinson makes clear, fought against an educational discourse that legitimated differential curricula based on specious notions of intelligence, ability or cultural disadvantage. Several contributions, but especially Kimberley Johnson’s chapter on the closure of Wadleigh High School, trace the fight against the educational segregation of Black children. Dilapidated, poorly equipped and overcrowded schools remained a common experience for Black children across the period. Even when new schools were built, as in the case of Intermediate School 201 brilliantly examined by Marta Gutman, they had to organise to resist the principles of containment and exclusion that informed modern architectural approaches to Black populations.

Educational activists also contested ideas about teachers’ identity and teaching quality. The central message of Clarence Taylor’s somewhat elegiac account of the demise of the New York City Teachers Union (TU) is that partnerships between home and school were capable of achieving real change. The specific partnerships under discussion were rooted in a communist politics that was severely weakened by early Cold War anti-communism and the wave of dismissals, resignations and forced retirements imposed by New York’s Board of Education on supposedly dangerous teachers.

At the same time, and as the empirical data presented and interpreted by Rogers and White clearly demonstrates, Harlem resisted the shrinking proportion of Black teachers that was the national trend after desegregation and until the turn of the century. The employment of Black teachers in Harlem, who were often substitute teachers without accreditation, partly reflected activist ideals around culturally inclusive learning for social justice. Yet these ideals, and the commitment of those teachers, did not prevent criticism of their work in the face of continued inequalities of educational outcomes for Black students. Nick Juravich interprets these criticisms as politically motivated, and both racist and sexist, and his combative chapter traces how New York City mayor, and conservative Democrat, Ed Koch targeted the Black and Latina working class women who had entered Harlem schools as paraprofessionals.

Yet, and as Brittany Lewer’s nuanced chapter on the work of educational reformer Babette Edwards shows, those critiques gained traction with some educational activists. Edwards was drawn to the languages of choice, quality and accountability, languages normally associated with the political right, precisely because she was frustrated by the radicalism she regarded as failing Black children. In half a century of work from the late 1960s onwards, Edwards spent a lifetime searching for the modes of governance, and a mode of parental engagement, that would help provide an effective education for low-income families.

Black educational struggles were not, of course, simply oppositional. One of the fundamental challenges that this eclectic and admirable group of teachers, educators and public intellectuals had to carry was to imagine, construct and communicate an educational vision for the future. Daniel Pearlstein’s chapter identifies in the Harlem Renaissance/New Negro era a specific strand of educational thought and practice, influenced by educational progressivism, in which individual agency and artistic self-expression were imagined as the tools for personal, collective, and social transformation. These ideas were distinctly modernist and they stimulated a good deal of pedagogical innovation that was consistent with modern liberal ideals. Rabin and Kindel’s fascinating investigation into the Human Relations Film Series, a pedagogical approach combining the use of film with the growing influence of psychoanalysis, demonstrates how new technologies could aid resistance to discrimination and racism, but much depended on who used them and how they were used. Jonna Perillo makes a beautifully written plea for the enduring importance of Langston Hughes’ work, and in particular his First Book of Negroes (1952), in providing the teaching materials for building a Black personhood based on a ‘deep sense of history, identity and place’ (p. 131).

All the contributors to this engaging book subscribe, more or less explicitly, to the idea that historical study and understanding can provide the resources to build inclusive identities. This book, and the archival project of which it forms a part, tell a history of educational struggle. It is a history determined to give voice and meaning to those decades of struggle, to acknowledge the efforts of those committed to Black children and to offer guides for future action. It is, in other words, history in its exemplary mode.

Yet, and as Erickson and Morrell acknowledge in a thoughtful editorial conclusion, there are always other ways to tell these stories. „Good work“, they argue, „should broaden our perspective“ (p. 335). One way of doing that would be to pay more sustained attention to the different waves of migration to Harlem and to the experiences, that were both distinct and overlapping, of migrants from the Caribbean and Latin America. Russell Rockford’s persuasive chapter on Black Power, and Juravich’s focus on women who were both African-American and Latina are the only chapters to broaden the scope of enquiry beyond the national story of the Great Migration.

Yet this is undeniably an international story too. The roots of the Great Migration lie in the international slave trade but, with the exception of Rockford’s chapter and some concluding observations by the editors, there is little sense here of the Black Atlantic or of a Black Diaspora. The work of Sylvia Wynter, Hazel Carby or Paul Gilroy, for example, rooted in an attempt to transcend the racialized identities that are a legacy of colonialism do not appear.2 The result is that, overall, the book can feel a little parochial and the international significance of Harlem as an idea, and the deep significance it held for Black community activists across the Atlantic is not adequately explored.

A more diasporic framing may also have helped authors to open up the multiple references to the new futures, dreamscapes and visions that were imagined by these activists. This quality of thinking, or dreaming, seems so central to the whole educational enterprise that it warranted some unpacking. How were these visions connected to their present? What was the reach of the future? Were those dreams conditioned, or affected by, class, gender, race? Were they opened up, made more expansive, or somehow more „historical“, by the pedagogical projects under discussion?

The relationship between past and present is, of course, the familiar terrain of the historian. Yet perhaps adding „future“ to that dyad, and finding a way to conceptualise how actors imagined the future, might help with the task that Erickson and Morrell describe as „moving beyond history“ identify at the end of the text. Perhaps one of the defining powers of racism that Pearlstein identifies is that it compels us to think about pasts and futures in spatial and linear sequences. Trapped in debates about measuring progress and decline, seeking rebels and resisters who can serve as inspirations, perhaps there are other ways, less bounded by modern projects of colonialism, in which we can imagine, and heal, pasts, presents and futures.

1 Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Sons: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, New York 2010.
2 See, for example, David Scott, The re-enchantment of humanism: An interview with Sylvia Wynter, in: Small Axe 4 (2000), pp. 119–207; Hazel Carby, Black Futurities: Shapeshifting Beyond the Limits of the Human, in: Invisible Culture, 31 November 2020, (07.08.2021); Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London 1993.

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