Carter G. Woodson- Chapter 5: The Failure to Learn to Make a Living part 2

It’s Black History Month, so I am continuing with the series of posts regarding Shaw resident and Father of Black History, Carter G. Woodson and his book The Mis-Education of the Negro, published in 1933.

Continuing from part 1, which was covering the first of two themes I pulled from this chapter. The second theme was that college educated were a drag on Black businesses.

Woodson presents us with this scene:

Recently the author saw the need for a change of attitude when a young woman came almost directly to his office after her graduation from a business school to seek employment. After hearing her story he finally told her that he would give her a trial at fifteen dollars a week.

“Fifteen dollars a week!” she cried, “I cannot live on that, sir.”

“I do not see why you cannot,” he replied. “You have lived for some time already, and you say that you have never had permanent employment, and you have none at all now.”

“But a woman has to dress and to pay board,” said she; “and how can she do it on such a pittance?”

The amount offered was small, but it was a great deal more than she is worth at present. In fact, during the first six or nine months of her connection with some enterprise it will be of more service to her than she will be to the firm. Coming out of school without experience, she will be a drag on a business until she learns to discharge some definite function in it. Instead of requiring the firm to pay her she should pay it for training her. Negro business today, then, finds the “mis-educated employees” its heaviest burden. Thousands of graduates of white business schools spend years in establishments in undergoing apprenticeship without pay and rejoice to have the opportunity thus to learn how to do things.

I’m not sure if HBCUs were offering valuable internship programs at the time. Education is great, but from my own experience, internship programs provide some thin proof the student knows how to do real work. Woodson mentions an unfortunate job program for HBCU graduates.

Not long ago a firm of Washington, D. C., appealed to the graduates of several of our colleges and offered them an inviting proposition on the commission basis, but only five of the hundreds appealed to responded and only two of the five gave satisfaction. Another would have succeeded, but he was not honest in handling money because he had learned to purloin the treasury of the athletic organization while in college. All of the others, however, were anxious to serve somewhere in an office for a small wage a week.

Insert Picard Picard facepalm.Woodson comes across as a huge fan of African American entrepreneurs, who are ‘uneducated’. “The “uneducated” Negro business man, however, is actually at work doing the very thing which the “mis-educated” Negro has been taught to believe cannot be done. This much-handicapped Negro business man could do better if he had some assistance, but our schools are turning out men who do as much to impede the progress of the Negro in business as they do to help him.”

Woodson tells us that the educated African American undermines and impedes the Black businessman. They do so because the college educated Black people, like the young woman above, overvalue themselves. “The training which they undergo gives a false conception of life when they believe that the business world owes them a position of leadership.

…Mis-educated by the oppressors of the race, such Negroes expect the Negro business man to fail anyway. They seize, then, upon unfavorable reports, exaggerate the situation, and circulate falsehoods throughout the world to their own undoing. You read such headlines as GREATEST NEGRO BUSINESS FAILS, NEGRO BANK ROBBED BY ITS OFFICERS, and THE TWILIGHT OF NEGRO BUSINESS. The mis-educated Negroes, then, stand by saying:

“I told you so. Negroes cannot run business. My professors pointed that out to me years ago when I studied economics in college; and I never intend to put any of my money in any Negro enterprise.

This problem still exists. I don’t want to get into it, honestly, I don’t want to touch it with a 10 foot pole. But there is still an attitude, even in the 21st century, that has a lack of faith in the Black entrepreneur and Black owned businesses. Woodson touches upon it.

All of the failures of the Negro business, however, are not due to troubles from without. Often the Negro business man lacks common sense. The Negro in business, for example, too easily becomes a social “lion.” He sometimes plunges into the leadership in local matters. He becomes popular in restricted circles, and men of less magnetism grow jealous of his inroads. He learns how richer men of other races waste money.

Woodson’s major focus has been on the study of Black people and he is frustrated that educated AfAms didn’t apply themselves to serving this community.  His frustration is that Blacks are mis-educated in that they received an education that was dismissive of Blacks and did not provide tools to work in the areas of commerce that were open to HBCU graduates. What was worse, these graduates provided no worth to the Black businessman who hired them, but they expected to be treated like precious princes and princesses, when they didn’t bring any such royalty to the table. Then to add to that, he noticed how non-Afro-Americans have taken advantage of commercial opportunities HBCU graduates ignored.

The educated Negro from the point of view of commerce and industry, then, shows no mental power to understand the situation which he finds. He has apparently read his race out of that sphere, and with the exception of what the illiterate Negroes can do blindly the field is left wide open for foreign exploitation. Foreigners see this opportunity as soon as they reach our shores and begin to manufacture and sell to Negroes especially such things as caps, neckties, and housedresses which may be produced at a small cost and under ordinary circumstances. The main problem with the Negro in this field, however, is salesmanship; that is where he is weak.

It is unfortunate, too, that the educated Negro does not understand or is unwilling to start small enterprises which make the larger ones possible. If he cannot proceed according to the methods of the gigantic corporations about which he reads in books, he does not know how to take hold of things and organize the communities of the poor along lines of small businesses. Such training is necessary, for the large majority of Negroes conducting enterprises have not learned business methods and do not understand the possibilities of the field in which they operate. Most of them in the beginning had had no experience, and started out with such knowledge as they could acquire by observing some one’s business from the outside.





3 thoughts on “Carter G. Woodson- Chapter 5: The Failure to Learn to Make a Living part 2”

  1. Is Woodson being a “race man” here trying to say invest in the black race? Is he settling academic scores?

    I believe it was Teddy Roosevelt who spoke at Tuskegee and said something to the effect that it produced more millionaires than Harvard.

    Certainly as a personal ancetdote you saw a similar debate in India — that the curriculum wasn’t meant for daily life and was producing overeducated graduates. My own charming story on that is a few years ago an aunt was visiting and helping my mother plant daffodils — and was able to recite back the Wordsmith poem she learned in school — and when she turned 70 she finally saw a daffodil.

    That said, that same crazed system produced the CEO of Google and Microsoft and a lot of other wealth and progress.

    In terms of whether a college eduction is worth it:

    1. I’m going through several audiobooks written by African-American authors. Currently I’m on Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery. So taking that in, I am going to say Dr. Woodson was being a race man. A frustrated race man. Frustrated with the Black church (as seen in chap. 6) and frustrated with Black colleges not producing graduates who could function as industry and community leaders. He noticed the leaders and businessmen were mostly ‘un-educated’ men.

      Unfortunately, we’ve turned college into some magic place that make people smarter. Somewhere in Woodson’s book is an accusation of HBCUs almost being diploma mills. I have two graduate degrees and I don’t think college is for everyone. And the ROI is bad if you spend the money and you don’t come out with a marketable skill. I refer to my MA in History as useless and my MLS as the one that feeds me. Woodson was pointing out that ROI (if you weren’t planning on being a teacher or preacher) was bad for both the student who most likely couldn’t get a job in the white working world, and the Black community because the graduate did not add any value to Black businesses or industry.

      During the Arab Spring, there seemed to be a whole lot of unemployed Egyptian engineers in the streets protesting. I wondered why. You got a STEM degree, you should be able to apply that somewhere by getting a job at home or abroad. But alas, no. Were the degrees worthless? India produces a lot of STEM graduates, some of them show up here in America, but what happens with the rest?

      Sometimes something I learned in college helps me on the job but most of the time it’s been on the job experience. College can be just a glorified finishing school, and as a working class kid from the South, I needed the finishing school element.

  2. I think the line at my graduation was a liberal arts degree (history in my case) wouldn’t help with your first job, but it sure would help with your last one!

    For unknown reasons I’ve been reading a lot of Austria-Hungarian history, and a lot of Woodson rhymes with Polish positivism. Give up on the political project of resurrecting Poland and focus on industry and education.

    And it strikes me that he falls into a gap at the end of the life – – between a period when people thought education as a good and when the political project for the black race could get started in earnest.

    Thank you again for doing this series.

Comments are closed.