Carter G. Woodson- Chapter 8: Professional Education Discouraged

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.

Carter G. Woodson as a young man
Carter G. Woodson as a young man

I’m going to look at the title of this and get to a couple of paragraphs that show where African Americans were discouraged from investing in themselves, to hone their craft. Dr. Woodson does mention other “professions” in the professional class, but the points are with the artists.

In music, dramatics and correlated arts, too, the Negro has been unfortunately misled. Because the Negro is gifted as a singer and can render more successfully than others the music of his own people, he has been told that he does not need training. Scores of those who have undertaken to function in this sphere without adequate education, then, have developed only to a certain point beyond which they have not had ability to go. We cannot easily estimate how popular Negro musicians and their music might have become had they been taught to the contrary.

But I can think back to his example in Chapter 7 of a Virginia preacher who was talented, went to school and was the worse for it. In some cases, where the musician can’t read or transcribe music, I can see where more training would make him/her a better artist. However, I can also see how it can take a talented & popular jazz musician and turn him into an insufferable so-in-so who refuses to play anything the masses want to hear.

We have long had the belief that the Negro is a natural actor who does not require any stimulus for further development. In this assertion is the idea that because the Negro is good at dancing, joking, minstrelsy and the like he is “in his place” when “cutting a shine” and does not need to be trained to function in the higher sphere of dramatics. Thus misled, large numbers of Negroes ambitious for the stage have not bloomed forth into great possibilities. Too many of them have finally ended with rôles in questionable cafés, cabarets, and night clubs of America and Europe; and instead of increasing the prestige of the Negro they have brought the race into disgrace.

Josephine Baker, notable dancer

Is he throwing shade at Josephine Baker? Okay maybe not just her, personally, but that’s some level of shade. He also says, “The large majority of Negroes have settled down, then, to contentment as ordinary clowns and comedians. They have not had the courage or they have not learned how to break over the unnatural barriers and occupy higher ground.” Not everyone can be a pretentious artist who plays undanceable jazz or performs confusing choreography. Woodson is writing in the 1930s and this sort of criticism of Black comedians and artists (musicians, dancers, actors, etc) hasn’t gone out of style.

On a more serious (not that the entertainment industry isn’t serious) note, Woodson remarks on the discouragement in other professions that have more of an impact on the Black community.

Negroes, then, learned from their oppressors to say to their children that there were certain spheres into which they should not go because they would have no chance therein for development. In a number of places young men were discouraged and frightened away from certain professions by the poor showing made by those trying to function in them. Few had the courage to face this ordeal; and some professional schools in institutions for Negroes were closed about thirty or forty years ago, partly on this account.

This was especially true of the law schools, closed during the wave of legislation against the Negro, at the very time the largest possible number of Negroes needed to know the law for the protection of their civil and political rights….

When the doors are closed, that limits where the talented and capable can go. “The largest numbers of Negroes in professions other than the ministry or education are physicians, dentists, pharmacists, lawyers and actors.”

This chapter is not missing the usual swipe at ‘educated’ Blacks.

…there are many Negroes who still follow those early teachings, especially the “highly educated” who in school have been given the “scientific” reasons for it. It is a most remarkable process that while in one department of a university a Negro may be studying for a profession, in another department of the same university he is being shown how the Negro professional man cannot succeed. Some of the “highly educated,” then, give their practice to those who are often inferior to the Negroes whom they thus pass by. Although there has been an increase in these particular spheres, however, the professions among Negroes, with the exception of teaching and preaching, are still undermanned.