Classic Learning in Black History: Part II
By Dr. Anika Tene' Prather
I went from being suspicious of the Great Books to being obsessed with them. But not everyone approved of my enthusiasm.
In this three-part series, Dr. Prather shares the journey that took her from looking askance at classic learning to becoming its fervent advocate. Click here for Part I.
I was walking down the hallway at the school one day when I happened to catch a glimpse of the Great Books class. The class was made up of six Black male high school students. The teacher was an excellent teacher, fully committed to the education of Black students, but she found herself really struggling to get the students to engage. They were leaning back in their chairs, talking, and overall disinterested in the material. She was frustrated. When I asked her about how it was going, she said that it did not make sense for the school to be making these students read these texts, because they were not culturally relevant. On the surface I felt she was right, yet I felt a sense of loyalty to the vision my parents had, even if I did not agree with parts of it. So I agreed to assist her by using music and drama to help the students connect with the books.
I got my list of books and took them home to begin studying so I could create my lesson plans. This process drew me in, because of how I had come to connect deeply with Aristotle’s Poetics while studying at NYU. When he said “Art imitates nature,” that resonated with me as I was forming my thinking on theatre in education. I felt that if a student could connect to a text by performing it, the text would become a part of them and open their minds. This class would be my first laboratory in which to test this perspective. Little did I know that by doing this experiment, my life would change forever.
Bringing drama into the Great Books class worked wonderfully. The students became so engaged with the texts that they could readily speak and write about them; the process totally changed their worldview and sense of selves. Now that they were understanding the material, they felt smart and capable. Even with this success, and eventually taking over the class, I was still not convinced of the importance of reading these texts; seeing how reading the Great Books impacted the students did nothing for my self-motivation. At this point, I was simply collecting a check and relishing in the victory of getting the students to engage in the literature. Yet I honestly felt that Black people had no need to read these books. We could live and thrive in this world without having them as a part of our lives. It still seemed like a waste of time.
One evening my parents and I were relaxing in our family room, watching TV. I lay sprawled on the sectional couch. Next to me was a bookshelf. I turned my head to scan the titles of books on the shelf and saw W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. Now, I am a woman of faith and I believe that nothing happens by accident, so when I say that this next moment was magical, I cannot emphasize it enough; it changed my entire mindset in a matter of seconds. I picked up the book and it fell open to the essay “Of the Training of Black Men.” I read the essay and was slowly drawn into the philosophical world of Du Bois. Specifically, I was learning about his thoughts on why Classical education is a way whereby Black people can free their minds. He argues that studying the Great Books reveals the equality of both races. Seeing ourselves as equal in a country that has enslaved and oppressed us was indispensable. For too long Black people have sought out the white man to place their stamp of equality on us, but it is vital for us to see it within ourselves. The knowledge Du Bois sees us gaining through reading these texts is not just to say, “Hey, we are just as smart as you because we can understand these texts too.” That is what I had been thinking, and I seriously wrestled with that idea of doing something to prove myself to someone. But in these books he found a world where all men were equal, with common experiences to be shared. These experiences solidify our common humanity. These books tell the human story, not just the “white” story. Du Bois writes a kind of ode to his belief in the power of this body of literature:
I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. … I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?
I love how he uses the metaphor of dancing in this passage: he is dancing with the authors, engaging with them, connecting to them, and he feels nothing but equality and acceptance. At this moment, I realized that I had been reading the text as if my current experiences with racism and white supremacy were behind these books. But most of these authors did not know or experience what America has been like; they were coming from a completely different place. This is not to say prejudice and racism didn’t exist back then, just not in the same way as I experienced it here in America. These authors were not writing to promote a racist worldview—I sincerely believe they were innocent in that regard. They were simply writing the human story, and if I could free myself of the chains racism had wrapped around my mind, then I could see that. Reading this passage gave me completely new eyes.
From that point on I began to use Du Bois’ text as an ice-breaker for my classes and in the teacher training I was now doing in the school. Yet even finding Du Bois was just a spark of the oncoming flame. I discovered an entire world in learning how the education of Black people after emancipation, and even during slavery, involved the Classics; I would even venture to say that most Black people were educated in this way. At first, Classical education provided to newly freed people was common. We see this in the stories of Anna Julia Cooper, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Martin Luther King. We even see it in Frederick Douglass, who, although self-taught, was quite proficient in studying ancient texts, favoring the works of Cicero.
As Blacks began to progress intellectually under this type of education, white supremacist ideology felt it necessary to take it away. Desegregation ironically solidified this process: rather than give all students an equally Classical education, schools were levelled down instead of up. Committed Black teachers (most having been trained classically) were replaced with white teachers, and Black teachers were mandated not to continue Classical material with Black students. Anna Julia Cooper, who was principal of the M Street School in D.C., was removed by the school board because of her unwillingness to stop teaching Latin and other Classical subjects to her Black students; Nannie Helen Burroughs’ school required all its students to take Latin and Classical studies, yet that school no longer exists.
As I shared earlier, I am a soul learner. Once I am motivated from within, I become insatiable in my desire to learn all I can about a subject. Having found this bridge between my people and Classical education, I began to read any and everything, developing a personal log of many of the texts written by Black authors that cited the Great Books. I also continued to research the history of Classical education in the African American community. With these discoveries, I felt ready to continue my graduate studies by obtaining a Masters from St. John’s College, and ultimately a PhD from the University of Maryland in Curriculum and Instruction.
My growing passion for Classical education was still very green, so when I started my doctorate program, my topic was on how the arts can be used in the high school English literature class. Yet as I was trying to settle on this topic and begin my research, Classical education kept beckoning for me. I began to share this with my advisor, but my interest was not well received. With most people, Black or white, whom I shared this interest with, I was met with a great deal of resistance—even hostility. Black people accused me of being an Uncle Tom, and white people were hostile because they considered these texts to be “theirs.”
I was also serving as a graduate assistant to a professor at the time. She noticed me wrestling with my growing passion for the relevance of Classical education to the African American community. No matter how much I was reading about theatre in education, my mind was drawn to Socrates or Douglass or Du Bois or Aristotle, and to their “conversations” with each other. Heidegger said, “To think is to confine yourself to a single thought that one day stands still like a star in the world’s sky”; this fascination with Classical education and its connection to the history of Black people in America had become just such an all-consuming thought. As I shared what was happening to me with her, she suggested that I make this my dissertation topic. I was scared. I’d already had a glimpse at how it would be received, both in academia and in my own community. I did not want to place myself in such a controversial space. The title alone, “Great Books,” was already problematic; I did not want to always feel as if I had to explain myself to people. But her final words captured me: “Anika, you have to follow your heart.”
At that moment, I decided to change my research topic. Once that became known, what I suspected came to pass. It was not a topic my adviser or most people in my department were interested in. At one point a friend suggested that I drop the topic and just choose one that would get enough support so I could get out of my program easier. Yet the Great Books clung to my soul. I could not let them go. So I pressed on. I was very alone, but the books became my constant companions: Cooper, Du Bois, and Douglass were the guardians of my heart. Every time I read something from them, I felt stronger. But was I on the right path?
One more person set my feet firmly on that path. My mom introduced me to her. I had been sharing with her how isolated I felt, and how that isolation sometimes gave way to doubt. One day my mom called me, overflowing with excitement. “Nika, turn on the TV! There’s a movie on about a lady who believed in teaching the Great Books to Black kids.” I turned on the TV. There was Cicely Tyson playing Marva Collins, the foundress of Chicago’s Westside Preparatory School, which catered specifically to Black children. I will never forget seeing the little boy recite a passage from Socrates about being a citizen of the world. I really was not alone. The community was small, but here was a lady in my own time period, using these books to teach Black students. Finding Marva Collins sealed my love. There was no turning back.
Dr. Anika Tene’ Prather has degrees from Howard University, NYU, the University of Maryland at College Park, and St. John’s College here in Annapolis. She currently teaches in the Classics Department at Howard University, and is the founder of The Living Water School, which she was inspired to start by her three creative and curious children.
Page photo of Founders Library at Howard University, taken by Derek E. Morton and obtained via Wikipedia under fair use (CC BY-SA 4.0 license).