Lest We Forget—
The Hidden History of the African-American Autodidact:
A Tribute to Black History Month

by Ralph Dumain

How could one even begin to distinguish black autodidaxy as a concept from the entire history of black education in the United States, which of its very nature partakes of the most extreme outsider status? The first slave who clandestinely taught himself to read when doing so was against the law was the archetypal African-American autodidact. The whole historical struggle for education in any form in any institutional setting is such a monumental one, why would we want to set off the black autodidact as a separate subject?

The experience of black education runs the gamut from absolute autodidaxy all the way to black colleges and mainstream institutions of higher learning. Even those attaining to permanent academic posts in this last category were relegated to outsider status until very recently, and, as we know, American's racial crisis has yet to be definitively solved on any level. There are many important questions in the sociology of knowledge to be examined in all these areas, but given my concentration on the development of individual capacities by marginalized people, I want to concentrate my attention on only one slice of this spectrum, from complete autodidaxy up to the level of informal group settings and networks, as here we find the aspects of the educational process the hardest to pin down, though the character of the relationship between individual development and institutional exposure is always an open question under any circumstances. First, leaving aside both mainstream and historically black colleges and universities for the moment, I want to pare down the scope of investigation to the aspects of the subject matter that interest me the most. I want to bracket out the educational endeavors of churches, religious cults, and authoritarian political organizations, for while they may indeed thrive outside of official society, there are already plenty of such efforts that are fairly visible and easily ascertainable in everyday observation: the sort of intrepid folks who sell incense and bean pies and black literature and Afrocentric bricabrac at subway stops and flea markets are highly visible fixtures; these folks can look out for themselves. I am interested in less obvious phenomena, and of a more critical and progressive nature.

I want to reach back historically before I get down to specific individuals. One of the less researched aspects of black self-help educational efforts has to do with the development of informal and semi-formal intellectual infrastructures, not just colleges and formal schools, but other forms of networking that spread knowledge far and wide beyond formal institutions and seep into the amorphous body of everyday social interaction. Think of reading circles, book clubs, study groups, the use of YMCA branches or public libraries, lectures, classes, correspondence courses, etc. Who knows what kind of information was spread to whom under such circumstances? I am told there is a fascinating history of these phenomena in Harlem alone that has yet to be written.

Another indispensable part of this story, relating directly to autodidaxy, is the historic importance of black bibliophiles. Given that mainstream society was dedicated to writing the achievements of peoples of Africa and African descent out of history, black bibliophiles played the central role in collecting publications and disseminating information that otherwise never could have been circulated or subsequently studied. Probably most readers have heard of Arthur Schomburg, whose pioneering efforts formed the nucleus of the world-renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. You will find three books in my bibliography on the history of black book collecting, an activity in which, we might add, non-blacks also have participated prominently.

One could add to this picture by considering key booksellers and bookstores on the other end of the transaction. This is also a large topic, but of special interest to me is the historic role of New York bookseller Walter Goldwater, whose endeavors were succeeded by the recently deceased Bill French, known to me and all serious researchers doing work in Black Studies.

I'm not going to delve into the historic role of publishers right now, but what was published by independent outfits catering to popular education and who read these publications are matters of great interest. Here I am not limiting myself to black-oriented publications or publishers, but to black participation in avenues of popular education as a whole. There is a whole tradition of politicized, generic working class autodidaxy--proletarian education is one name for it-- in which black people participated also. For example, we know that Ralph Ellison read Haldeman-Julius's famed "Little Blue Books", but what else do we know of the black readership of this sort of material?

I am going to approach the philosophical aspects of the subject through key individuals of importance to history and to me personally. I am going to bypass such key well-known black historians and educators as Carter G. Woodson, creator of Negro History Week, which is now Black History Month, in favor of some other figures of central philosophical interest that illustrate my approach to the subject.

Hubert Henry Harrison, dubbed the Black Socrates, was the foremost intellectual of the New Negro Movement, which immediately preceded and partially coincided with the period of the Harlem Renaissance. The foremost black intellectual of his time, he succeeded in alienating so many of his erstwhile collaborators that he was all but forgotten only a few years after his death, to be memorialized only by a few such as J.A. Rogers and decades later by John Jackson. Though he is occasionally cited in passing in historical works as the noted Harlem soapbox orator, there is hardly ever any detail whatever presented of his life, work, or philosophy. This situation is about to be rectified by the imminent publication of two books, the first volume of the definitive Harrison biography and a Harrison reader, both by Jeffrey Perry, which will restore Harrison to his rightful place in history.

Briefly: Harrison was a consummate autodidact, who made himself knowledgeable in a number of areas, lectured and wrote on every conceivable subject from the hard sciences to literary criticism to politics. He was insistent on the necessity for black people to have encyclopedic knowledge of every conceivable subject matter and to avoid the pitfalls of provincialism, and to use critical, scientific methods of investigation and understanding of the world. Politically, Harrison began as a socialist, but could not abide continuing within the Socialist Party subjected to the pervasive white racism within the ranks of labor. Though he coined the slogan "Race First" and got into race politics on the ground floor with Marcus Garvey, Harrison ultimately rejected Garvey's reactionary politics and authoritarianism. Harrison was on the cutting edge of virtually every progressive cultural trend from sex education to women's rights. And above all, Harrison was a strident atheist and sworn enemy of the black Church. It is no wonder that recalling his legacy would make a whole lot of black folks very nervous. Harrison is a paradigmatic example of how easily you can be forgotten after you're gone, no matter how famous you are, if you don't succeed in institutionalizing yourself. White people are to blame for attempting to erase a great deal of black history, but whites are not the ones responsible for the historical neglect of Harrison (and, I may add, legions of black radicals totally ignored by bourgeois black nationalist historians). He is one of the two or three greatest heroes in the struggle for the total freedom of the black mind.

Richard Wright means more to me than just about any other figure. He should be canonized as the greatest and noblest autodidact of our time. Nobody suffered more, traversed a greater social distance, or struggled more fiercely for the right to be an intellectual. There has never been a more fanatical devotee of secularism, modernism, individualism, the destruction of tradition, and "rootless cosmopolitanism" than Richard Wright. Nobody ever fought harder against the anti-intellectual, pre-individualistic, religious character of African-American agrarian tradition than Richard Wright, who fought his way up from the bowels of human existence--Mississippi--connived and conned his way into borrowing books from the public library when black people were not allowed to do this, all the way to the cafes of Paris to hobnob as the intellectual equal of Jean-Paul Sartre. So fierce, so militant, so uncompromising was the nature of his intellectual struggle, that it is has not been properly and fully appreciated within the borders of the United States to this day, least of all by African-Americans. That Wright has been mischaracterized and slandered by black intellectuals-- the likes of Margaret Walker, Cornel West, and contemporary academic black feminists-- testifies to how deeply subversive he really was. You will see much more of my writing on Wright, and then you will learn how much is at stake in the struggle for the human mind and the role Wright plays in the ideological battle.

Ralph Ellison was college-educated, but he is central to my vision of the autodidact for what he had to say about the sociology of knowledge. Ellison's view of the unknown and unofficial transmission of knowledge and cultural influences forms the cornerstone of his democratic vision of American culture. Ellison's generous vision of the unsung greatness that flows in the veins of the American people shows more love for them than they have ever been capable of showing for themselves or for one other. Though his novel Invisible Man is often characterized as a bildungsroman, I want to focus on his nonfiction, which is saturated with his observations about what people--especially black people-- know and what they can do that you never suspected because American culture at the anonymous grassroots level is much richer than official society can know. And so Ralph Ellison told story after story to tell you what he witnessed but you didn't know existed: that he grew up in Oklahoma with a group of Negro boys who used to talk about becoming Renaissance Men. Some people would scoff at the possibility of such a thing at that place and time among those people, but Ellison testifies that it's so, and I believe him, because people haven't seen what I've seen and they don't know what I know. Ellison related the story of the Negro janitor at the statehouse who became so expert in the state legal code that legislators consulted him on fine points of law. A black man never had a chance to gain either the occupational status or the public recognition to do such work, but the human mind is such that it's got to exercise its powers when it has to express itself, to go the extra mile and give everything of itself even when there's no possibility of any recognition, to give one's all and be famous to God alone. And yet therein is the whole creative history of black America -- to exercise its talents and give everything it's got, to go for broke cause there's nothing to lose. Ellison told the story of the Negro longshoremen who sang opera ... just one of a myriad of examples to show that people nobody knows know things nobody knows they know. Now can I get a witness?

Remember, it's not just black history, it's American history, and it's not just American history, it's the human condition, and we in the United States ought to praise our good fortune, how lucky we are to contain within our borders all the peoples of the world, as the ultimate meaning of what it means to be human is still punctuated with a question mark. Nobody said it better than Ornette Coleman about the splendrous variety and magnitude of what has transpired beneath the indescribably luscious panorama of these skies: "...If only we .... could be as true .... as the skies of America!"

1 March 2000
©2000 Ralph Dumain

Richard Wright Study Guide
(includes following Wright links & more)

Richard Wright's White Man, Listen!

Richard Wright's Pagan Spain

Cornel West's Evasion of Philosophy, Or, Richard Wright's Revenge

Individual Identity, Historical Meaning, and the Unknown Autodidact

"Bonny Delaney": On Samuel R. Delaney

C.L.R. James on the (Post)Modern Intellectual

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