Harvard Educational Review
  1. Teach Freedom

    Education for Liberation in the African American Tradition

    Charles Payne and Carol Sills Strickland

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2008. 304 pp. $29.95

    In Teach Freedom: Education for Liberation in the African-American Tradition, editors Payne and Strickland weave reprinted articles and chapters with original work analyzing and acting on the legacy of emancipatory pedagogy in the African American tradition. Organized in a frame of “Sankofa: Looking Back to Look Forward” (113), this volume brings African American educational history alive and identifies implications for roads yet traveled.

    Payne and Strickland present Teach Freedom in four parts that feature different eras in post–Civil War African American history and highlight “the self conscious use of education as an instrument of liberation among African Americans” (1). This idea is carried throughout the book—from its beginning in Reconstruction South to its end in twenty-first-century Washington, DC. Part I looks at the content and function of schools for newly freed African Americans during Reconstruction. The two chapters in this section introduce two of the book’s recurring themes: the need to understand the capacity and dignity of learners and the salience of positive self-value in emancipatory education.

    Part II introduces the formation and development of Citizenship Schools in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These schools, designed to educate illiterate adults and increase African American voter registration, were the foundation for future education for liberation projects in the civil rights movement. The three chapters in this section emphasize the prominent role of women in the day-to-day organizing of the civil rights movement, which was often undertaken in parallel institutions like Citizenship Schools.

    Part III covers the later years of the 1960s and the 1970s with several chapters detailing other institutions inspired by the Citizenship Schools. Here various authors describe the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Freedom Schools, analyze the changing pedagogy of Freedom Schools and Black Panther Party Schools, and provide different perspectives on Black Panther Party Schools. A third theme solidifies in this section: the importance of connecting individual experiences to oppressive structures. Authors argue that students were encouraged to analyze the greater political and economic structures that influenced their current condition in contrast to the self-blame that was pervasive in much of the African American community.

    Part IV features several recent models of freedom schools and education institutions with emancipatory missions, illustrating how the complexities of current education for liberation differ from the complexities of the 1960s. Chapter twelve provides one of the volume’s highlights—an exchange between Chris Myers Asch, who runs the Sunflower County Freedom Project in Mississippi, and well-known educator-activist Bill Ayers. Unfolding over several letters, the exchange provides insight into the difference between what might be characterized as Asch’s achievement ideology—“academic achievement is social action” (138)—and Ayers’s focus on the need for social action as a part of the educative experience: “The movement . . . encouraged students to come together to identify obstacles to their full humanity . . . and to mobilize to act on behalf of what their newfound knowledge demands” (135). This final part also features the most explicit appeal for utilizing lessons for future emancipation work.

    One disappointing aspect of Teach Freedom is the lack of youth voices, with the notable exception of Susan Wilcox’s chapter on the Brotherhood/Sister Sol. Strickland writes in the afterword, “When we adults listen to what youth need, give them the opportunities to shine, provide the supports that will help
    them to succeed, and encourage them to critically read their world, we are teaching freedom” (236). This book might have been just such an opportunity to listen to young people and give them a chance to shine.

    Despite the absence of young people’s voices, Teach Freedom is a powerful book that brings to light the tradition of education for liberation for African Americans. Unlike many edited volumes, Teach Freedom does not read like a compilation of disparate works; rather, it presents a complex narrative that is at once celebratory and provocative. Though not intended to be a “how to” book, teachers might learn from the tenets of education for liberation that emerge as themes throughout the volume: the need for respecting, nourishing, and utilizing the capacity of learners; the importance of learners’ positive self-value; and the value of connecting individual experience to oppressive structures. By organizing the collection as they have, Payne and Strickland urge educators to take on the struggle of educating for liberation and provide ample lessons from which to learn.
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    Book Notes

    My Most Excellent Year
    Steven Kluger

    Malcolm Gladwell

    Muslim American Youth
    Selcuk R. Sirin and Michelle Fine

    Charles R. Smith Jr.

    Teach Freedom
    Charles Payne and Carol Sills Strickland