Home / Archive  / New Book Highlights Early 20th-Century African-American Education Intellectuals


Keffrelyn and Anthony Brown

Two UT College of Education professors highlight three black education leaders’ ideas, providing a counternarrative to today’s challenges

Black Intellectual Thought in Education: The Missing Traditions of Anna Julia Cooper, Carter G. Woodson, and Alain LeRoy Locke was recently published by associate professors Keffrelyn Brown and Anthony Brown. The following is a Q&A with the authors.

Can you provide a brief overview of Anna Julia Cooper, Carter G. Woodson, and Alain Leroy Locke and the importance of their ideas?

During the early 20th century, science, theology, social science, and popular discourse regularly portrayed African Americans in dehumanizing ways. Each of the authors had a profound belief in affirming the humanity of Black Americans. Given the time-period, this was no small task.

  • Anna Julia Cooper: In seeking to redress the common discourse of this period, Cooper’s ideas focused on the intersection of race and gender in the context of African American women’s lives. She held fast to the promise of American democracy to live up to its highest ideals of being a truly egalitarian society. In her words, “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class – it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.” And from this standpoint, Cooper maintained that schools and curriculum were vital spaces for African Americans to reach their highest potential.
  • Carter G. Woodson: Woodson’s ideas focused the potential for knowledge to challenge the existing fallacies about Black life. He believed that a rich African American history must circumvent the pervasive effects of what he called “mis-education.” His project was multilayered and involved the reconceptualization of knowledge as a process that occurred in academic settings, K-12 classrooms, and in the life of the masses.
  • Alain Locke: Locke was a philosopher who promoted the idea that African American culture provided key insight about the human experience as valuable as European cultural forms. He also wrote extensively about cultural pluralism, particularly when it came to African Americans’ placement in American society, as well as on race, the arts, and valuation theory.

These three authors wrote during a time in which African Americans were struggling with a new set of social, economic, political, and racial injustices. They each wrote extensively about the contexts that shaped African Americans’ experience in the U.S., while also providing in-depth ideas about education, race, and history—ideas that could have theoretical application to our most pressing social and educational issues of the present.

What counternarrative do these scholars provide to the dominant discourse in education and critical social theory, and why is it necessary?

Cooper, Woodson, and Locke wrote about ideas concerning education, culture, race, and curriculum that predate some of the canonic texts and authors that are often cited in the foundational discourse of education. Their ideas powerfully illustrate the careful and thoughtful intellectual discourse tied to African Americans’ experiences.

This counternarrative is important because it challenges the veneration of an exclusive, selective tradition of critical social thought. This canon of scholarship is legitimized by and grounded in a Western, White-dominant worldview. The intent of this book, however, is not to replace one canon with another, but to show the diverse contexts from which ideas take form.

Black Intellectual Thought in Education has been adopted for use in the Curriculum and Instruction department of The College of Education at UT-Austin.

-Photo by Christina S. Murrey