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Hidden Education Among African Americans During Slavery

by Grey Gundaker - 2007

Background/Context: Historical studies examine aspects of African American education in and out of school in detail (Woodson 1915, 1933, Bullock 1970, Anderson 1988, Morris 1982, Rachal 1986, Rose 1964, Webber 1978, Williams 2005). Scholars of African American literacy have noted ways that education intersects other arenas such as religion and expressive culture (Cornelius 1991, Gundaker 1998).

Objective: Most of the papers in this volume focus on contemporary ethnographic research that explores processes of “education” outside of schooling which are hidden by the dominance of “schooling” and “learning” as paradigms for what education “is.”

Population: However, African Americans under enslavement often had to hide educational practices, especially those relating to literacy, under threat of violence. Thus the stakes of education were high indeed with much to teach about the “hidden processes of deliberate change” (Varenne, this volume) that are the subject of this special issue.

Research Design: This paper examines three interrelated kinds of activity from a historical anthropological perspective: 1) invisible or seemingly extraneous aspects of schooling and efforts to orchestrate school-like activities; 2) hidden and not so hidden literacy acquisition; and 3) expressive practices with educational dimensions for participants that remained largely invisible to outsiders.

Conclusions: “Hidden education” in the Quarter involved a double language that addressed both the world as it “is” and the world as it could or should be; the world that outsiders control and the one that insiders are continually educating each other to make. Thus, it seems the enslaved have contributed a more complex theory of education than that which informs much of today’s schooling. Similarly, they have left a legacy of valuable educative skills that schools today often undervalue.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 7, 2007, p. 1591-1612
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13814, Date Accessed: 4/11/2021 12:27:22 AM

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About the Author
  • Grey Gundaker
    College of William and Mary
    E-mail Author
    GREY GUNDAKER is an associate professor of American studies and anthropology. Her research interests include education outside of schools, literacies, landscape, and material culture in the African Diaspora. She is the author of Signs of Diaspora/Diaspora of Signs: Creolization, Literacies, and Vernacular Practice in African America (Oxford, 1998); coauthor (with Judith McWillie) of No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yards (University of Tennessee, 2005); and “Give Me a Sign”: Networks of Print and Practice in African America, 1770–1840,” in Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley, eds., A History of the Book in America, vol. 2., University of North Carolina Press.
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