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From the Middle Passage to Black Lives Matter: Ancestral Writing as a Pedagogy of Hope

reviewed by Nicole Ross & Esther Ohito - July 06, 2020

coverTitle: From the Middle Passage to Black Lives Matter: Ancestral Writing as a Pedagogy of Hope
Author(s): Marva McClean
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 143315546X, Pages: 160, Year: 2019
Search for book at Amazon.com

Storytelling might be seen as a relatively benign everyday… practice. However, the stories we choose to tell are framed by a consideration of place as storied within unevenly distributed power relations that shape what stories matter and what stories are told. (Nxumalo & Villanueva, p. 221)

Marva McClean’s (2019) From the Middle Passage to Black Lives Matter: Ancestral Writing as a Pedagogy of Hope is certainly an apropos read for the current time during which the Black Lives Matter movement has gained unprecedented momentum. McClean wrestles with pedagogical issues emerging from the subjugation, miseducation, and prejudice that affect Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) around the world. To illustrate, McClean stories her personal experience grappling with these issues as a self-described (Black) Indigenous scholar. Although conversations around these issues have proliferated in the era of Black Lives Matter, McClean makes clear that they have been challenges to and challenged by BIPOC communities since the transatlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage. McClean approaches these issues from a pedagogical standpoint, ultimately making a case for incorporating “alternative” funds of knowledge (such as cultural narratives, ancestral wisdom, ritual, dance, oral histories, music, and intergenerational teaching practices of communities of color) into the classroom in an effort to disrupt prevailing Eurocentric meta-narratives and the associated erasure of Indigenous knowledges. The book is divided into three parts: “Reading the Curriculum through a Post-Colonial Lens”; “Reading the Curriculum through Global Inquiry”; and “Viewing the Curriculum through an Anti-Colonial Lens.” McClean centers each section around the history of Nanny of the Maroons—a narrative she holds close to her heart as a Native Jamaican. Stories of maroons are important for understanding how BIPOC have resisted subjugation, miseducation, and prejudice; yet they are widely erased, despite the fact that even…

within the larger narrative of slave resistance, maroons offered a unique experiment. They created and exposed to whites and blacks an alternative to life in bondage, an alternative to free life in a slave society, and an alternative to free life in a free state. Whatever the immediate cause of their maroonage, they opted to exile themselves from a despotic, discriminatory society. Their removal to the wilds was not only a denunciation of the social and political order of the land but more profoundly a radical ideological and very concrete rupture that left no place for compromise. (Marshall, para. 1)

Maroons personify the power and agency in “alternative” postures. By surfacing their buried stories, McClean is enacting the very kind of decolonial practice that she encourages pedagogues to embrace. However, although McClean’s thoughts on incorporating “alternative” funds of knowledge into the curriculum are compelling and hold pedagogical potential, the loose connective tissue cohering the many vignettes, concepts, and communities she piles into the short book lead the reader to experience it as labyrinthine and topical. However, despite too much factual information and not nearly enough critical analysis, this book would find utility in the hands of practicing teachers committed to decolonizing curriculum.

In the first section, “Reading the Curriculum through a Post-Colonial Lens,” McClean introduces the reader to her connection with the history of Nanny of the Maroons. Born and raised in Xyamaca (Jamaica), McClean became familiar with the history of maroonage via oral stories passed down over generations. An 18th-century African heroine and freedom fighter, Nanny was captured in Ghana and sold into slavery in Jamaica. She and her brothers managed to escape from the plantation to the blue mountains of Jamaica where they established maroon communities of runaway slaves. Nanny has been credited with the freeing of over 800 slaves over the course of 30 years. McClean superimposes her narratives of Nanny of the Maroons and other Indigenous heroines/heroes (Lukimi/Yoruba freedom fighter Carlota; Dancehall Queens of Jamaica; Sojourner Truth; Bob Marley) with snippets of dominant colonial narratives that discredit the value and agency of BIPOC communities. These include stories of Black people’s submissiveness when captured as slaves and gratitude for the “benevolence of the white man” who eventually emancipated them (p. 6). These narratives present barriers to “mutual understanding, reconciliation, and cooperation among peoples,” McClean theorizes, and ultimately contribute to reinforcing the marginalization of BIPOC students in schools (p. 122). Having learned of the real resilience of BIPOC people and cultures outside of school contexts, McClean now works to center her own curricula on the ancestral wisdom, stories, rituals, and cultural narratives of BIPOC students, bearing in mind that theirs are histories that have not been written and passed down through “standard” and ubiquitous (white-washed) texts. In McClean’s (2019) words, “incorporating pedagogy rooted in Indigenous Knowledge Production will help to ground Indigenous children in the classroom environment and promote their academic achievement” (p. 21).

In the book’s second section, “Reading the Curriculum through Global Inquiry,” McClean composes a preamble followed by five chapters: “Narratives from the Classroom”; “Creating Cultural Spaces in the Classroom”; “Reading the World: A Praxis of Global Citizenship”; “From the Field to the Classroom: Celebrating the Heroes of the Black Atlantic”; and “Correcting History: Indigenous Children Writing their Cultural Narratives.” In this space, McClean discusses how she incorporates Indigenous Funds of Knowledge into her classroom and her thoughts regarding the function of cultural knowledge in education. She revisits and expands upon narratives of Nanny of the Maroons, and also extends her conceptualization of maroonage to Aboriginal Australian, Native American, and Jewish American communities. McClean’s pedagogy involves approaching students as history texts themselves and curriculum as lived experience. Incorporating Indigenous texts absent from the (white) canon and reading the canonical texts from a subversive standpoint, critically examining what/who’s history is left out, is also instrumental to her teaching. By exposing students to a more accurate account of historical narratives, McClean hopes students will develop a critically empowered understanding of themselves and their cultures, as well as a propensity for identifying and responding to social injustice and inequity (p. 60). Revising the historical consciousness of Indigenous students through counter-narratives, McClean argues, will work against the “socio-economic exploitation,” “financial degradation,” and “persistence of poverty and underachievement” in Indigenous communities (p. 65). She uses the story of Nanny of the Maroons, as well as narratives of Aboriginal Australian frontier battles, the Long Grass Men, folklore of the Anansi, Black activism during the Revolutionary War, and the Black Lives Matter Movement as the inspiration for extending writing assignments, storytelling, opinion pieces, and discussions (p. 102). Students wrestle with questions such as “Should the United States celebrate Columbus Day?” and reflect on critical concepts such as hegemony, apartheid, and dispossession (pp. 75–81). Ultimately, McClean hopes to instill in students an understanding of the power and importance of memory in the fight against Indigenous knowledge erasure and engender students’ futures as critical change agents.  

The third and final section of the book—"Reading the Curriculum through an Anti-Colonial Lens”—consists of a preamble and two chapters: “From Africa to the New World: The Sustainable Maroon Communities of Jamaica”; and “African Cultural Retentions.” This part is centered on communities of practice, which are established and maintained according to a list of seven tenets: celebrating (all) human life; nurturing the will of the human spirit; resisting the force of individualism; celebrating (all, equally) human dignity and rights; rituals; living mindfully with the land; and including cultural retentions within the infrastructure of the community (p. 146). Maroon communities are communities of practice; some of the last frontiers, McClean suggests, free from colonial rule. She likens communities of practice to those communities of First Nation Australians, Native Americans in the United States and Canada, and African Americans in the United States, and recommends the Maroon communities of Jamaica as an example of survival for other Indigenous groups. Most notably, she references the practices of creative resistance, collectivism, ecological consciousness, and storytelling as instrumental in the “narrative reconstruction of a past that esteems their present” (p. 128). Various New World African cultural practices, she illustrates, can be traced back to ancestral African heritage. For instance, McClean traces elements of West African culture to New World African practices such as music, dance, and trance (p. 141). McClean supports that this spirit of community and collectivism rooted in ancestral wisdom and practices plays a vital role in the “cultural validation, identity formation, and academic achievement” (p. 10) of Indigenous children.

The most powerful thread throughout is McClean’s conceptualization of storytelling as a pedagogical tool and a weapon against Indigenous cultural attrition. She weaves a multipart narrative of Nanny of the Maroons throughout each chapter as a revisionist text, a celebratory cultural narrative, a post/anti-colonial history, and a uniting global discourse. For McClean, the history of Nanny of the Maroons serves a multitude of functions: it is culturally sustaining, Black-authored history, and an empowering narrative for Indigenous peoples across the world. Each chapter culminates with discussion questions, reflection points, writing prompts, and instructional activities that would translate well into the classroom.

For practicing teachers, McClean’s book holds import. The recursive telling of the history of Nanny of the Maroons paints a picture for the reader regarding the potential that decolonial narratives such as this one hold for helping BIPOC children identify themselves and their cultures as agentic. Yet, there are moments where McClean repeats herself—and also moments of McClean flattening complex ideas by intertwining the ancestral wisdom of other cultures in a superficial way. For instance, in Part One (pp. 27–28), McClean lists three female freedom fighters whom she likens to Nanny of the Maroons—Carlota, Queen Nzinga, and Mary Prince—each attached to a dependent clause topically claiming their creative resistance and heroism. Carlota of Cuba “organized an uprising on the Triunvirato plantation,” Queen Nzinga of Angola “courageously battled the Portuguese,” and Mary Prince “exposed the horrors of the Caribbean slave trade.” In one short passage, McClean forces the feats of three heroines from three different regions in three different time periods into an ultimately reductive overview of their legacies. The intention of this passage is to point readers towards other funds of knowledge that could be used in curricula to challenge Euro-centric histories of disenfranchised groups. McClean’s intentions are not ill-suited, but the execution of this element does not do justice to these powerful figures.

For readers interested in grasping the numerous concepts and theories that McClean employs, this book may cause confusion and at times provide misinformation, as exemplified by the author’s conflation of two notions: anti-colonial and decolonial (Dei, 2019). To illustrate the breadth of concepts, theories, and methodologies that McClean references, here is a partial list: conscientization (p. 2), auto-ethnography (p. 4), Indigenous Knowledge Production (p. 5), socio-cultural theory (p. 6), tabula rasa (p. 7), third space theories (p. 8), African Feminist Theory (p. 28), maroonage (p. 39), Funds of Knowledge Theory (p. 44), critical race theory (p. 64), critical literacy, constructivist inquiry, and culturally relevant pedagogy (p. 74), and community of practice (p. 90). Of this partial list, only the concepts of Indigenous Knowledge Production, Funds of Knowledge Theory, maroonage, and community of practice are given more than a sentence or two of elaboration. McClean’s claims would have benefitted from a tighter focus on a few of the concepts and a clearly stated and consistently applied methodology. Further, there is a lack of clarity regarding certain core concepts. For instance, McClean’s use of the term Indigenous is unclear from the start. Colloquially, the word Indigenous carries the denotation of people native to a particular region—for instance the First Nation Aboriginals of Australia or Indigenous peoples of the United States predating Columbus. Yet, McClean amalgamates African Americans and even references “working-class people” under the umbrella of Indigenous, leading the reader to believe she is referring to all disenfranchised groups (p. 70). Moreover, Black Indigeneity is contested terrain (Limes-Taylor Henderson, 2019; Dei, 2017; Mays, 2016). McClean is not misguided in suggesting that all BIPOC have been marginalized and that there is a commonality in feelings of oppression, yet condensing various groups that have experienced this marginalization very differently because of place and other considerations completely flattens how oppression has taken form in specific spaces and the nuanced ways in which it has impacted different groups under the BIPOC umbrella. Although there is arguably a unifying utility in talking about the experience of oppression in broad strokes, McClean doesn’t reveal her logic in doing so, leaving the reader with a very homogenized image of systems of oppression.

McClean is evidently passionate about her research and teaching, and this is something all readers can take away from this sinuous book. Yet, the issues around conceptual and theoretical framing, methodology, structure, organization, and breadth (in terms of content) mean that this book undersells what it promises. Ultimately, McClean tried to cover too wide of a territory within the confines of this short text, leading to an underwhelming analysis of complex stories and issues, and an unnecessary overreliance on an overabundance of concepts, theories, and methodologies. Nonetheless, McClean’s strongest selling point is that “enriching the curriculum with heroes from the culture of people of color such as Nanny of the Maroons will serve as an effective educational tool that encourages participants to imagine new perspectives and provide students with alternative visions of possibilities” (p. 20). Teachers of all students (BIPOC as well as white children) would be wise to integrate the rationale behind and elements of McClean’s decolonial pedagogy and philosophy into their classrooms to foster a more historically and racially literate and conscious generation.  


Dei, G. J. S. (2017). Reframing Blackness and Black solidarities through anti-colonial and decolonial prisms. Springer.

Dei, G. J. S. (2019). Foreword. In A. Zainub, Decolonial and anti-colonial praxis: Shared lineages (pp. vii–x). Brill/Sense.

Limes-Taylor Henderson, K. (2019). “I had never been at home in the world”: A case for Black-Indigenism. Curriculum Inquiry, 49(1), 44–64.

Marshall, Y. (2020, June 19). An appeal—Bring the maroon to the foreground in Black intellectual history. Retrieved from https://www.aaihs.org/an-appeal-bring-the-maroon-to-the-foreground-in-black-intellectual-history/

Mays, K. T. (2016, January 26). Black Indigineity part II (or back to back). Native Appropriations. Retrieved from https://nativeappropriations.com/2016/01/black-indigeneity-part-ii-or-back-to-back.html

Nxumalo, F., & Villanueva, M. (2020). Decolonial water stories: Affective pedagogies with young children. In B. P. Dernikos, N. Lesko, S. D. McCall, & A. D. Niccolini (Eds.), Mapping the affective turn in education: Theory, research, and pedagogy (pp. 209–228). Routledge.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 06, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23365, Date Accessed: 8/6/2020 6:45:35 PM

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About the Author
  • Nicole Ross
    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    E-mail Author
    NICOLE ROSS is a Ph.D. student in Culture, Curriculum, and Teacher Education at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ross is a former studio art and education major, K-8 art teacher, outdoor educator, and outdoor adventure guide. Her current research lies in critical eco-centric education and studies in posthumanism.
  • Esther Ohito
    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    E-mail Author
    ESTHER OHITO, Ed.D., is an Assistant Professor of Curriculum Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. An interdisciplinary scholar, she researches issues of Blackness, race, and gender at the nexus of curriculum, pedagogy, embodiment, and emotion.
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