“Public education for all at public expense,” W. E. B. Du Bois reminded readers way back in 1935, was “a Negro idea.” In response to some four centuries of bondage in North America, Black people established the US South’s first system of public schools. Education, it seemed, would serve as the cornerstone of Reconstruction, the country’s first national attempt at racial justice. Citing an 1867 study for his magisterial Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois explained that there was “a hunger,” an “utmost eagerness,” for education among Black people.
An educated public grew out of freedom, Du Bois claimed. Education was also freedom’s surest protector.
The link between freedom and education remained true more than a century later, as the US of the 1960s stood in need of a second Reconstruction. To variously combat political disenfranchisement in the Deep South and in segregated Northern and Western cities, activists and everyday folk looked to reading and education as a political solution to concrete political problems. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense began in 1966 as a reading group at Oakland’s Merritt College. And it was legendary educators and organizers—like Septima Clark, Ella Baker, Fred Hampton, and Mary Varela—who helped working people augment their capacity to battle personal indignities, one-party racist regimes, and the braided forms of exploitation afflicting poor communities.
Writing in 1965 from Tougaloo, Mississippi, Varela—a Latinx organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—outlined “a literacy approach where we teach people from their own expressions about what they know about their problems and how they’d like to see them dealt with.” Varela noticed that among illiterate adult learners, the ability to sound out polysyllabic words like plantation and demonstration—words directly linked to Black people’s political predicament—seemed to come quickest. The unlettered appeared to learn most effectively when writing petitions and other correspondence aimed at improving their economic and legal situation. Many also held up the Bible as that book they most hoped to finally read on their own. Of this grounded, experiential approach to teaching and learning—an approach rooted in the learner’s personal ethics—Varela wrote simply, “I call it ‘freedom education.’”
Freedom education remains as personal, political, and essential today as during any earlier struggle for justice. Moreover, we have that struggle—and the learning behind it—to thank for a vast number of intellectual innovations and institutional breakthroughs. Indeed, much of what even the elite world of academic letters and publishing still regards as durable and pathbreaking began with people reading and writing for redress.
Allow us to show you. This year, Johns Hopkins University’s Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship (RIC) partnered with Public Books to consider reading, learning, and writing as politics. Founded in 2006, RIC usually hosts graduate student programming and professionalization only on the Hopkins campus. The program provides a training ground for those doctoral students interested in the critical and comparative study of racism. But faced with the facts of a global pandemic, climate change, ongoing gendered and racial violence, and the largest mass mobilizations in America’s history, RIC found it appropriate for our largely academic program to explore writing, teaching, and literacy as forms of agency, really as agency in anticipation and in service of a possible Third Reconstruction.
Among a bundle of new reparative research and teaching initiatives begun this year, we’ve launched, with Public Books, seven “Freedom Education” conversations. These critical dialogues between writers—both early and seasoned—explore, among other questions, the political paths taken by authors as they entered writing life. Each discussant spoke in clarion tones about the necessity of connecting politics to method. They affirmed the need to pose challenges to the dogmas that shape our disciplines and subfields, challenges based on personal biography as much as political program.
The conversations in our Freedom Education series also recount individual and collective healing encounters with reading. They detail how even our newest books often channel that ancient need to solve real-world problems. Each writer—nascent or established—demonstrates a commitment to a lifetime of learning. They have committed themselves—and ask others to commit, in turn—to freedom as the fruit of education, to education as the vessel of freedom.
In exploring how education and the life histories of everyday writing people have shaped even the loftiest of academic or literary endeavors, we first asked graduate students at Johns Hopkins to name those living authors whose work they found most essential to their own writing lives. We then paired those early writers in conversation with their named author, with the faith that such a “dream conversation” would yield new insights and solidarities, new possibilities.
We also hoped to solve a pressing problem. Under the pandemic lockdown of 2020 and 2021, doctoral education in general and our students at Johns Hopkins in particular mostly remained stuck in place, unable to conduct field research. Many risked a year or more of time spent adrift. Normally, RIC would support graduate research and training with an annual graduate conference and other events. But given travel restrictions, we lost our usual capability to foster conversations and collaborations across the country and occasionally across the globe. Like many, we relied on the new world of Zoom calls to retain a measure of connectedness. But the ephemerality of such gatherings only served to remind us of the fleeting quality of academic programming generally.
We realized we needed to create something more permanent: a record that might serve as the basis for freedom education to come. Based on a fall 2020 model dialogue between N. D. B. Connolly and Rebecca Marchiel, also included in this Freedom Education series, we realized that we had to build a new archive for our current moment.
In the conversations that follow, you’ll find windows into the political urgency of 2020 and 2021: COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, creeping neofascism, an economic maelstrom, anti-Asian violence, the perils of environmental decay, and more. Yet all these conversations also step back from the contemporary moment to situate reading and writing in longer historical trajectories. They look at our current moment prismatically, to think about the relationship among recent historical irruptions while exploring instances of hiatus and rupture that demand we take each crisis on its own terms.
The dialogues swerve and swoop; they touch the ground as often as they rocket to higher levels of abstraction. In this sense, the Freedom Education dialogues embody what historian Thomas C. Holt, citing Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, highlights as education’s essential function: “that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.”
How might we appreciate books as more than just the product of single authors—as expressions of education, of a communal process of purposed learning? And to what extent does almost any education take root in freedom education?
Freedom education remains as personal, political, and essential today as during any earlier struggle for justice. Allow us to show you.
We are fortunate to be able to begin this series with one of the most remarkable poets of the 20th and 21st centuries: Nikki Giovanni, interviewed by Pyar Seth. Meditating on the limits of contemporary conceptions of writing and reading as therapeutic, Giovanni offers insights into why she writes and for whom. Then—recognizing the conditions that pushed their dialogue to Zoom—Seth and Giovanni discuss numerous current events, including COVID-19, the January 6 siege on Capitol Hill, and even the Super Bowl.
At every turn, Giovanni situates her own ideas of love, family, literacy, and care within traditions of Black freedom and solidarity that exceed white expectations. Yet Giovanni also draws lessons from familiar and mainstream sources: blockbuster films and Top 40 hits many of us also adore.
In the next conversation, Raychel Gadson interviewed Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, one of the most incandescent public scholars writing today. Taylor explains how she came to study urban inequality after frustrating experiences working in the world of tenant advocacy. She elucidates what she calls the “predatory inclusion” experienced by African Americans in the past five decades, where opportunity for property ownership comes wrapped in peril and exploitation. In addition, Taylor helps show how contemporary crises, including the effects of COVID-19, have their roots in long-standing failures of the Democratic Party to enact transformative social change at the level of the neighborhood.
Taylor and Gadson’s conversation ends with a rousing call for a new approach to civic problem solving based on ground-level organizing. This begins, they agree, with unreservedly rejecting technocratic and brokering tendencies of the political status quo.
Shirley Lung interviewed historian Madeline Y. Hsu in the immediate aftermath of the Atlanta shootings that pushed violence against Asian-descended people in the US to the forefront of the country’s consciousness. Hsu’s work grapples with long historical genealogies that help us better understand intensifying anti-Asian racism in the US. It likewise offers tools for considering how to mobilize across differences among Asian ethnicities to combat this racism. Hsu explains how her research has tried to answer questions about her own identity that existing historical scholarship could not explain. She indicates, moreover, that the political stakes of her research always revolve around the necessity of de-essentializing identity.
Hsu and Lung end by discussing the leading edges of historical inquiry today, which are shaped by scholars who have facility with multiple Asian languages and are thus able to fracture stereotypes.
Turning from the discipline of history to clinical psychology—but maintaining this series’s laser focus on racism—Elliott Schwebach interviewed Shawn Utsey, who is preserving Frantz Fanon’s legacy for psychology in the 21st century. Utsey explains how his experiences of racial bigotry as a young person, as well as later during his professional career, have shaped his research. He outlines an approach to racism in psychology that refuses to naturalize and individualize it in either cause or effect.
Rather than focus on the harms of racism alone, Utsey has turned to a different clinical question. He asks: What pushes white people to engage in racist behavior? Utsey and Schwebach discuss the variety of methods that Utsey must use in pursuing this work and how he must often depart from the typical tools of the clinical psychologist.
One of the founders of the Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship at Johns Hopkins, the eminent political scientist Michael G. Hanchard, spoke with Julieta Casas about his new book, The Spectre of Race. At the center of their conversation lies the topic that continues to test the limits of freedom and education: democracy. Yet Hanchard also offers a powerful provocation: How would our understandings of politics necessarily change if democracy—which the US understands as practically synonymous with equality—were not our master political concept? What if we presumed the presence of inequality instead, and linked the fact of inequality to how democracy has actually been implemented? Hanchard offers a series of reflections on the contemporary political situation at home and abroad.
Hanchard invites Casas—and us—to reckon with the persistent presence of authoritarianism within the interstices of democratic institutions. He asks us, further, to consider the necessary political forms for properly redressing challenges like climate change, refugee crises, and other clear evidence of the nation-state’s administrative inadequacies.
Rebecca Marchiel and N. D. B. Connolly spoke together about Marchiel’s book After Redlining in the one publicly conducted conversation in this series, cosponsored by the 21st Century Cities Initiative and RIC at Hopkins. Like Taylor and Gadson, their conversation centers on two of the primary topics in US urban history: housing policy and urban social movements. Yet even here, the interchange between the writers reveals a surprisingly complex and hidden overlap in the worlds of policy and politics. Considering the evolution of grassroots financial literacy from the end of the 1960s, Marchiel elucidates how activists grappled with the legacies of racial segregation as well as its renovations after the putative dismantling of Jim Crow’s legal architecture.
Marchiel and Connolly discuss how new scholarship can help us look at our own neighborhoods in a different light today. Their conversation reveals, too, how social movements pressed government policy makers, banks, and other mortgage lenders to consider and sometimes fight for more equitable civic outcomes.
To conclude our series, Jilene Chua discusses with historian Mae Ngai her much-anticipated new book, The Chinese Question. Ngai outlines the winding path she took to becoming an academic and the different sources of inspiration for her research. The Chinese Question arrives against the backdrop of intensified anti-Chinese sentiment within elite foreign-policy circles and on many city streets in the United States. Ngai’s book shows that the “Chinese Question” could never be studied within purely national terms, as its social conditions were always global and deeply tied to the relentless ocean-crossing churn of capital accumulation.
Ngai and Chua engage in a dialogue about the value of the historical method in our vexatious political moment. And they unpack pressing contemporary concerns, the urgency of which threatens to limit our ability to recognize how long-standing many of these concerns actually are.
In sum, the Freedom Education conversations attest that in both ethical and political commitments, freedom education doesn’t end at the university gate or the publishing house door—no more than intellectual innovation or purposed literacy ends at the borders of the prison or plantation. As was true during Reconstruction and at the high-water mark of the civil rights era, people read and write most intently when their needs depend on it.
That demands of us—readers—understanding not just the words but the freedom dreams behind those words. It also demands working to help realize the world our chosen writers have hoped for.
The Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship at Johns Hopkins University is grateful for the generous support of the Center for Africana Studies and the Office of the Provost at Hopkins. Thanks as well to Sheharyar Imran and the editorial staff of Public Books for assistance.