There is no social activity that more vitally concerns the life of a people than the problem of education. The Colored people of the United States…want for themselves and their descendants…all the advantages and opportunities of education as the term is interpreted and understood in the most favored groups in our American civilization. -Anna Julia Cooper (Johnson, 2000)
The above was a quote from Anna Julia Cooper and it expresses her passion for providing the best education for African American students. Anna was educated classically, and in fact, most of America’s early schools employed classical education as a means for educating its citizens, even the non-citizens, like former slaves. Anna’s belief was that the former slave or any African American for that matter, deserved the right to have this same education. Anna Julia Cooper was born into slavery in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1858. Her mother was a slave and her father is said to have been her mother’s master. Anna, along with her mother, remained a slave until emancipation in 1863. In 1868, at just 10 years of age, Anna enrolled in the newly established St. Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute. It was here that Anna began her academic training in liberal or classical education. St. Augustine’s was founded by the Freedman’s Bureau and the Episcopal Church. Anna’s mother earned meager wages as a domestic worker, but she sacrificed greatly in order to send Anna to school. In order to help her mother in providing an education for herself, Anna began to work as a peer teacher at St. Augustine’s at just 10 years old. A gifted student, she was one of the first female students employed by the school. Anna was so hungry to learn that she wanted to also take more nontraditional courses like Greek and Latin, but there was opposition to her taking these classes, because the administration thought that only men seeking to be ministers could take these classes. She fought this mandate, however, and was eventually granted permission to take these courses. She graduated with her diploma in 1877, and she continued to study and teach at St. Augustine’s until 1881. Even though Anna Julia Cooper often had to fight for her right to further her education at St. Augustines, she credits her time there to her overall development and maturity:
That school was my world during the formative period, the most critical in any girl’s life. Its nurture and admonition gave shelter and protection from the many pitfalls that beset the unwary. (In May, 2012, p. 16)
Not long after graduation, Anna married George A. C. Cooper (whom she met at St. Augustine’s) who died very soon after they were married. She would never marry again, but she would continue to further her studies. She hungered for a college degree and to continue her studies in classical education, so she enrolled in Oberlin’s Gentleman’s course which provided her with a classical education that was the same as the male students of Oberlin. She was part of the first cohort of African American women to graduate from Oberlin, and from this cohort came other notable educators, such as Mary Jane Patterson who became the first African American female principal of the M Street School. Anna Julia Cooper would eventually serve as principal there (May, 2012, p. 12). Above is the telling of the life and educational journey of a former slave girl. From slavery, she was placed in a classical school and continued on this educational path for the rest of her life. The woman on this journey is the same woman who when you would walk the halls of the M Street School you could hear her enthusiastically read in Latin, the Aeneid. Her teaching of the works of Cicero to African American high school students was life-changing for those very students. She went on to become a professor, a principal, a lecturer, philosopher, feminist, activist and essayist. When you read her essays and speeches, they are littered with the words of the Great Books authors, for she uses these authors to help her make sense of her place in America. She was the fourth African American woman to earn a PhD in the United States. Her immersion in classical studies which included the reading of the Great Books, helped to shape her into the educator that she became. In fact, she passed this type of learning on to her students at the M Street school in DC.
Anna Dwelling in the Constellation of the Canon
We Wear the Mask We wear the mask that grins and lies It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile And mouth with myriad subtleties Why should the world be overwise, In counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while We wear the mask. We smile, but, O great Christ, our cires To thee from tortured souls arise. We sing, but oh the clay is vile Beneath our feet, and long the mile; But let the world dream otherwise, We wear the mask! (Dunbar, 1895)
Reading the works of Anna Julia Cooper causes me to understand the process of my students seeking to connect to these texts. The oppression African Americans have suffered over the past hundreds of years is one of “deep-down-in- the-soul” pain. As a coping mechanism many turned to the literature of the oppressor, putting it on as one would a coat or a shell or a mask in order to find some way to dwell within these unfortunate circumstances. Anna and others did not read these texts in order to forget their history. Neither did they read these texts in order to become someone else, but they wore them to place their situation in some type of context, in order to survive, to protect their mentality and even to cover up the hurt. They read the literature to make some sort of sense of it all and to be able to communicate that comprehension amongst themselves and any other who would listen and could understand the English language. Discussing their situation in conjunction with the texts that all of America shared provided a context whereby all persons no matter their race could maybe understand. It gave them a language to dialogue about their lowly state, that was common to all. To reveal more of what I am trying to convey, I have selected an excerpt from one of her essays entitled “Has America a Race Problem; If So, How Can It Best Be Solved?” in order to show an example of how she was able to have a written dialogue about race that included excerpts from the Great Books. The following excerpt gives her views on the organic nature of race conflict. She contrasts it to the utopian world created in Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy in order to unveil how the racial conflict of America is a part of the natural order of things:
Progressive peace in a nation is the result of conflict; and conflict, such as is healthy, stimulating, and progressive, is produced through the co-existence of radically opposing or racially different elements. Bellamy’s ox-like men pictured in Looking Backward, taking their daily modicum of provender from the grandmotherly government, with nothing to struggle for, no wrong to put down, no reform to push through, no rights to vindicate and uphold, are nice folks to read about; but they are not natural; they are not progressive. God’s world is not governed that way. The child can never gain strength save by resistance, and there can be no resistance if all movement is in one direction and all opposition made forever an impossibility. (Cooper, 1988, p. 151)
She took another step to get at the root of racial conflict by going back in history to the rise of the dominant Western culture. The next excerpt reveals how she was able to see that the rise and fall of dominant cultures was part of the natural flow of humanity, but as she quickly reminds us “…equilibrium, not repression among conflicting forces is the condition of natural harmony, of permanent progress and of universal freedom.” She shares in her essay that the Europeans were descended from the early barbarians (Goths, Huns, Vandals, Danes, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, etc.) and that no one could forsee these untamed people ruling and reigning. She quotes Tacitus who described them:
To shout, to drink, to caper about, to feel their veins heated and swollen with wine, to hear and see around them the riot of the orgy, this was the first need of the barbarians. The heavy human brute gluts himself with sensations and with noise. (Cooper, 1988, p.157)
She goes on to remind the reader that ALL of the American people came from somewhere else, even the dominant culture.
Who are Americans?” comes rolling back from ten million throats. Who are to do the packing and delivering of the goods? Who are the homefolks and who are the strangers? Who are the absolute and original tenants in fee-simple? The red men used to be owners of the soil—but they are about to be pushed over into the Pacific Ocean. They, perhaps, have the best right to call themselves “Americans” (Cooper, 1988, p.163)
In her process of dialoguing with herself and writers past and present about the race problem, she argues with De Tocqueville when she says,
De Tocqueville, years ago, predicted that republicanism must fail in America . But if republicanism fails, America fails, and somehow I canot think this colossal stage was erected for a tragedy. I must confess to being an optimist on the subject of my country. (Cooper, 1988, p. 165)
Anna Julia Cooper had a tremendous belief in the power of God to end the race problem in America. She was not sure how it would end but the essay is filled with references to God, the Prince of Peace, ending the race struggles and all of America living in a balanced community. In her quoting the texts of those from Western thought, she still wove in the thoughts of African American thinkers, inviting them to join in the dialogue.
I believe with our own Dr. Crummell that “the Almighty does not preserve, rescue, and build up a lowly people merely for ignoble ends.” (Cooper, 1988, pp. 173-174)
As I read through her struggle about America’s race problem, I thought of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask.” This conversation with herself and writers of the past was a common occurrence within the African American community. The reading of the texts that help to place the oppression of the African American people in a context void of just anger and bitterness was necessary. It was a mask of sorts. It hid the pain that is constantly grappled with. Talking about it helped to cover the wounds, the sadness, the anger. We could be the sad clown with the face painted to look happy but the sadness can be seen somehow. Yet, we live on. We thrive. We manage. The literature helped us to manage and to somehow make sense of it all. Maybe inserting ourselves in the conversation with the great thinkers somehow lifted our heads?
This essay was one in many examples of Anna dwelling in the constellation of the canon. It was from her and W.E.B. DuBois that I came to understand how that can take place. Their writings helped me to design my literature class. It was no longer a matter of students’ minds being jammed with the literature so we could say they read it. After being introduced to these two, I came to understand that the literature could be used as a tool for my students to work through their own struggles and life-confusion. Whether it is about race, love, hate, family, nature, talking through this literature that is written by humans just like us, somehow provides a dwelling place for the thoughts that flood our minds to rest and work themselves out.