The Whitlock Lecture: On Fugitive Pedagogy

One of the highlights of observing Black History Month this year was the February 23rd visit of Dr. Jarvis Givens, a professor of education and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. A dynamic lecturer who specializes in the history of African American education, Dr. Givens was the third Kenneth E. Whitlock, Jr. Black History Month Speaker, a series that was established in 2021 and named in honor of Middlesex’s first Black faculty member.

As a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, Dr. Givens said, he knew about distinguished educators like Dr. Carter G. Woodson, whose textbooks on Black history challenged the limited curriculums prescribed for Black students in the Jim Crow Era – and whose work was foundational in establishing Black History Month. Yet it was only by coming across a footnote that he learned about Tessie McGee, a Black teacher who surreptitiously read to her students from Dr. Woodson’s texts, quietly defying Louisiana’s mandatory curriculum. Her actions, as well as her influence on her students (one of whom recounted her story in that footnote), led to Dr. Givens’ interest in the broader legacy of African American teachers, calling their efforts “fugitive pedagogy”: the covert pursuit of Black education as a path to liberation. It was dangerous work, with some educators losing more than their jobs for contesting the status quo.

Dr. Givens then began the difficult task of locating and assembling the scattered records of Black teachers and the journals published by Black teachers’ associations. “I decided my work as a scholar included the custodial work of organizing and preserving these for others, beyond my own research,” he said. Along with fellow Harvard Professor Imani Perry, Dr. Givens has been building The Black Teacher Archive, now the largest repository of material about and written by Black teachers. As he noted, “Black teachers and students are part of the story we need to appreciate. They are not victims; they are part of the resistance.”