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  • Sitting in Darkness: New South Fiction, Education, and the Rise of Jim Crow Colonialism, 1865–1920
  • Jared Powell
Sitting in Darkness: New South Fiction, Education, and the Rise of Jim Crow Colonialism, 1865–1920 Peter Schmidt. 2008. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS. ii and 259 pp. Notes, selected bibliography, index. $50.00 hardcover (ISBN-13: 978-1934110393).

Debates rage among American politicians, educational scholars and other concerned groups over the causes of the so-called “achievement gap” between students of color and white students, and about whether private philanthropy should be permitted to fund schools in exchange for control over all or part of their curriculum. It would be easy to imagine these debates as having developed over the course of the last half century, as many U.S. school districts continue to be plagued by de facto segregation 55 years after de jure segregation was outlawed, and as ‘education reform’ has arguably become a codeword for school privatization over the last several decades. However, as scholars familiar with the history of educational discourse in the United States have shown, these issues were salient at least as far back as the end of the American Civil War. In Sitting in Darkness, Peter Schmidt shows that between 1865 and the beginning of the 1920s, the forum for debating these issues was not limited to the print media or the halls of government; opinions about what the role of black schools should be (vis-à-vis white schools) can also be found in Reconstruction-era American literature. Schmidt argues that discussions in literary work of what the purpose of education should be for people of color did more than reflect the “common sense” of the time—they helped inform it. This “common sense” was dominated by notions of “the white man’s burden” to “civilize” people of color. Racist thinking on how to bear this “burden” therefore came to influence education policy domestically in a New South adjusting to industrial capitalist social relations. After 1898, this influence spread to the territories of Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico which the U.S. acquired as a result of its victory in the Spanish-American War, and to Hawaii, which had been annexed. Although there is not space in this review to discuss each author whose work is analyzed in Sitting in Darkness individually, what follows is a summary of the primary themes emerging in each of the three sections of the body of the book. [End Page 285]

In the first section, titled Black Education in Fiction from Reconstruction to Jim Crow, Schmidt uses several examples of period literature to show how two distinct models of education for blacks in the New South emerged. The first model, associated with schools like Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, was based on the idea that because black students lacked or had limited ability to properly think for themselves, schools should focus on teaching them to “imitate” the hygienic and behavioral characteristics of their white peers, and the rudimentary “practical skills” necessary for participation in the developing wage labor force. The second model, advocated by a number of black public intellectuals, most notably W.E.B. Du Bois, was based on providing a liberal arts education to black students that would encourage critical thinking in addition to the training of “practical skills.” From Schmidt’s analysis in this section, the reader learns that there was considerable opposition in the New South to an education for blacks that did anything other than remind them of, or train them for, their subservient position to whites. However, Schmidt later shows that Reconstruction-era American literature was also included those who opposed racial stratification. Although some of these anti-racist authors unconsciously reproduced the notion that the education of blacks was a white endeavor, others strove to give agency back to black students and teachers, and all saw the provision of critical thinking skills to black students as imperative to the creation of a just and truly democratic postwar society.

In the second section of the book, Jim Crow Colonialism’s Dependency Model for “Uplift”: Promotion and Reaction, Schmidt points to the dissonance between the nominally democratic ideals...


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