On the Creation and Sustaining of Black Studies
Molefi Kete Asante, Temple University
Without a doubt the Black Studies revolution of the late twentieth century has profoundly impacted the curricula of most institutions of higher education in the United States. Taken together with the infusion of students of African origin and the presence of multinational Africans as faculty, the advancement in curricula at American colleges and universities is a quantum leap from what it was at the end of the nineteenth century. No traditional discipline, such as anthropology, history, sociology, or literature, can be the same since the revolution that brought African American Studies into existence. “Black Studies” is a term that grew out of the political and academic climate of the 1960s. When students at San Francisco State campaigned in l967 for courses that reflected the experiences of African people, they called for “Black Studies” since so much of the curriculum was “White Studies” parading as if it were universal.
The immediate academic aim was to create the opportunity for “a Black perspective” in the American academy in social sciences, arts, and humanities. A number of names emerged to describe the course of study and group of subjects under the umbrella of “Black Studies.” Among the more popular names were “Afro American Studies,” as in the UCLA Center for Afro American Studies; “Africana Studies,” as in the Cornell University Africana Studies and Research Center; “African American Studies” and “Pan African Studies,” as in the Temple University Department of African American Studies; “Africa World Studies” as in the Miami University “Africa World Studies” program; “African Diaspora Studies” as in the PhD program at UC Berkeley; and “Africology,” as in the Department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. A few departments, such as Ohio State University and California State University, Long Beach, retain the title of “Black Studies.” Increasingly, and for critical reasons, I believe the term “Africology” should gain recognition as a name and objective of our intellectual pursuit.
Setting the Agenda
During the early days of the campaign for Black Studies, the most critical need was for faculty guidance about the courses being proposed. Students often developed syllabi, courses of study, and bibliographies and presented these to the various deans as indicative of what could be the core of Black Studies. But the list of faculty who could assist the students was limited. Eventually, this would lead to the issue of Black faculty to teach the courses. Most major universities had a few token Blacks who had been on campus for several years, but many of them did not relate to the innovations sought by the students.
When students completed their tomes of syllabi and bibliographies, they would often march to the offices of the university leaders with their work in one hand and a list of demands in the other. They wanted, among other things, additional Black faculty members, Black cultural centers, lecture programs of outstanding Black scholars, and sensitivity classes for white faculty members. The institutional leaders were quick to call the police to the campuses. Many African American students were arrested during that period and some were given unfairly long sentences. They remain the heroes of the struggle for equal education, and their legacies are in the thousands of students who have been taught in African American Studies, though those early pioneers seem forgotten.
A Search for Faculty
Another issue that faced the incipient movement was who would teach the courses and where the university would find professors. This proved to be a critical issue, one that has continued to shape, and in some senses, to distort the field. The terminal degree for most academic disciplines is the doctorate. While there were hundreds of African Americans with this degree in the 1960s, the overwhelming majority of them taught at predominantly Black institutions in the South. The only other sources of African-descended doctorates were continental Africans who had been educated in the United States. African Americans entered predominantly white institutions of higher education in large numbers in the late l960s, but it would be several years before Black Studies departments would have the benefit of their education, and even then, there would be inherent theoretical and philosophical issues. Eager to attract and hire Black professors, many universities hired continental African professors. This proved to be a challenging action both for the professors and the students who had campaigned for their hiring.
The continental Africans who had doctoral degrees were usually trained by white professors who had very little appreciation of the history of African Americans. This meant that the continental Africans had to be quick studies in the African American experience in order to be successful as professors in Black Studies. They had to abandon the attitudes of some of their white professors and adopt a consciousness that was African American. The scores of Africans who did so were exceptionally brilliant in the classrooms.
In some cases, the universities, desperate to find faculty, opted to employ African Americans who were degree-less or who did not have the terminal degree although they had other degrees. This meant that significant community activists could teach in their own fields of expertise and achievement. Among the prominent individuals who came to lecture at universities under those circumstances were Sonia Sanchez, Bayard Rustin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Eldridge Cleaver, Amiri Baraka, Margaret Walker, Charles Fuller, and numerous others. Some major universities, to gain African American professors, even raided the faculties of predominantly Black institutions such as Howard, Fisk, Tuskegee, and Hampton. Arna Bontemps, nearly retired, left Fisk to join the faculty at Yale University, for instance.
The General Revolution
There have been three movements for academic enrichment within the general revolution initiated by the Black Studies revolution. Each movement was pegged to one of the terms for the concentration: Black Studies, Africana, and Africology. Furthermore, each of these movements had as its political objective the freeing of the minds of the students so that they might reflect on a vast and diverse universe of knowledge.
The Black Studies Movement
The Black Studies Movement did not arise out of a primordial nun, but rather from an organized group of ideas that formed a core philosophy for use in confronting the status quo in education. There was a powerfully raw energy to the creation of the Black Studies Movement. It was unlike any other transformation in the academy. Groups of students from various colleges, acting simultaneously, almost as if they were collectively programmed, passed through the same processes in order to establish Black Studies on their campuses. First, it was necessary to define the missing links in the institutional chain of delivering information: subsequently, the students would have to insist that those links could be supplied with information and scholarship, and finally the students would have to oversee the initiation of the program to assist the institution. All over the United States, from Boston to San Francisco, from Detroit to Miami, the African American students projected their vision. It was often resisted, students were arrested, and many were attacked by police. In the end, when the dust had settled, African American students had opened most of the doors at major American universities.
What constituted the Black Studies Movement? Like the Black Power Movement and the Black Is Beautiful Campaign, the Black Studies Movement was a move for self- definition, self-determination, and mental liberation. In this regard, it was in line with the most radical elements of the contemporary objective of securing for African Americans a more positive place in the curriculum. By its projection as “Black” the movement suggested its ethnic and cultural energy and by its use of the word “Studies” indicated its intellectual component. This was new and different because never before had “Black” and “studies” been used in the same term.
The defining moment in the Black Studies Movement was the 1979 publication of Maulana Karenga’s Introduction to Black Studies. When this book was published, the field had its first attempt to draw the boundaries of a new area of study broad enough for the multiplicity of programs that emerged from struggle. What Karenga did in Introduction was to state precisely how the field should be conceptualized, discussed, and projected. One could no longer assume that the field of study did not have precursor ideas, a core of intellectuals, and approaches to phenomena that constituted a whole new area of inquiry. This book was first published in l979 and immediately created a stir in the field because until its appearance no one had conceived of Black Studies in such a holistic fashion. Karenga organized the field into seven key areas: history, mythology, motif, ethos, social organization, political organization, and economic organization. In l986, a second book, Introduction to Afro-American Studies, was published by Abdul Alkalimat and Ron Bailey with the objective of defining Afro-American Studies as different from “mainstream” disciplines and with an emphasis on social change.
Africana Studies Movement
The National Council for Black Studies was the first professional organization in the field, and it had increasingly referred to the field by the name “Africana,” so that by the mid-1980s there were a good number of departments with that name. The aim was to make the field more academic and less political by changing the names of the departments around the nation. The Africana Studies Movement was initiated by members of the Cornell University faculty who were among the first to adopt the name Africana Studies for their department. The term was quickly adopted by other departments in the Northeast part of the United States and soon spread to the Midwest because of the popularity of the professors from Cornell. Seeking to offset any criticism, the faculty who subscribed to the utility of the name “Africana” presented two arguments for its acceptance. First, “Africana” was meant to embrace the African world. Secondly, it was intended to de-politicize the study of African phenomena. As such “Africana” was meant to be a step away from confrontation, that is, Black versus White. To say “Africana” was more than saying “African American”: it was a statement about the nature of the African experience in the world. This meant that the scholar could embrace the Caribbean, South America, and the African continent as a part of the field of study. Indeed, Black Studies that had been limited to the African American experience was now enlarged to include African issues on the continent, political upheavals in South America, literary developments in Haiti, and numerous other issues. One could just as easily research and discuss the Esie stones of Nigeria as one could the meaning of economic liberation among African Americans in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
The Africological Movement
The Africological Movement, emerging in the mid-l980s, was trans-generational and transcontinental in scope. In my book, Afrocentricity, written initially in l980 and revised several times since, I had spoken of a discipline of “afrology.” This term was refined to “Africology” by the University of Wisconsin professor Winston Van Horne. I have since employed this term, using the definition I once gave afrology, that is, “the Afrocentric study of African phenomena.” Temple University’s doctoral program established in l987 quickly adopted the new movement as a way to advance a disciplinary approach to the area of study.
Africology as the Afrocentric study of African phenomena was more than an aggregation of courses about African people. One could find at a number of institutions a list of courses on African subjects, but it was only when there was a discipline, as defined by philosophy, methods, and orientation to data, that one could speak of a discipline. Africology was being used at Wisconsin and Temple to signal that there was no longer a field, but a discipline of study. It had become fashionable to speak of Black Studies or Africana Studies as a field of study with numerous disciplines contributing to the study of African people. This was based on the old ethnic studies or area study model. For the Africologist, this was a dead-end model that would lead neither to the growth of the study of African phenomena, nor to the advancement of scientific methods. Africologists repeat the dictum that a department is not a discipline and a discipline does not constitute a department. A department is an administrative, not an intellectual project. Although it takes intelligence to organize a department so that the administrative functions of the faculty members can be carried out, the real intellectual discourse is around philosophical orientations and theoretical emphases that create a discipline. It is clearer today than ever before among scholars who articulate the Africological Movement position that there are numerous interests, such as social work, social institutions, literary studies, historical experiences, psychological questions, and linguistic issues, but only one discipline.
Those who accept this view are growing in numbers as well as in influence. Fundamental to this project is the belief that Cheikh Anta Diop was correct to argue that until Africans dare to connect Ancient Egypt to the rest of Africa there could be no true interpretation of African history. Diop understood the significance of examining the classical civilizations of Africa as a prelude to any discourse on anything African. Separating the study of African culture or civilizations by the Atlantic Ocean is a peculiar saline demarcation that does not exist in any real sense. Thus, to speak of a Black Atlantic makes no real intellectual sense when you assume that Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Jamaica, and Panama do not have anything to do with Africans in England or the United States. Indeed, all Africans on both sides of the Atlantic are inextricably joined by a common experience and a common cultural response, however tailored the response is to specific histories.
The Issues of Theory and Method
The challenge to Africologists in the postmodern era is to devise ways to explore African phenomena that avoid the worst pitfalls of Western theories and methods. This means that the source of the theories must be in the historical and lived experiences of the African people wherever they appear in the world. Congruent theories of African phenomena have symmetry to African life. This does not mean that we cannot learn from theories developed in other places, but rather that symmetry to one’s own phenomenological history is a better way to view reality. I think that the issues of method are similar.
To examine theory and method is to confront the problem of Western science’s attempt to bifurcate the study of human experiences. In most departments of Africology, we are faced with deciding whether we are in the social sciences or the humanities. Here we are at Eshu’s crossroads, presented with a choice. If we claim to be social scientists, studying the nature of human behavior, we wonder about our interests in the creations of human beings, in art, literature, and music. If we claim to be in the humanities, then we are left asking questions about our interests in how African people survive under the pressures of racist brutality and discrimination. So we are caught between the Limpopo and the Zambezi; if we cross the first we are leaving behind the Great Zimbabwe and if we cross the second, we also leave behind the Great Zimbabwe. The resolution of this issue can only come from our own cultural center. As we stand at the pinnacle of the Great Zimbabwe, we must see our world going out to the various ends but not being defined by one or the other.
All departments of Africology should have the ability to articulate both interests as a part of the philosophical project. In the first place the study of African phenomena for us does not subscribe to the Western division where you separate behavioral type studies from creative type studies. Our concentrations in Cultural Aesthetics or in Social Behavioral are intended to suggest that what passes for social sciences includes far more than psychology or sociology and what passes for arts and humanities includes far more than writing and dancing.
Living with Athens and Rome
Our confrontation with the social sciences and humanities occurs because the American academy was essentially defined with a Greek or Roman head at the beginning of all academic knowledge. Since African American Studies departments exist within American academies, they are victims of the categories of Western society. Each of the Western liberal arts, comprising the core of the humanities, is accredited to either a Greek or Roman founder. Unfortunately, Africologists have often bought into this system of thinking, which prevents them from examining the records that exist before the Greeks and the Romans. The earliest philosophers in the world are African philosophers. The names and works of Imhotep, Ptahhotep, Kagemni, Amenemhat, Amenomope, Akhenaten, Merikare, and Duauf must be studied in our departments in order to gain a clear conception of the origin of even the Western ideas of liberal arts.
When I created the first PhD program in African American Studies in l987 at Temple University, I had to keep uppermost in my mind the fact that African intellectual traditions were not anti-people. In fact, the doctoral program in African American Studies had to be a people-affirming program. Writing and defending a program that was considered to be far from the usual university development fare had its disappointments and rewards. I understood precisely what we were up against when the proposal went to the Graduate Committee of the College of Arts and Sciences. Not only were there people with Neanderthalian ideas, but some who did not want to see any challenge to the hegemony of European education even if it meant that they would be less educated if they did not know the information. They were in bliss in their ignorance. When the first thirty-five graduate students entered the university in the fall of 1988, they changed forever the nature of education at predominantly white institutions in America. But they changed something else as well: the intellectual basis for African American Studies. The only way that I could justify the creation of a doctoral program was that we were teaching something that was not being taught anywhere else. This meant that those of us who worked in the department had to commit discipline suicide from our old doctorates and work feverishly to flesh out this new discipline that was not African American history, not African American literature, not Women’s Studies, not African American sociology, and not Studies in Racism.
We confronted the turf wars with other departments and won on the merits of what it was that we were doing. We found the energy and the time to write the texts and establish the sequences that would demonstrate that we were as much a discipline as any other group of scholars. The process is not over; it has really only just begun. In Africology, it ought to be possible to point to texts, written by scholars in our field—not in literature, English, sociology, and history—as significant for our graduate students. We are doing more in this regard with the annual Cheikh Anta Diop Conference, the student conferences, the Nommo symposia, the publication of fundamental works such as African Intellectual Heritage, and the editing of numerous journals. Finally, the pursuit of Africology is nearly completed but will not be truly accomplished until contemporary Black Studies departments begin to refurbish their faculties with PhDs who have completed the terminal degree in the field. When we have reached the level of having more than half of our faculty members with degrees in African American Studies, we can say that the discipline is secure.
Asante, Molefi Kete. Afrocentricity. Revised and expanded ed. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2001.
———. The Afrocentric Idea. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.
———. The Egyptian Philosophers. Chicago: African American Images, 2000.
Asante, Molefi Kete, and Abu Abarry. The African Intellectual Heritage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
Diop, Cheikh Anta. The African Origin of Civilization. New York: Lawrence Hill, 1976.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Philadelphia Negro. Introduction by Elijah Anderson. 1899. Reprint, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
Karenga, Maulana. Introduction to Black Studies. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 1993.
Keita, Maghan. Race and the Writing of History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Mazama, Ama. Langue et identité en Guadeloupe: Une perspective afrocentrique. Pointe-a-Pitre: Editions Jasor, 1997.
- Maulana Karenga, Introduction to Black Studies (Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 1993). ↵
- Abdul Alkalimat and Ron Bailey, eds., Introduction to Afro-American Studies: A Peoples College Primer, 6th ed. (Chicago: Twenty-First Century Books and Publications, 1986). ↵
- Molefi Kete Asante, Afrocentricity, revised and expanded ed. (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2001). ↵
- Cheikh Anta Diop, The African Origin of Civilization (New York: Lawrence Hill, 1976). ↵
- Molefi Kete Asante, The Egyptian Philosophers (Chicago: African American Images, 2000). ↵