Block I Illinois Library Illinois Open Publishing Network

32 A Greater Focus on Methodology in Black Studies

Rhett S. Jones, Brown University

Intergenerational succession already exists in Africana Studies. A case might be made that such succession is better structured than in more traditional academic departments. In part this is the re­sult of attacks that have triggered this very symposium. As a dis­cipline regularly under assault by forces both outside and inside the acad­e­my, unity was forced on Africana Studies. Senior and jun­ior col­leagues have, for much of our field’s history, huddled to­gether to cope with attacks, plan defenses, and devise strategies for the fur­ther development of our discipline. A kind of siege men­tality existed as well as an understanding that if you opted to be a part of Black Stud­ies, rather than a part of an established dis­ci­pline, you opted for struggle. You signed up for something very dif­ferent from a stan­dard academic career.

Ironically, the success of Africana Studies and its complete in­cor­poration, in some universities, at a level equal to that of es­tab­lished disciplines eliminated this source of unity. In some places, the goal sought by those (of us) who founded Black Stud­ies, that our students and faculty be able to operate much as is the case in other departments, has been achieved. Black Studies courses are rou­tinely taught, its students routinely mentored, its fac­ulty rou­tine­ly hired, and research support routinely provided. Despite this suc­cess on some campuses, other colleges continue to run near phantom Black Studies programs organized around a few generous faculty (holding appointments in established disci­plines) willing to offer courses on what was called in the early 1970s, “the Black ex­per­ience.” These programs are often cited in the media reports critical of Africana Studies. The National Coun­cil for Black Studies has long insisted that such programs will not work and that de­part­men­tal status is as essential for Africana Stud­ies as for any other field.

So the issue is not merely one of intergenerational succession, but one of cross-institutional understanding and cooperation. There are haves and have-nots in Black Studies. While our field needs to better relations among scholarly generations, it also needs to better relations among institutions. These two tasks are re­lated, as some colleges are still stuck back in the near-volunteer programs that were the norm in the early 1970s while others are successful de­part­ments with established, strong, twenty-first-century grad­uate programs. Methodology is one way of drawing these groups to­gether.

Methodology is the illegitimate, ugly stepsister in Africana Stud­ies, locked away in the closet in the darkest corner of the sub-cellar and only occasionally tossed a scrap or so in a footnote. She has pret­ty much had to make it on her own. Theory has been the handsome, proud, legitimate sister, and she has, as the most cur­so­ry reading of any Black Studies anthology will reveal, gotten all the at­ten­tion. Afrocentrists, Black Feminists, Black Nationalists, Cultural Nationalists, Leftists, Marxists, Multi-Culturalists, New Left­ists, Pan-Africanists, Womanists—to say nothing of those so com­forta­bly embedded in mainstream academy that they shudder at the thought they might be labeled as Black Studies professors—have fought their most bloody (and public) fights over theory. These folk have had great fun, no real people have died, and their battles openly fought over the best way to interpret Black­ness have ben­e­fit­ed all.

Because methodology has received so little systematic at­ten­tion in Africana Studies, it constitutes near neutral space in which the future of our discipline might be discussed. While essential, the work of Black Studies methodology carries no (well, almost no) in­tellectual baggage. Black Studies theorists of at least three gen­e­ra­tions are in regular discussions with one another, but these de­bates are generally undertaken in segregated theoretical spaces. So, for example, scholars on the left are still fighting over how Amer­ican ideas of race might best be negotiated into their Marx­ist frame­work. And Afrocentrists debate one another over the many ways Africanity has manifested itself in the Americas. Af­ro­centrists use Marxists as strawmen, and the reverse is true. Sug­gested here is not that Africana Studies scholars ought to sur­rend­er theoretical high ground—developing and refining theory is crucial—but that they should be willing to grovel about in some methodological muck as well.

While theory knits Africana Studies scholars together in a work­ing intergenerational framework and therefore provides needed structure for our field, at the same time it separates schol­ars into the­o­retical camps. At present there is no organized con­stituency in Black Studies for methodology. Methodology most­ly comes along as an ideological or disciplinary afterthought. Ideology, the­ory, methodology, and disciplinarity are all tied to­gether. This pack­age is supported not only by pan-faculty agree­ment, but by ad­min­is­tra­tors and such funding sources as the Ford Foundation. For nearly three decades the Foundation has ge­ner­ous­ly sup­port­ed ex­am­i­na­tions of Africana Studies, but it has mostly confined itself to the­o­ret­i­cal, historical, and “current state of the field” ex­plor­a­tions. To the best of my knowledge the Ford Foun­da­tion has never sup­port­ed a study of Africana Studies meth­od­ology. Nor has any other fund­ing agency.

Yet method is all. Historians ask when, geographers ask where, psy­chologists ask why, and anthropologists ask how. All these fields (and many other disciplines) then draw on their established meth­od­ologies to answer their questions. Their research strategies are not static and evolve over time, but such evolution largely takes place within a discipline. Methodological suggestions from out­side the field are ignored, resented, and resisted. So, for example, lit­e­rary scholars, for the most part, fiercely and nastily fought meth­odological suggestions from psychologists as to how they might in­terpret novels. As a new field, Africana Studies has boldly asserted what it intends to study, but has devoted little attention to the ways in which this study ought to take place.

Focus on and discussions around methodology would not only assure intergenerational leadership, but would shed needed light on important issues in Black Studies. For example, is Africana Stud­ies an interdisciplinary field, a multidisciplinary field, or an en­tire­ly new field distinct from other areas of study? This question is typ­i­cally debated at the theoretical level, although some have at­temp­ted to shift the debate from what Black Studies ought to do the­o­ret­i­cally to what it actually does. This, as suggested above, is a thorny is­sue because so many Black Studies programs are multidis­ci­pli­nary by administrative fiat. Faculty involved in the pro­gram are there because they have volunteered, were assigned by the ad­min­is­tra­tion, or were encouraged (or at least not discouraged) by their home departments. Under these circumstances, the program be­comes a de facto multidisciplinary one, whether or not those in­volved would like it to be. But what if the question of the dis­ci­pli­nary identity of Africana Studies was approached from a meth­odo­logi­cal perspective instead of a theoretical one? Perhaps it would turn out that research training, presently determined by the tra­di­tional disciplines, had established such great barriers among Africana Studies scholars that the field could never rest on more than gen­e­rous willing cooperation among mutually re­spect­ful col­leagues. Per­haps it would turn out that, at the level of meth­od­ol­ogy as dis­tinct from disciplinary training and theory, there was much com­mon­ality among Black Studies scholars. Who knows? A fo­cus on meth­odology might help to answer these questions.

Does Africana Studies need a unified methodology to be a uni­fied discipline? Other areas of study regarded as disciplines are di­vid­ed along methodological lines. Anthropology has, for much of the twentieth century, been divided into archaeology, cultural anthro­pol­ogy, linguistics, and physical anthropology. Though debate is tak­ing place within that discipline about the four fields, each one has a different methodology. In history a formal division is not ack­nowledged, yet those historians who use the traditional meth­od­ology of document scrutiny have gradually (often grudgingly) con­ceded that ethnohistorians, oral historians, and even folk once snubbed as antiquarians, may sit at the high historical table. Many established disciplines have legitimated a wide range of meth­­od­olo­gies. Clearly, a scholar can be accepted in the discipline of psy­chol­o­gy while employing one of many methods. How does this work? Does the field of psychology work from the top down with the American Psychological Association deciding which meth­ods are acceptably psychological, or does it work from the bottom up with the day-to-day work of psychologists eventually validated by their professional association? And however the psychologists may an­swer this question, is their response a useful guideline for meth­od­ol­ogy in Black Studies?

Focus on methods is also useful for two issues central in Af­ri­ca­na Studies: community and curriculum. Black Studies began as an ag­gressive, community-oriented, progressive service disci­pline. Our field sought to meet the needs of Black Americans. Part of the current acceptance of the field in higher education stems from the willingness of some Africana Studies units to dis­tance themselves from the Afro-American community, and to ope­rate as any other department. Some departments have devised ways of re­tain­ing this community linkage, but they more or less operate in iso­lation from one another. A focus on methodology can draw them together. How, for example, do members of the com­mu­ni­ties in which schol­ars are embedded respond to ways in which they are studied? To what extent can these communities, in the 1970s Black Studies spi­rit, be involved as partners in research? To what extent should these community partners be informed about research strategies?

Finally, frank consideration of methodology will better struc­ture the Black Studies curriculum. Aside from the Black Studies pro­grams in which the courses offered are determined by whoever is around and willing to teach, most current Africana Studies cur­ric­u­lum is driven by theory or content. So, for example, there are courses titled “Womanist Perspectives on American Literature” or “West African History before 1887.” A useful series of debates might emerge if a part of our curriculum were organized about research strategies. In the first couple of years, students would be en­cour­aged to think about how the facts that are supposedly known came to be known. They would not just read The Philadelphia Ne­gro, but aggressively query the research on which it rests. In turn, juniors and seniors might, for example, be asked to figure out why, from a methodological vantage point, such a book as The Mark of Op­pres­sion is not part of the Black Studies canon, while Black Bour­geoisie is. Fi­nally, Africana Studies graduate students should be giv­en as much en­couragement to study meth­od­ol­o­gy as they are now given to study theory.

In sum, one certain way — no claim is made here that it is the only way — of advancing intergenerational leadership succession in Black Studies will be to give more attention to methodology. A focus on methodology will force new, old, and middle Africana Studies scholars to grapple with how our discipline really works. This examination will create new places in which intergen­e­ra­tion­al Black Studies leadership will naturally grow.


A Greater Focus on Methodology in Black Studies Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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