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.