Reaffirmation and Renewal of the Discipline
Maulana Karenga, California State University, Long Beach
The urgent and ongoing issue and project of sustaining Africana/Black Studies in the twenty-first century points inevitably to the task of constant reaffirmation and renewal in and of the discipline. Thus, there is no need for a rush to respond in face of the perennial predictions and precipitous pronouncements of our disciplinary disability and death. For these appear as little more than counterclaims to our early call for “the death of white social science” and our later call for the necessary, though admittedly, “painful demise of Eurocentricism”. Rather, it is a constant question of ongoing development and enhancement of our capacity to recover, discover, and reconstruct the rich, ancient, and modern resources of our culture, and put them in the service of the continuous human quest to understand the world and ourselves in it, and to change each in the interest of human freedom, global justice, and good in the world.
What I want to do, then, is to discuss sustainment as a function of continuing reaffirmation and renewal, rooted in the core mission of Black Studies and its demonstrated adaptive vitality in the context of ever-changing conditions within the discipline and the world. And I want to pursue this conversation within the philosophical framework of the ancient Egyptian concept of serudj, a polysemic term from the social and moral vocabulary of Maatian thought which offers both an ethical ideal and an obligation. Rising out of the ancient African intellectual-activist tradition in which libraries and schools are called “houses of life,” serudj links knowledge and social engagement and variously means an ongoing obligation and effort to transform and restore in an enhanced and more effective form.
It thus speaks to the general and specific task of sustaining and developing the discipline, constantly enhancing its capacity to fulfill its core mission. Moreover, in its most expansive signification, serudj is joined with the word ta and serudj ta means to repair and transform the world, making it more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it. And this speaks to the world-encompassing character of the Black Studies project, i.e., the global range and interests of its subject matter and those of its activist-scholars.
Black Studies came into being relentlessly questioning society and the university as its academic servant, and it can only proceed and continuously develop by constantly questioning itself in an equally rigorous and relevant way Moreover, this ongoing questioning must not be merely a convenient confessional to accommodate the academy’s current intellectual attachments to deconstructive discourse. Rather, it must be a genuine self-reflection, which is deeply rooted in our own intellectual tradition of critique and corrective, appreciates the historical achievements and current concerns of the discipline, and seeks to build on this foundation, frameworks, and modalities for continuing initiatives and expansions in the field.
It is in this context of self-reflection, reaffirmation, and renewal that chairs and directors of a department or program play a pivotal leadership role. Indeed, the hinge on which the role of chairs or directors turns is their active commitment to a program of the highest quality and the culturally grounded pedagogy, ongoing intellectual productivity, and social engagement such a program demands. To move beyond routine bureaucratic competence and the role of an accommodating administration functionary, chairs must understand and assert themselves as self-conscious and committed members and leaders of a particular community of scholars dedicated to sustaining and developing the discipline. This they do through the rigor and relevance of their scholarship and pedagogy, the quality and extent of their social engagement, and the insightfulness and innovativeness of their leadership.
In such a context and paradigm of intellectual community, chairs, directors, and senior faculty play a decisive role in discipline leadership, not only by rooting their work in the consensual and collaborative mission of the discipline, but also by encouraging and aiding the faculty in various ways to do likewise. They must also build linkages within the field to share best practices and initiatives and keep current in the discipline, using the most advanced information systems. Likewise, they should give priority to hiring within the discipline to ensure critical mass, constant and collaborative discipline-specific intellectual production, and continuity for its scholarly community. And finally, they must build mutually beneficial relations with administrators, scholars, and professional organizations of other disciplines, as well as our own.
The Discipline Mission
Every discipline emerges within a collaboratively established and shared mission that undergirds and informs its self-understanding and self-assertion in the academy and society, and Black Studies evolved in a similar matter. Although there was obviously a diversity of interests and emphases in the early directions and discourse of the emerging discipline, Black Studies scholars and activists began to form what Stewart calls a “coherent intellectual enterprise” as expressed in an overarching triple mission, informed and shaped by the Black Liberation Struggle of the 1960s and 70s with its stress on freedom, self-determination, justice, power, cultural centeredness and linking knowledge with social engagement. Thus, the mission of Black Studies stressed three basic areas of focus: cultural grounding, academic excellence, and social responsibility”.
Cultural Grounding. Cultural grounding is at the heart of the Black Studies project and reflects the essential assumption that African culture, the initiative and experience of African people in the world, is worthy of the most careful, critical, and in-depth study and the source of some of humanity’s most important paradigms. As African peoples’ unique way of being human in the world, African culture, in its varied expressions, then, is the indispensable terrain and text for Black Studies’ critical exploration, paradigm construction and teaching.
The issue of cultural grounding also speaks to the need to constantly dialogue with African culture. That is to say, to continuously ask it questions and seek from it answers to the fundamental questions of human life. These include enduring issues as well as fundamental challenges of our times, i.e., how to create a just and good society and a good and sustainable world; build and sustain strong male/female relations and families; establish a right relationship with the environment; design and use technology for the highest human good; and create and sustain an ever-expanding realm of human freedom and human flourishing?
Also, the intellectual integrity of the discipline requires that the core data and the methodology we use to produce and teach Africana Studies are actually rooted in and rise out of the culture of African peoples—continental and diasporan, ancient and modern, regardless of supplementary and secondary sources of our knowledge and practice. Thus, as Asante has argued, Africana Studies “is not merely an aggregation of courses on African American history and literature.” Rather, it is “the Afrocentric study of African phenomena.” In a word, the discipline must be informed by “an orientation to data,” a methodology that is rooted in the cultural image and human interests of African people and engages them as subjects and agents of their own lives, history and culture.
Academic Excellence. The emphasis on academic excellence is stressed to reaffirm our commitment to the highest level of intellectual production and teaching as Black Studies scholars, and to providing the process and practice in which students achieve a similar intellectual grounding in the discipline. In addition, academic excellence speaks to the issues of the intellectual coherence and integrity of the discipline and defense against disciplinary dilution and fluid and over-extended boundaries. Here, it is important to note that Black Studies is a multi-field discipline that requires one of the widest ranges of competence in the academy. As a pan-Africanist project from its inception, it seeks to encompass and critically engage, from an African-centered position, the ancient, modern, and diverse peoples and cultures of the world African community. But Africana Studies, as a discipline, resists the attempt at radical separation of it from the source and impetus of its origin and development, i.e., the African American community and its historic and ongoing liberation struggle to expand the realm of freedom in the academy, society and world. Maintaining this emphasis or, as James Turner calls it, “primary concentration on African America,” while expanding outwardly to critically engage the world African community, was essential to the origin and evolution of Black Studies and is likewise vital to its sustainment.
Finally, academic excellence requires an increase in discipline-specific literature, constant expansion in essential areas, especially Black women’s and womanist studies, classical African studies, ethics (social, environmental, medical, etc.), information technology, comparative multicultural and ethnic studies, and global issues studies. There is also an urgent need to hire persons with terminal degrees in the discipline. Indeed, an expanded body of discipline-specific literature, the development of a critical mass of scholars who are graduates of Africana Studies and not attached to other disciplines, the continued strengthening of professional organizations of the discipline (NCBS, AHSA), and thus the intellectual integrity of the discipline, all depend on hiring practices that ensure the constant growth, continuity, and continuance of the Africana Studies scholarly community.
Social Engagement. The third central element in the mission and expansive meaning of Black Studies is social engagement, designed to reaffirm the discipline’s commitment to using knowledge to improve the human condition and enhance the human prospect. From its inception, Black Studies understood itself, not only as a source of socially relevant intellectual production and exchange, but also an agency of progressive and radical social change. It linked intellectual emancipation with political emancipation and committed itself to both in a single interrelated project. This is logically linked to Black Studies’ commitment to critique and corrective, which assigns a social activist and emancipatory role to both education and the educated. Thus emerges the fundamental concept and activity of the scholar-activist.
As noted above, the Kemetic concept of serudj ta, repairing and transforming the world, points toward the self-understanding of Africana Studies as a world-encompassing project whose central ground of concern and engagement is the world African community. However, as Africana Studies scholar-activists, our focus on the world African community compels us to deal with the world as a whole, as it impacts us and we impact it in our ongoing efforts to know the past and honor it, engage the present and improve it, and imagine the future and forge it.
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- Molefi Asante, “The Pursuit of Africology: On the Creation and Sustaining of Black Studies,” in Handbook of Black Studies, ed. Molefi Asante and Maulana Karenga (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006); Maulana Karenga, “The Field, Function and Future of Africana Studies: Critical Reflections on Its Mission, Meaning and Methodology,” in Handbook of Black Studies, ed. Molefi Asante and Maulana Karenga (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006), 402–420; James Stewart, “Social Science and systematic inquiry in Africana studies: Challenges for the 21st Century,” in Handbook of Black Studies, ed. Molefi Asante and Maulana Karenga (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006). ↵
- Joyce A. Ladner, ed. The Death of White Sociology: Essays on Race and Culture (New York City, NY: Vintage Books, 1973) ↵
- Molefi Asante, The Painful Demise of Eurocentrism (Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1999). ↵
- 4. Maulana Karenga, Maat, the Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics (Routledge, 2004; repr., Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 2006), 397–402. ↵
- Nathan Hare, “What Should Be the Role of Afro-American Education in the Undergraduate Curriculum?” Liberal Education 55 (1969): 42–50; Nathan Hare, “The Battle of Black Studies,” The Black Scholar 3 (1972): 32–37; William Strickland, “Black Intellectuals and American Social Science,” The Black World 25 (1975): 4–10. ↵
- Molefi Asante and Maulana Karenga, eds., Handbook of Black Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006); Delores P. Aldridge and Carlene Young, eds., Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2000); Manning Marable, ed., Dispatches from the Ebony Tower (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000). ↵
- James Stewart, Fight: In Search of Vision (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2004), 250. ↵
- Maulana Karenga, Introduction to Black Studies, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 2002), 29–30. ↵
- Terry Kershaw, “Towards a Black Studies Paradigm: An Assessment and Some Directions,” Journal of Black Studies 22 (1992), 477–93; Cheikh Anta Diop, Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991); Maulana Karenga, “Black Studies and the Problematic of Paradigm: The Philosophical Dimension,” Journal of Black Studies 18, no. 4 (1988): 394–414. ↵
- James Turner, ed., The Next Decade: Theoretical and Research Issues in Africana Studies (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984); Perry Hall, In the Vineyard: Working in African American Studies (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1999). ↵
- Asante, Painful Demise of Eurocentrism, 111. ↵
- 12. Molefi Asante, Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990); Molefi Asante, The Afrocentric Idea, revised and expanded ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998). ↵
- Ama Mazama, The Afrocentric Paradigm (Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 2002). ↵
- Turner, The Next Decade, vii. ↵
- James Stewart, “Reaching for Higher Ground: Toward an Understanding of Black/Africana Studies,” The Afrocentric Scholar 1, no. 1 (1992): 1–63. ↵
- W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Field and Function of the Negro College” (1933), in W. E. B. Du Bois: The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques 1900–1960, ed. H. Aptheker (1973); Shirley Weber, “Intellectual Imperative and Necessity for Black Education,” in The Next Decade: Theoretical and Research Issues in Africana Studies, ed. James Turner (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 63–75. ↵