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12 Africana Studies at the “Gateway”

Carole Boyce Davies, Florida International University

In a recent presentation (March 16, 2006) at Florida International University (FIU) on “Mi­ami: The Global City,” Saskia Sassen[1] describes Miami as a global city because it serves as a kind of launching point for Latin Amer­i­ca and the Caribbean and has connections to a range of other in­ter­na­­tional locations. Indeed Cape Florida, Key Biscayne, in Mi­ami, has recently been marked as a South-South station on the Un­der­ground Railroad the final US location for a number of en­slaved Af­ricans maroon­ing, fleeing further south, that is, in the op­posite direction of the mythical northward journey of the Un­derground Railroad. According to Rosalyn Howard, rec­ords in­di­cate a sighting of over two hundred en­slaved Africans heading by boat to­wards Red Bay in the Bahamas in 1841.[2]

But Miami is also the receiving point for successive waves of migrants to the United States from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa. From the historic balseros to the contemporary Cuban boat people and the already unequal “wet foot/dry foot” policy, to the Haitians often arriving also by boat, and remaining always “wet foot,” detained at Chrome and other detention centers, to the more “legal/illegal” migrations, Miami, as with other major US cit­ies, ends up with a diverse population of international peoples. The links between Chrome [immigration detention facility] and Guan­tán­amo Bay are explicit now, both detention sites for US policies of official inequity. And ac­cord­ing to recent statistics, South Florida is now the place of a new wave of repopulating, hurricanes not­with­standing, in which a record one thousand people a day move into the state. Giv­en our philos­ophy that a program in an area must meet the needs of its com­munity in its design, research, and delivery, what kind of Af­ri­cana Studies program does one build in such a lo­ca­tion?

From our point of view, the African-New World Studies Pro­gram (ANWS) at FIU—a new program, funded in 1994, and with a first na­tion­al search director in 1997—ANWS has been able, in a short time, to move ahead of the other six programs in the state, to cap­ture these specific movements in order to build an African Di­as­pora Studies program that is responsive to these community move­ments. On the one hand, it recognizes the leadership of US Af­ri­can Americans in the struggle for rights, but also the los­ses, such as via 2000 disenfranchisement; it engages the presence of the Haitian communities here to talk about the early struggles and creativity of Af­ricans in the New World, always trying to make the point of the sym­bolic and political links between the Haitian Rev­olution (1798–1804) and the Cuban Revolution (1959) in a place which has no tol­erance for even hearing the name Fidel Cas­tro. Navigating the ex­periences of Afro-Cubans has therefore been with major challenges, as there is a tendency to suggest that there was no racism in Cuba until Fidel, and/or an acceptance of the complete erasure of Afro-Cubans as an identity, even as they are visibly in our presence. The racism against Afro-Latin Ameri­can communities then is almost a given—the cynical racism that the Afro-Brazilians talk about to the more overt and oppressive ex­clu­sions described above. The broader Anglophone Caribbean Di­as­pora and their cultural and political interests and advance­ments also figure prominently.

Challenges Which Indicate The Directions For Future Study

The institutional challenges to Africana Studies are well-known, and we share those that exist nationally insofar as they remain part of US racism’s superstructure. We exist collectively in a field or­ga­niz­ed to counter a massive edifice of hegemonic Eurocentric knowledge, a primary manifestation of which is a willful institu­tion­al ignorance which often dominates; a field therefore adver­sa­ri­al by def­inition. This means that administrators and colleagues from other units may be too uninformed, unwilling, ill-equipped, or oth­er­wise unable to represent the interests of these units in ways that are to our benefit.

There is a phrase that the US uses openly to frame its sub­ord­i­na­tion of the rest of the world: “It is not in US interests to… .” A sim­ilar pattern is identified in these institutions: “It is not in the in­sti­tution’s larger interests to [represent the needs of Black Stud­ies].” A frightening corollary arises when those subordinated also buy into the institutional logic. One consistently fights an uphill battle while the university continues to move on to its “more im­por­tant” matters, matters in which we are never or rarely included. In this context, the very dangerous Chronicle of Higher Ed­­ucation essay pro­claiming the demise of Black Studies is often seen as a kind of red flag, or an indication of a trend, which means that universities do not have to consider our needs seriously any­more; or if there is a problem within the program, to suggest a so­lu­tion along the lines of what happened at NYU. An equal time in­sis­tence seems to be rel­e­vant from leading institu­tions when these articles appear or they get cited by deans as part of their le­git­imate handling of relevant units.

Re-examining Activism and the Black Radical Intellectual Tradition

Africana Studies itself has not been able to live up to its origi­nal intent; instead it is caught in a wave of professionalization that began in the mid-1980s. According to Sylvia Wynter, in her essay “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Re-Im­pris­on­ed Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being…,”[3] once Black Studies entered the very order of knowledge it had con­test­ed, something different happened. This something different was in­deed an attempt to operate by the standards of the acad­e­my, to get people tenured, promoted, to ac­quire the prizes of the acad­e­my such as named chairs, often with names that are highly suspect and/or insulting. Above all, buying into the same epis­te­mological frameworks has been one of its er­rors. Indeed the issue raised here regarding sustainability is in­volv­ed: i.e., sus­tain­ing the gains we have acquired, but still not able to articulate fully the terms of our humanity.

The organic link between politics and intellectual work has been ruptured somewhere along the way and needs to be repaired urgently. Students in graduate school need to be able to maintain the passion and mission that they have when they enter grad school and not be so terrorized by the process that they are no long­­er able to function politically and instead simply accommo­date, like pled­ges, once they enter the professoriate. And at the national level, too often there is no major organized Black ac­ademic community response to pressing issues—from the elections in South Florida to Katrina, to the issues of immigration and the racial profiling of the “war on terrorism.” The Bill Cosby/Michael Eric Dyson duel over the demeaning of urban poor Black com­munities remains just that, a media struggle be­tween two dif­fer­ent individual positions as asserted by two Black men. There is no organizational position, or at least no media cov­er­age of one.

The delinking of the combining of activism and scholarship which had marked the beginning moment of Black Studies[4] has meant that once new faculty enter the institution, they are met with the specter of not getting tenure and are cautioned to keep their heads low, finish a book, and stay out of the way. This means that we literally lose a whole generation or two of young scholars, as there is no guarantee that after tenure, they will suddenly re­turn to activism. In fact it is virtually impossible, as these seven years serve as a period of re-socialization away from activism and these young faculty in turn miss at least six classes of students who need to be cultivated. The days of young professors who ben­e­fited from their youth, language, and closeness to student life, as well as working in tandem with Black students’ organizations, have vir­tu­ally dis­ap­pear­ed.

At least one or two generations were lost in the drive toward professionalism, which privileged rapid publication to meet insti­tu­tion­al mandates. Thus, it is not uncommon for departments to say that young Black faculty should not be involved in service, but should get their publications done and get tenure. The result is of­ten a faculty with no tradition of service to department, campus, or community. The way that this relates to knowledge production is that it ruptures the organic link between theory and practice, in­tel­lec­tual work and activism that has been the hallmark of our schol­ars. The kind of knowledge that is produced through this prac­tice is an energetic scholarship that often results in the rapid pro­duc­tion of mediocre manuscripts.

From our experience with this question, faculty issues have been perhaps the most difficult. One makes tre­men­dous headway with small numbers of committed faculty. At times a program de­pends on a few committed faculty members while others remain always peripheral, sometimes unresponsive and un­in­terested, do­ing nei­ther research nor activism. In other situations, much of the work of the program is carried out by the women faculty and some affiliated faculty members who have deep commitment to the field of Africana Studies. And thereby is iden­ti­fied another prob­lem: The academy in its present incarnation has developed a num­ber of faculty members who take advantage of the space opened by Af­ri­cana research to develop research projects in a related area, but have no knowledge of the po­lit­i­cal, social, and intellectual intent of Africana Studies as a field, nor do they either un­der­stand, know about, care about, or respond to its history. Some of these are peo­ple who came from other locations and class po­si­tions, are found ready-made structures that they could aid in dis­man­tling, not real­iz­ing or caring about the nature of struggle that went into their cre­ation. Another group represents new faculty who are largely un­aware of the ’60s move­ments to create Black Stud­ies, young and ideal­istic but unin­formed. The result is faculty who work on “Black subjects” but who have no commitment to the larger field. One young white scholar who works in African history even announced that if they closed our program, it would not af­fect him.

Related to this lack of historical context, to counter charges of insularity, the wide-scale open­ing-up of Black Studies means that it is possible to get, in an applicant pool for an Africana Stud­ies po­si­tion, young white schol­ars (often touted as top of the pool if one uses the institution’s indices) who may have mastered the par­tic­u­lar subject of their research but who have no other larger knowl­edge of the field, its communities, connections, scholars, and schol­ar­ship in Africana Studies.

For the sustainability of Black Studies into the twenty-first century, then, the organic link between activism and intellectual work has to be readdressed and even made attractive for young scholars. This ought not to mean the sacrificing of intellectual work, but the his­tory of the ways in which these coexisted needs to be ex­am­ined and reasserted. The organizational skills of a prior gen­e­ra­tion of ac­tivists are disappearing. Current faculty often do not know what to do when attacked by white colleagues; may complain later but do not have direct and affirmative responses to overt ra­cism. And even worse, departments are sometimes cannibalizing them­selves, as in one Africana Studies program that has decided to cen­sure one of its faculty for calling out a “white boy” student who was be­hav­ing in a particularly obnoxious way. There is a Black rad­ical intellectual tradition that we can all learn from to recon­figure for a new age. Tenure once meant that one was free to ar­tic­ulate politi­cal positions. Instead the drive has become, within the consumer cul­ture model, to make it up the pro­fes­soriate lad­der. Students, un­tu­tored as they are, themselves make few de­mands.

Examining the Impact of Creolization and Hybridity Discourses

Relatedly, discourses of hybridity and creolization have created a framework that has reified a kind of Mulatto Studies. This no­tion of “mulatto studies” is not meant to refer to or demean par­tic­u­lar biracial identities, but to identify a kind of grotesque frame­work being privileged, one that operates out of the logic of a “cul­tu­ral void” which Pedro Noguera calls “Anything but Black.”[5] It also refers to the ambiguous location of a kind of study that tries to represent “in-betweenity” in the postmodern/cultural studies sense as proposed by Homi Bhabha and others, who, in their home con­text, have not even addressed the fact that there are Indo-Africans (Siddis) horribly subordinated and marginalized by the same upper castes from which some of our definers of hy­brid­i­ty come. “‘Hybridity’ is the discourse of the compromised bourge­ois in­tel­lec­tu­al” says Kum Kum Sangari.[6] According to the im­med­i­ate post-en­slave­ment logic, the intent was to create pre­cisely a “hy­­brid” pop­u­la­tion, who did not necessarily belong any more to Africa but who tried now to settle themselves accordingly in the new location without reference to a past. This is precisely what Black Studies and its contemporary political movements in­ter­vened to correct, re­turn­ing through the back door with this new cultural hybridity frame­work as theoretical model, and it has to be subjected to more scru­tiny than it has to date. While we study and understand cre­ol­i­za­tion, the danger is in its be­com­ing an overarching framework with no allegiance to any type of Black po­sitioning, therefore op­er­at­ing at the behest of dominating sys­tems already in place. In­sti­tu­tions, within the structure of US ra­cism, often massage and/or en­cour­age pathological behavior so that dysfunctional ten­dencies, some­times even insanities, are nor­mal­ized within the framework of “low­ered [Black] expecta­tions.”

In these contexts, having standards of excellence becomes a di­rect challenge to the normalizing of bad behavior. Often the sym­pathy is with the one acting out. University structures like sex­u­al harassment workshops can be ignored as they are not union-man­dat­ed. To the extent that they can characterize Black Studies as sites of dysfunctional behavior, places of “unrest,” then they can avoid the commitment to the larger issues of faculty building, cur­ric­ulum development, and student educational needs through­out the uni­versity. In the future, then, sustaining Black Studies will depend on creating a new cohort of scholars who are able to more dynamically bring back to­gether the link between activism and scholarship.

Class, Immigration, and Globalization–Black Human Rights Internationally

The recent activism of Latino peoples against the proposed crim­inalization of migrant workers (2006) has thrown into sharp relief the absence of mass activism of Black peoples in the United States around a series of rights being gradually denied. The various mil­lion peoples marches did not target concrete issues or these were not translated appropriately. African Americans are portrayed as some­times taking an anti-immigrant stand[7]  and immigrants see their own local populations as more and more disenfranchised with­out being able to rely on the traditional systems to account for their rights. Perhaps it may be necessary to revisit some of the ear­li­er proposals such as the Black Panther Party “Ten-Point Program,” which deals at its core with Black human rights. A number of doc­u­ments from the past may need to be re-addressed in order to un­der­stand what has been gained, what has been proposed, and what has been lost.

Still it would be myopic to chart a domestic/national program that has nothing to do with Black people internationally when there is so much movement of Black people in­ter­na­tionally, while the US, in its imperial desires, assumes the right to cross any­body’s borders, invade at will, without regard for the sover­eignty of those nation-states. Most scholars agree that the various mi­gra­tion flows to the US are propelled on the one hand by glo­bal pol­icies which encourage and accompany the migration of capital, and thus the migration of labor which follows capital and at the same time depends on the disenfranchisement of its own internal workers. Labor issues will then have to become more dom­inant, as Roger Toussaint demonstrated during the 2005 De­cem­ber transit strike in New York City.

On Internationalizing Citizenship Rights, the Nation States, and the African Diaspora (or How Do We Make Pan-Africanist Politics Practical Realities)

The intent of Pan-Africanism was to make itself a practical and achievable reality, i.e. beyond the theoretical and political artic­u­la­tions. A great deal of work has gone into identifying the contours of the African Diaspora, and important work continues in a variety of areas, led by disciplinary meetings at most major organizational conferences and symposia and lecture series at various institutions that explore a range of angles. A few of the recent ones are iden­ti­fied: the African Diaspora in Europe (Paris, December 2004 and North­western, 2006), African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean (Goa, India, January, 2006), African Diaspora Knowledge Exchange (Mi­ami, May, 2005), African Diaspora and the Disciplines (Mad­i­son, March, 2005), African Union various meetings on the Di­as­pora (2002–present), Africans in the African Diaspora (new gene­ra­tion) (Binghamton, April, 2006), and ASWAD (The Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora). A growing num­ber of publications of conference proceedings, encyclopedias, and in­di­vid­ual books in the area[8] are creating a dynamic library of Af­ri­can Di­aspora Studies. But will this be knowl­edge for its own sake?

What remains to be worked out still are the reclamation of rights in individual nation-states as well as the reconnections to a lar­ger global reality. One of the things that Katrina revealed again is the frailty of Black citizenship rights in the nation-state that should be protecting them. Black people worldwide descended again into Hurston’s “infinity of conscious pain” as participants in and as witnesses of an epic, slave-like cycle of degra­dation. For this rea­son, it is necessary to keep open the logic of transnational cit­i­zen­ship for Black people. In Quitting America[9] Randall Robinson re­states a formation that W. E. B. Du Bois and Kwame Toure (Sto­kely Car­michael) as well as a range of other African Diaspora peoples have had to contend with. (i.e., that the given nation-states un­der which we live should not be seen as the ultimate and only pos­sibility for existence). This is the same logic that ran through the es­caped enslaved Africans like Harriet Tubman and the maroon com­munities or quilombos across the Diaspora.

At present several states have reciprocal, dual state membership[10] with open possibilities for enlargement toward multi-state mem­ber­ship. Moves are afoot to identify an African Diaspora Citi­zen­ship that works out the rights and duties normally accorded to cit­i­zens of various member states of the African Union to those de­sir­ing citizens across the African Diaspora. Critical elements include res­idency, land ownership, movement, trade, communica­tions, ed­u­cational exchange, retirements, workers’ rights, refugee rights, med­ia, political representation, and so on. Each of these el­e­ments will have to be studied seriously if we contemplate African Di­as­pora citizenship rights in each of our nation-state locations and see what other options exist in other locations.

Current trends in the development of transnational citi­zen­ship rights indicate that, given con­temp­o­rary developments in com­mu­ni­ca­­tion and a range of other processes of globalization, the need is precisely for states to work collabora­tive­ly to ensure ad­vancement of their well-being and the rights of their citizens in dif­ferent lo­ca­tions. It is in the global com­mon interest of African Diasporic peo­ples that we begin a process of realizing Diasporic citizenship. Since the African Diaspora is already a pre-existing demographic and cultural glo­balization, all it takes now is to ac­ti­vate its various ec­onomic and political components into some ef­fec­tive political and economic structure. This model ensures that those basic value cat­egories of human rights can begin to be achieved.

Community Re-Education

The beneficiaries of our work still must be those members of the African Diaspora whose families have been removed from the continent of Africa by the forced and induced migrations of Indian Ocean, trans-Saharan, and trans-Atlantic slavery and who still suffer from subordination in a variety of locations internationally. The larger displacements that continue to exist have a means of being addressed by African peoples globally themselves, rather than be­ing the subject of pity and continued oppression in various nation-states.

Needed is some structure to target reinvestments by those well-off in our communities. The unyielding struggle to get Black ath­letes to contribute to Black programs is well known. Fund­rais­ing initiatives for Black Studies programs have to be seen as hav­ing the same priority as that devoted to HBCUs for scholarships and to main­stream white institutions by alumni. Other com­mun­i­ties do this as a matter of course. A systemic re-education process for the Black middle class who have often moved away and do not know, rec­ognize, or understand the on-the-ground realities is also nec­es­sary.

Florida Africana Studies Consortium (FLASC)–The Consortium Model

At the local level, then, we propose a community “Re-Edu­ca­tion Project” activated through a conference we did in 2004 on the “Miseducation/Incarceration/Re-education Nexus” in order to tar­get, in part, children in neighboring schools, particu­lar­ly those in families where was a history of incarceration. The idea is to im­ple­ment the teacher education component of the Florida man­date[11] with the purpose of closing the knowledge gap in this area and providing knowledge for transcendence.

The South Florida model then is an interactive Africana Stud­ies model which meets (a) community educational needs through a series of partnerships and (b) academic needs of our communi­ty. While we are fortunate that there is a Florida mandate, making Florida one of the only states to have such legislation, the man­date has not been funded by the state itself. Bringing it alive has been one of the tasks of our program, and in conjunction with Miami-Dade Public Schools and a Commissioner of Education’s Task Force for African American History, we have been able to or­ga­n­ize our program to begin to meet some of these needs.

FLASC is organized to bring together related programs and departments in the South Florida area and more broadly in the state to deliver undergraduate degrees using our joint resources, to coordinate internships for students in local, national, and inter­national agencies. The Consortium offers academic and cultural ex­change, the benefit of the South Florida pool of intellectual re­sources, exchange and network with national and international scholars, research and travel to conferences in the Diaspora and op­portunities for students and faculty to participate in col­lab­o­ra­tive conferences, symposia and lectures through consortium in­sti­tutions. So far we have organized three conferences col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly and a series of smaller symposia and lectures at partner institutions in South Florida.

The logic of creating an umbrella structure is that it can cush­ion some of the inner campus issues. In many of our meet­ings, fac­ulty spoke about their isolation and marginalization on the vari­ous campuses and of the inability to deliver in one place the wide range of interests of students from across the African Diaspora. Af­ri­can Diaspora Studies in this model is not seen as limiting US Af­ri­can American Studies but reconnecting all the pieces in the dis­persal so that the very issue of Black human rights internation­ally can be articulated.

The “gateway” is both the twenty-first century with its returning prob­lems but also the location at one of the entry points in and out of the US. This is its benefit, but also its challenge. As African Dias­pora Citizenship becomes a practical reality, there is an urgency to prepare our students who are already internationalized with the knowledge to interact progressively with the rest of the world with­out losing themselves.

African Diaspora culture embodies and resides within the dy­nam­ic energy of transformation. A study of any of the forms with which we work signals this, from religion to art, dance to fashion. Each of these cultural forms takes the received African traditions and in the context of place, climate, history, and ma­terial available creates something distinctly different from what it was originally, even as it carries the traces of the old. This is its “spirit of trans­formation,” for not only do we have a historical blueprint,[12] but we also have new versions, which can be activated.


  1. Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton University Press, 2001).
  2. Rosalyn Howard, Black Seminoles in the Bahamas (University Presses of Florida, 2002).
  3. In Not Only the Master’s Tools: African-American Studies in Theory and Practice, ed. Lewis R. Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006), 107–169.
  4. See Delores P. Aldridge and Carlene Young, eds., Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies (Oxford: Lexington Books, 2000). But see also earlier works by Abdul Alkalimat, ed., Introduction to Afro-American Studies: A Peoples College primer (Chicago: Twenty-First Century Books, 1986), and, later, Manning Marable, Dispatches from the Ebony Tower: Intellectuals Confront the African American Experience (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), which engaged some of the more recent debates in Black Studies.
  5. Pedro A. Noguera, “Anything but Black: Bringing Politics Back to the Study of Race,” in Problematizing Blackness, ed. Percy Hintzen and Jean Muteba Rahier (New York: Routledge, 2003), 193–200.
  6. In a lecture at the African Studies Centre, by this Indian scholar at Northwestern University, 2001.
  7. See Ajamu Dillahunt, “Solidarity Statement to the April 10, 2006 Immigration Justice Rally, Siler City, N.C.,” originally posted on H-Afro-Am net Black Workers for Justice, Further studies are needed to determine if this generalization holds.
  8. A sampling includes the following: Joseph Harris, ed., Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora (Howard University Press, 1993); Okpewho et al., eds., The African Diaspora: African Identities and New World Self-Fashionings (Indiana University Press, 1996); Darlene Clark Hine, ed., Crossing Boundaries: Comparative History of Black People in the Diaspora (Indiana University Press); Carole Boyce Davies et al., eds. Decolonizing the Academy: African Diaspora Studies (Africa World Press, 2002); Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Harvard University Press, 2003); Michael Gomez, Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora (Cambridge University Press, 2003); and the forthcoming Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora (ABC-CLIO, 2007).
  9. Randall Robinson, Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man from His Native Land (New York: Dutton, 2004).
  10. This is already in place in the Ghana and Ethiopia, and several countries like Trinidad and Tobago have dual citizenship options.
  11. Enrolled 1994, Florida Legislature, Section 1003.42(2)(g), Florida Statutes 1003.42 (2)(g) Required instruction: Members of the instructional staff of the public schools, subject to the rules and regulations of the state board and of the school board, shall teach efficiently and faithfully, using the books and materials required, following the prescribed courses of study, and employing approved methods of instruction the following: (f) The history of African Americans, including the history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition, and the contributions of African Americans to Society.
  12. See Carole Boyce Davies, “Grounding African Diaspora Scholarship for Community Transformation,” Chimera: USA African Institute Journal, Spring 2003.


Africana Studies at the "Gateway" Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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