Block I Illinois Library Illinois Open Publishing Network

28 Black Studies in the Twenty-First Century

"What Role Can Chief Administrators Play in Developing and Sustaining Black Studies?"

Ronald W. Bailey, Northeastern University

Careful attention must be paid by higher education adminis­tra­tors and by Black Studies professionals to making sure that the dire conditions facing higher education—the deepening crisis—do not become the sole central element in shaping our agenda for developing and sustaining Black Studies in the years and dec­ades ahead, or for developing our vision for the future of higher ed­­u­cation.

I am sure we all have our own war stories about this crisis, and any issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education can serve as a scan of the environment. And it will get worse before it gets better. There are problems on the cost side and the revenue side of the ledger. Data from the NEA indicates that the percentage of state bud­gets devoted to higher education has decreased from 9.9 percent to 6.9 percent between 1980 and 2000. And it is not much better with fed­eral support. Just how much is suggested by the fact that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings found herself “blasted”—the word is from the Chronicle—by the leadership of the Re­pub­lican Party over President Bush’s budget proposals. “Scan­da­lous” is the word Arlen Specter, chair of the Senate appropriations sub­com­mit­tee that oversees the Education Department’s budget, used to de­scribe the administration’s budget proposals for student aid and other ed­u­ca­tion programs. The administration’s proposals did not increase student aid or lower the costs of student loans, and did not address the $12 million that was cut from gov­ern­ment-backed student loan programs in an earlier round of budget cutting.

Those of us in higher education and in Black Studies must be our own best advocates, and I am surprised sometimes when policy makers turn to popular books—most recently Thomas L. Fried­man’s recent best-selling book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century—to support their views that “the country should not reduce spending on education at a time when it is facing in­tense competition from countries like India and China.” It is this theme that I want to use in these comments about what ad­min­is­tra­tors could be doing with regards to Black Studies, and what prac­ti­tion­ers in the field should be doing to help admin­is­tra­tors do their jobs — how we can be our own best advocates.

How is it that we can protect ourselves from the short­sight­ed­ness of letting the crisis dictate our approach to Black Studies? I would suggest that we pay attention to four things, for key twenty-first-century challenges: (1) The Vision Thing, (2) Generational Re­spon­si­bility: Perspectives and Intellectual History, (3) Embracing the En­tire University: On Silos and Collaborations in an Era of Dy­nam­ic Change — A Dialogue Across Two (or More) Cultures, and (4) The Social Justice Imperative and Whose Town Is Served by the Gown: Revisiting and Revising Academic Excellence and So­cial Re­spon­­si­bil­ity in the Wake of Katrina.

The Vision Thing

This process of “visioning” is vital if the future of Black Studies as a whole and on any particular campus is to be sustained and sus­tained effectively. The future of Black Studies is as much an is­sue of vision as it is commitment and resources. We make a profound mis­take if we underestimate that it was the vision especially of young Black activist intellectuals of the late 1960s and early 1970s and not the vision of a previous generation or the vision and re­sources of foun­dations, governments, and other entities that was the driving force in the surge for Black Studies in the late 1960s. Only by re­visit­ing that vision and recasting it in light of new conditions can we build a better future for Black Studies and higher education. The initial Black Studies vision offered much that is now central to the di­alogue in higher education. These three questions, for ex­am­ple, were central: (1) Who should teach and study in higher ed­u­ca­tion? (2) What should be studied and how? (3) Whose “town” should the “gown” serve? Administrators must study and build on the tra­di­tion of these questions and an­swers that Black Stud­ies pro­vid­ed as a way to serve the best in­ter­est of higher education as a whole.

Generational Responsibilities: Perspective and Intellectual History

This second point has to do with our roots and historical moor­ings, how educational administrators view this process, and how Black Studies specialists look at the content of this discipline or field of study. “New participants in the cultural process are emerg­­ing. Former participants in that process are continually dis­ap­pear­ing. Members of any one generation can participate only in a tem­po­rally-limited section of the historical process. It is there­fore nec­es­sary continually to transmit the accumulated cul­tu­ral her­i­tage. The transition from generation to generation is a con­tin­uous proc­ess”.[1]

Generational Responsibilities #1: Perspective, or Can You Para­digm?

Another key issue is how do we study the Black experience? Too often we conflate the two concerns and end up thinking that our study of the Black experience is the same thing as the actual lived Black experience. It should be, but it rarely is, and within this discrepancy resides the rich diversity within the field. Cur­ric­u­lum issues need substantial attention. Let me call attention to “the Pa­ra­digm of Unity” that was a contribution made with my col­leagues and guided the development of Introduction to Afro-Ameri­can Studies: A Peoples College Primer. Parentheti­cally, I would note how significant such works as Kuhn’s The Struc­ture of Scientific Revolutions were to our discussions in the early days of positioning Black Studies in the broad­er academic are­na, and how rarely such discussions about the history and legacy of the vari­ous fields that impinge on Black Studies are carried on today.

Generational Responsibilities 2: Intellectual History

Insufficient attention is paid to intellectual history: both as a chronological rendering of how ideas have developed and, more profoundly, as a theoretical explanation that seeks to explain what forces have shaped the development of particular ideas and par­tic­u­lar times. With regards to the first, African American Studies, by its very title and its subject matter, thus keeps in front of us the his­to­rical and contemporary realities of people of African descent, and focuses attention on such historical dynamics as the slave trade, slavery, colonialism and imperialism, poverty, the “tri­ple oppression” of Black women, and other social issues. It does so even when it is uncomfortable, perhaps, in the polite company of the academy. In so doing, African American Studies keeps in front of us the story of resilience and achievement against the odds, both by individuals and by communities. Administrators do not al­ways appreciate this. In addition, African American Studies has pio­neered the development of interdisciplinary scholarship in US high­er education and spurred similar developments in other fields. This approach has been an important aspect of its in­tel­lec­tu­al his­tory and well as it current practice.

I see key questions that were at the heart of the Black Studies movement in the 1960s and early 1970s, questions that are em­bed­ded in the legacy of Black Studies scholarship, and remain there, and that have also been taken up by several other disci­plines and fields of study:

  1. What have been the connections of Black people across the globe and how are we to understand them?
  2. What is the relationship between the Black experience and the broader human experience? And what have Black people contributed to the world?
  3. When will we be free? Under what conditions can Black people expect social justice?

My point is that higher education is in the “ideas” business, and I don’t see how a good administrator can be effective without con­stantly thinking about the big ideas and where Black Studies not only fits in, but can provide vital leadership.

Embracing the Entire University: On Silos and Collaborations in an Era of Dynamic Change — A Dialogue Across Two (or More) Cultures

Administrators are in the best position to protect Black Studies from itself and to protect it from a dangerous tendency too often observed in higher education: to wall off academic units from ac­tive dialogue and engagements with other disciplines to the ben­e­fit of everyone involved. If time permitted, I would anchor this discussion in the critique British philosopher C. P. Snow developed in his Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. In it, he was con­cern­ed about how the breakdown in the dialogue between the sci­en­ces and the humanities hampered the efforts to address pres­sing social problems.

The Social Justice Imperative and Whose Town Does the Gown Serve?: Academic Excellence and Social Responsibility

Town/gown has become the concept to discuss campus and com­munity relations in higher education. How should the re­search of scholars serve the needs of the broader society? But too few people appreciate that this was a major tenet of African Ameri­can Studies at its inception. Alkalimat was the key figure in devel­op­ing the mantra that was adopted by many Black Studies program in the 1980s that summed up the commitment as academic excel­lence and social responsibility. The main point is that Black people con­tin­ue to suffer a huge and disproportionate burden of inequi­ties as we continue in the twenty-first century, a point driven home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In closing, my main recommendation is that university admin­is­trators and other concerned parties should support regular dis­cus­sions on the intellectual and academic needs of Black Studies. They should invite Black Studies professionals to their national and regional conferences and encourage their participation, and they should support such efforts among Black Studies scholars. Con­fer­ences of Black Studies practitioners should be better or­ga­niz­ed and popularized to address such issues. What I have in mind is some­thing along the lines of the 1980 Sixth Annual National Con­fer­ence organized by the Illinois Council for Black Studies in Chi­cago. Such a conference would not be driven by what scholars want to present, but the agenda would be set by an assessment of the most compelling needs of the field on such issues as: cur­ric­u­lum, graduate programs, employment opportuni­ties, the state of schol­ar­ly journals and other publication outlets, new fields of re­search, new opportunities for students (service learning, inter­na­tion­al stud­ies, etc.) There is also a need for a new publication: “What US Higher Education Should Have Learned from Black Stud­ies, and What We Should Have Learned Our­selves: A Self-As­ses­sment.”


  1. I. M. Zeitlin, Ideology and the Development of Sociological Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), 381–83.


Black Studies in the Twenty-First Century Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book