The Critical Role of Professional Organizations in the Institutionalization of Africana Studies
Charles E. Jones, Georgia State University
After nearly four decades of struggle since the establishment of the first Black Studies BA degree at San Francisco State University in 1968, the field of African American Studies has finally acquired academic legitimacy within higher education. Manning Marable observes, “African-American Studies, once considered an insurgent outsider in white circles, has in recent years become part of the intellectual establishment”. Several developments beginning in the 1990s reflect the current stature of Africana Studies. Among these trends are the proliferation of Africana Studies graduate programs (six new PhD and three new MA programs), the addition of several scholarly journals devoted to Africana Studies (International Journal of Africana Studies; Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society; Journal of African American Studies, and the Journal of Black Women, Gender and Families) and the creation of new African Studies undergraduate units (Georgia State University, Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Arizona, and Tennessee State University), as well as the enhancement of previously existing units, such as Pennsylvania State University and Emory University whose African-American Studies programs have acquired departmental status.
Notwithstanding this newfound legitimacy, the field of Africana Studies has yet to obtain a similar level of institutionalization found in other traditional disciplines. Nathaniel Norment, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Temple University, argues that “Central to the contemporary questions facing African American Studies are issues surrounding academic excellence and community responsibility: that is, whether or not Black Studies will continue to take part in the ‘careerist culture’ of the academy or reflect on its vision, retool its mission, and reshape its direction.” Future endeavors to strengthen the field of Africana Studies can be greatly enhanced by professional organizations dedicated to the promotion of systematic scholarly investigation of people of African descent. Viable professional organizations facilitate the mission of academic excellence and social responsibility that undergirds the field of Africana Studies. Presently, there are three professional organizations whose primary mission is the promotion of the Africana Studies field. These organizations include the National Council for Black Studies (NCBS); Southern Conference on African-American Studies, Inc. (SCAASI); and the National Association of African-American Studies (NAAAS). While several other professional organizations such as the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH); National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS); and the College Language Association (CLA) do exist, their focus and that of NAAAS are discipline specific rather than the entire scope of the interdisciplinary field of Africana Studies.
NCBS is the oldest among the Black Studies professional organizations. Founded in 1976 by Bertha Maxwell Roddy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the organization recently held its thirtieth annual conference in Houston, Texas, with over three hundred attendees, representing thirteen colleges and universities. NCBS, whose national office is currently housed in the Department of African-American Studies at Georgia State University, offers several membership services, including an annual conference, publication of a scholarly journal, International Journal of Africana Studies, faculty development workshops, student essay contest, a honor society, and community outreach grants, funded by monies from the National Black United Federation of Charities Fund.
SCAASI, founded in 1979, also has a national reach, although its membership draws heavily from the historically Black colleges and universities located throughout the South. This organization hosts an annual conference, sponsors a study essay contest, and publishes a newsletter and a bi-annual refereed journal, Griot: The Journal of Black Heritage. The National Association of African-American Studies (NAAAS) is the newcomer to the cohort of Black Studies professional organizations. It was founded in 1993 by Lemuel Berry, who also serves as the executive director of the National Association of Hispanic and Latino Studies, the National Association of Native American Studies and the International Association of Asian Studies. The NAAAS sponsors an annual conference and an international academic scholars program.
Professional organizations provide myriad functions and services that foster the institutionalization of Africana Studies. The presence of viable Black Studies professional organizations helps to mitigate the centrifugal forces in higher education that often undermine a collective commitment to the field. An effective professional organization advances the field of Africana Studies by providing:
- Forum for Dialogue. Professional organizations provide a forum for practitioners of Africana Studies to interact, discuss, and debate the major issues of the field. Conferences, workshops, and symposiums sponsored by Africana Studies’ professional organizations ensure vital space for scholars to explore the salient scholarship of the field. Issues of import to Africana Studies scholars are often omitted or marginalized by the traditional disciplines. Annual conferences hosted by the various Black Studies professional organizations are often the only venue for Africana Studies scholars to have paradigmatic discussions, explore relevant theoretical models, and advance emancipatory knowledge, which furthers the institutionalization of the field.
- Clearinghouse. Professional organizations serve as a resource center to enhance the effectiveness of Black Studies academic units. This is an invaluable role because the overwhelming majority of scholars who teach Africana Studies are not trained in the field. Moreover, since most Black Studies units are beset with meager budgets, the presence of a national clearinghouse permits these units to maximize their limited resources. For instance, a Black Studies organization can sponsor a “course syllabi bank” that scholars can draw upon in designing new Africana Studies courses. Black Studies professional organizations can also assist with academic program review and the promotion and tenure process. Lee Baker notes that “having [a] strong national organization could help strengthen Black Studies programs because it might help coordinate teams to facilitate a more effective department review process, which occurs at even the smallest programs”. In response to the current call for academic accountability, NCBS created the Commission on Assessment, Program Review and Accreditation in March 2004. The Commission promotes disciplinary excellence through annual think tank meetings; consultation with NCBS member affiliate institutions; and peer review in the program review process.
- Professional Development. Black Studies professional organizations can enhance the career opportunities of Africana Studies scholars. Scholarly journals sponsored by Black Studies professional organizations provide additional disciplinary-related publication outlets, which are important for successful tenure and promotion decisions. Curriculum and administrative workshops sponsored by Black Studies professional organizations expand the expertise of faculty members. For example, the “Summer Faculty Institute” (sponsored by NCBS) “introduces new Black Studies faculty to the history, philosophy and varied discourses of the discipline, and provides them with a context of creative challenge and exchange with peers as well as major scholars in the discipline.” Dozens of new chairs and directors of Africana Studies academic units benefited from administrative workshops sponsored by NCBS with funding from the Ford Foundation. As founding chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Georgia State University, I benefited immensely from my participation in the NCBS Chairs and Directors’ Workshop. It alerted me to the pitfalls particular to leading an Africana Studies academic unit.
- Professional Standards. Black Studies professional organizations can offer vital assistance in establishing criteria and standards for the field. A major impediment to the institutionalization of Africana Studies has been the lack of uniformity and standards pertaining to critical aspects of the field, such as curricular issues, program review, and assessment. Black Studies professional organizations provide a venue in which the leading scholars of the field can establish a consensus on the standards to guide the field of Africana Studies. For example, the recent creation of the Commission on Assessment, Program Review and Accreditation seeks to address issues of professional standards.
- Student Mentoring. Black Studies professional organizations facilitate mentoring by developing future generations of Africana Studies scholars. Both undergraduate and graduate students regularly deliver papers at the annual conferences of the various Black Studies professional organizations. NCBS and SCAASI also sponsor student essay contests, which contribute to the development of future Africana Studies scholars. Under the leadership of Professor Patricia Reed-Merritt, NCBS recently initiated the Dr. Tsehloane C. Keto Leadership Development and Mentorship Program, for student members of the NCBS Board of Directors. The benefit of these mentoring efforts is evident by the recent faculty appointment of a former recipient of the NCBS undergraduate and graduate student essay contest.
- Policy Expertise. Black Studies professional organizations can also assist policymakers by providing expertise and scholarship to address salient issues confronting people of African descent.
Currently, however, our Black Studies professional organizations have yet to realize their full potential. To do so, they must embody the following attributes: an accomplished and accountable leadership, widespread support from a broad section of Africana Studies scholars, a strong infrastructure, and the capacity to deliver membership services.
While it is certainly the case that various pioneers and leading Africana Studies scholars are involved in building Africana Studies, many of the field’s acclaimed scholars fail to participate actively in Black Studies professional organizations. Professor Lee Baker laments, “Although in recent years both NCBS and ASALH have experienced growth and stability, professors from the strongest Black Studies programs in the country could make a more concerted effort in developing, building, and strengthening these important institutions. Both NCBS and ASALH should be important vehicles that unite and strengthen Black Studies departments across the country.”
In order to facilitate the institutionalization of the field, we need the leading scholars and preeminent Black Studies programs to participate fully in Black Studies organizations. Black Studies professional organizations need to develop a stronger infrastructure, one that includes a greater number of administrative staff and a greater capacity to deliver services to its membership. Presently, most Black Studies associations depend on the generosity of a university benefactor. While this support is welcome, Black Studies professional organizations must develop a separate, autonomous financial base to ensure organization self-sufficiently. This is especially critical given the current environment of budgetary retrenchment. Black Studies professional organizations should welcome a broad cross-section of Black Studies scholars who represent diverse ideological, theoretical, and methodological approaches. This embracing of diverse approaches will allow Black Studies professional organizations to expand their membership base.
In conclusion, the field of Africana Studies is inextricably linked to the presence of viable and dynamic Black Studies professional organizations. Without their critical support, the institutionalization of Africana Studies will be stymied, unable to reach the lofty aspirations of its pioneers. This endeavor should not be taken lightly, as it is a brick-by-brick process, one that will require the commitment and sacrifice of Africana Studies practitioners.
Atwater, Deborah and LaVern Gyant. A woman of vision: Dr. Bertha Maxwell Roddey. International Journal of Africana Studies. 10(1), 117–130.
Baker, Lee. 2004. Rethinking Black Studies: You can’t do that without organization. Souls 6(3/4), 39–40.
Evans, Stephanie. 2006. The state and future of the Ph.D. in Black Studies: Assessing the role of the comprehensive examination. The griot: The journal of African American Studies 25(1), 1–16.
Karenga, Maulana. 2002. Introduction to Black Studies. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
King, William M. 2000. The early years of three professional Black Studies organizations. In Delores P. Aldridge and Carlene Young (Eds.), Out of the revolution: The development of Africana studies, 115–132. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.
Marable, Manning. 2000. A plea that scholars act upon not just interpret events. In Manning Marable (Ed.), Dispatches from the ebony tower, 188–190. New York: Columbia University Press.
Marable, Manning. 2005. Beyond Brown: The revolution in Black Studies. The Black Scholar 35(2), 11–21.
- Manning Marable, ed., Dispatches from the Ebony Tower (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 189. ↵
- Stephanie Evans, “The State and Future of the Ph.D. in Black Studies: Assessing the Role of the Comprehensive Examination,” The Griot: The Journal of African American Studies 25, no. 1 (2006): 1–16. ↵
- Nathaniel Norment, 2001, xxiv. ↵
- William M. King, “The Early Years of Three Professional Black Studies Organizations,” in Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies, ed. Delores P. Aldridge and Carlene Young (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2000), 115–132; Maulana Karenga, Introduction to Black Studies (Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 2002), 42-44; Deborah Atwater and LaVern Gyant, “A Woman of Vision: Dr. Bertha Maxwell Roddey,” International Journal of Africana Studies 10, no. 1 (2004): 117–130. ↵
- Lee Baker, “Rethinking Black Studies: You Can’t Do That Without Organization,” Souls 6, no. 3/4 (2004): 39. ↵
- Karenga, Introduction to Black Studies, 42. ↵
- Manning Marable, “Beyond Brown: The Revolution in Black Studies,” The Black Scholar 35, no. 2 (2005): 11–21. ↵
- Baker, “Rethinking Black Studies,” 39. ↵