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19 Brick by Brick

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”.[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.[4]

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”.[5] 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.”[6] 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.[7] 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.”[8]

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.

  1. Manning Marable, ed., Dispatches from the Ebony Tower (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 189.
  2. 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.
  3. Nathaniel Norment, 2001, xxiv.
  4. 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.
  5. Lee Baker, “Rethinking Black Studies: You Can’t Do That Without Organization,” Souls 6, no. 3/4 (2004): 39.
  6. Karenga, Introduction to Black Studies, 42.
  7. Manning Marable, “Beyond Brown: The Revolution in Black Studies,” The Black Scholar 35, no. 2 (2005): 11–21.
  8. Baker, “Rethinking Black Studies,” 39.


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