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22 Bringing the Community Back in Black Studies

Charles P. Henry, University of California, Berkeley

In the spring of 1968, Black students at the University of California at Berkeley, like Black college students across the country, demanded that school officials establish a Black Studies program. Their proposal to the administration said, “[T]he college and university campuses of America are a long way from where most of us come. Our homeland (known to White folks as the ghetto) is hardly conducive to the growing of ivy. ‘Mother wits’ was our thing, not encyclopedias.”[1]  They went on to critique what they found on campus: “[E]ducation in America, as we have come to know it, is a strictly utilitarian endeavor. The colleges and universities have not been established for the sake of education.”[2]  The students determined that these institutions of higher learning perpetuated and continued a national life that wrought “unspeakable horrors” upon its citizens of color. Knowing this, they moved to “institute all those changes prerequisite to our survival in an openly hostile country.” They demanded a “program of ‘Black Studies,’ a program which will be of, by, and for Black people.”[3]  Central to the proposed program of Black Studies was a Black curriculum containing three non-traditional programs: (1) com­mu­ni­ty-based courses; (2) University of California [UC] Extension courses; and (3) experimental  courses. The community-based courses were to operate through five or six off-campus locations and be established with the help of various local groups. Black Studies courses were to also be offered through the existing U. Extension and administered by an assistant to the Black Studies Coordinator. Experimental courses were to be taught by the students themselves in either community-based curricular and/or as a part of the experimental structure existing on campus.

Less than a year later, students frustrated with the lack of progress on educational proposals from Black, Chicano, Native American, and Asian American students began a student strike on January 22, 1969. Emerging out of the strike was a proposal for a Third World College. A key part of the college would be a new Institute on Race and Community Relations. The institute would not engage directly in regular course instruction, but specialize in research, community service, publications, leadership training, and fellowship programs that addressed themselves to the needs of the particular Third World community. The proposal mandated a “high level of community participation in the work of the Institute.”[4]

Over thirty-five years later, only one of the programs proposed has happened. Students are allowed to offer experimental courses for one to two units of credit under the supervision of a faculty member in any department. There are several research institutes focusing on issues relevant to people of color, but none with a “high level” of community participation. What happened?

A quick answer is that community service and its partner—activist politics—were sacrificed to achieve mainstream academic credibility. Black Studies had to differentiate itself from existing traditional programs to justify the creation of new departments and programs, but it also had to conform to a general set of norms to achieve credibility with those same traditional departments.[5] As Nathan Hare, the pioneering Black Studies administrator, said, “[T]he notion that ‘academic soundness’ would suffer is basically a racist apprehension, a feeling that any deviation on the part of Blacks away from White norms and standards inevitably would dip downward.”[6] Following Hare’s logic, it is not surprising that community participation and political activism in academic programs were among the first sacrifices in the search for academic legitimacy.

In a “debate” on activism in Black Studies, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Manning Marable raise some of the key factors for the demise of such program components nationally. Gates rejects the demand for knowledge that has immediate political utility while accepting that the “ideal of wholly disinterested scholarship … will probably remain elusive.”[7] He cites student summer internships with community organizations as an acceptable form of com­mu­ni­ty involvement. Gates also believes public policy issues can be a central concern of African Studies as they are at several universities such as Harvard.

Bill Fletcher, Jr., on the other hand, offers a different assessment of community linkages at Harvard historically. He believes that the Harvard administration specifically frustrated attempts by Ewart Guinier, the first chair of Afro American Studies, to link the department with the Du Bois Institute, which Guinier wanted to have a community focus. That link was developed only after Gui­nier retired and the research focus shifted away from the local Black community.[8]

Marable states, “too many Black Studies programs have a tendency to focus largely on arts and humanities and much less on political economy, public policy, and urban ethnography.”[9] He wants to balance the current emphasis on literary and cultural studies with a greater emphasis on social science. Citing a Black intel­lec­tu­al tradition linking theory with practice, Marable contends that the now classic texts used in Black Studies and written before the 1960s were largely produced either outside the academy or at segregated all-Black colleges.

Marable’s implied contention that those with an organic connection to the Black community produce the best work in Black Studies has long been a subject of debate. One of those now classic texts, Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-education of the Negro, argues that “[w]ith ‘mis-educated Negroes’ in control themselves, however, it is doubtful that the system would be very much different from what it is or that it would rapidly undergo change. The Negroes thus placed in charge would be the products of the same system and would show no more conception of the task at hand than do the Whites who have educated them and shaped their minds as they would have them function.”[10] So, in 1933, Wood­son calls on scholars to get out of the classroom and scientifically investigate the Negro community.

Almost thirty years later, E. Franklin Frazier issues an even stronger condemnation of American Negro intellectuals. He believes they are unconcerned about the impact of Western civilization on traditional Black culture and instead tend to deal with superficial aspects of the material standard of living. The cause in part, says Frazier, is due to the anti-intellectualism of the Black middle-class, which makes its intellectuals dependent on White philanthropy. He goes so far as to say the only significant studies of the Negro in politics have come from White scholars.[11]

Of course, the Black Studies movement was aimed at correcting the very problems identified by Woodson and Frazier. Yet Cornel West argues that there were “more and better Black intellectuals prior to the sixties.”[12] The reasons for this, says West, are the possibility of a decent grounding in a Black college or par­ti­ci­pa­tion in a literate subculture—especially in large urban centers—of writers, painters, musicians, and politicos. West believes Black intellectuals today mostly fall within two camps: the “successful” ones are distant from the Black community and the “unsuccessful” ones are disdainful of the White intellectual world. West advocates the creation or reactivation of institutional networks that promote high-quality critical habits primarily for the purpose of Black insurgency.[13]

Whether the Black intellectuals of today are better or worse than their predecessors still leaves us with the question of where do we go from here? First, I believe we need to demystify and complicate the concept of the “Black community.” As Adolph Reed, Jr. notes, “[a]ssertion of links to, roots in, messages from, or the wisdom of ‘the community’ is more a way to end a conversation about politics than to begin one.”[14] Using it as a big trump in a game of one-upmanship to legitimate one’s identity, authenticate one’s position, or curtail dissent is dishonest at best and detrimental at worst.

The “Black community,” like any other community that does not meet face-to-face on a continuous basis, is an “imagined community.” It is composed of individuals of various classes, genders, religions, and ideologies with different interests and issues. Due to progressive changes in immigration laws and the growing class gap in the Black population, the national Black community is more diverse and therefore more fragmented than ever. Therefore, when we propose a community activity or program we need to specify exactly who will benefit and who will bear the cost.

Second, we need to establish a register or clearinghouse for best practices. Recognizing there is no template for a successful community program that fits every situation, we can nonetheless begin to delineate programs that seem to work from those that do not. Are Black Studies programs better off sticking to their expertise in education or are there models of success in other areas of outreach? The Community Extension Center run by the Black Studies department at Ohio State University, for example, has done a comprehensive analysis of its College Education Opportunity program, which was established in 1976. The list of recommendations flowing from that report is an important reference for those Black Studies programs contemplating similar efforts today.[15]

Third, we need to distinguish between programs that deliver a particular service to the community such as tutoring and those that draw on community needs to construct a larger theoretical paradigm. James Jennings cites Kenneth Clark’s methodology in Dark Ghetto as a conceptual model growing directly out of his experiences with youth employment programs in Harlem, e.g., haryou.[16] Joy James would agree with Jennings that theory needs to reflect the conditions of those most vulnerable to state violence.[17]

An excellent example of bringing the community back into Black Studies comes from the field of social work. Mekadu Graham demonstrates the importance of African-centered social work paradigms in her discussion of life cycle development programs (rites of passage). She believes that African-centered orientations in these programs are helping change the social work profession’s ambivalent attitude toward spirituality as a key dimension of the human condition.[18]

Fourth, the issue of independence remains a central one. Ambitious programs of community outreach and involvement are generally funded by external sources. Typically, Black Studies departments and programs are limited to a few sources of external fund­ing. Increasing and diversifying those sources is key in cre­at­ing sig­nificant new programs for and linkages to the “Black com­mu­ni­ty.”

Finally, the reward structure of the university itself does not re­ward and often punishes those academics that engage in com­mu­nity service. We are unlikely to see significant new initia­tives to ex­ternal communities until we reform our own academic com­mu­nity.


  1. “Proposal for Establishing a Black Studies Program, submitted to University of California by the Afro-American Student Union,” Spring 1968, 1.
  2. “Proposal for Establishing,” 1.
  3.  “Proposal for Establishing,” 1.
  4. “Proposal for a Third World College,” n.d.
  5. Ama Mazama, “Interdisciplinary, Transdisciplinary, or Unidisciplinary?” in Handbook of Black Studies, ed. Molefi Kete Asante and Maulana Karenga (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006), 3–15.
  6. Nathan Hare, “Questions and Answers about Black Studies,” in The African American Studies Reader, ed. Nathaniel Norment Jr. (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2001), 17.
  7. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Manning Marable, “A Debate on Activism in Black Studies,” in Dispatches from the Ebony Tower, ed. Manning Marable (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 187.
  8. Bill Fletcher Jr., “Black Studies and the Question of Class,” in Dispatches from the Ebony Tower, ed. Manning Marable (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 160.
  9. Gates and Marable, “A Debate on Activism,” 191.
  10. Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-education of the Negro, (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990 [1933]), 23
  11. E. Franklin Frazier, “The Failure of the Negro Intellectual,” in The Death of White Sociology, ed. Joyce A. Ladner (New York: Vintage, 1973), 54–61.
  12. Cornel West, “The dilemma of the Black intellectual,” in Cor­nel West and bell hooks (Eds.), Breaking Bread, (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 132.
  13. Ibid., 144.
  14. Adolph Reed, Jr., Class notes, (New York: The New Press, 2000), 10.
  15. James Upton, “Stop-outs: African-American participation in adult education,” in Delores P. Aldridge and Carlene Young, (Eds.), Out of the revolution: The development of Africana studies, (Lan­ham, MD: Lexington Books, 2000), 502.
  16. James Jennings, “Theorizing Black Studies,” in Manning Ma­ra­ble (Ed.), Dispatches …, 180–182.
  17. Joy James, “The future of Black Studies,” Ibid., 156.
  18. Mekada Graham, “Black studies and the social work paradigm,” in Molefi Asante and Maulana Karenga (Eds.), Handbook of Black Studies, 304 –316.


Bringing the Community Back in Black Studies Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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