Kevin Gaines, University of Michigan
In considering new or alternative funding sources for Black Studies programs, it is important to confront the myriad challenges that these programs face. I would begin with a paradox: Black Studies has made a profound contribution to academic disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, by foregrounding the centrality of race and racism in the study of American history and society, by revising and expanding literary and artistic canons, and [by] exposing the exclusionary power of dominant notions of “objectivity” and “universality.” Yet, at the same time, the intellectual contributions of Black Studies have generally gone unrecognized. In this sense, Black Studies has been a victim of its success; its legitimacy challenged from above by scholars in disciplines that have benefited from foundational Black Studies scholarship on slavery, resistance, and post-emancipation societies, and from below by scholars in emergent ethnic studies programs who naïvely view Black Studies within a zero-sum conception as a hegemonic threat to their own emergent field, failing to recognize, in their own way, the implications of work in diasporic African American Studies for their own work.
Just as American popular culture industries have historically expropriated African American cultural innovation, other fields have taken credit for the contributions of Black Studies (here I mean the work of such figures as W. E. B. Du Bois, St. Clair Drake, C. L. R. James, Eric Williams, George Lamming, E. Franklin Frazier, Oliver Cox, Walter Rodney, Hortense Spillers, Nellie McKay, Mary Frances Berry, John Blassingame, and others). Black Studies, therefore, remains an embattled, misunderstood field; its original insights ransacked and wrongly attributed to cultural studies, postmodernism, or postcolonial studies. In the meantime, the majority of these programs are underfunded, many with a handful of faculty, and are often marginalized. These programs have always been viewed as “outsiders,” but recently, in the context of a national campaign to end affirmative action in public institutions of higher education, there have been renewed attacks on the legitimacy of Black Studies. Meanwhile, as academic publications and Afro-American Studies listservs issue anecdotal accounts of the decline of Black Studies, or [report on] ideological tensions within the field, we hear of multi-million-dollar gifts to university programs in Middle Eastern Studies, Judaic Studies, and ancient history.
There are two major challenges, as I see it. The first, for many struggling and underfunded programs, is attracting increased internal resources to build and strengthen their programs. The second, at a time of economic austerity and shrinking state budget appropriations, is for fairly established programs to increase their support from external, philanthropic sources.
Regardless of the origin and nature of attacks on Black Studies, it is fair to say that the field has a serious image problem. How might this image problem be best addressed? It would be misplaced and futile to deny the origins of Black Studies in the Black Movement activism of the late 1960s. There will always be attacks and attempts to distort the character of Black Studies by conservatives. But conservatives do not constitute the most significant threat to these programs. Instead it is the confusion about the nature and objectives of such programs among many African Americans and people of African descent that undermines a major, perhaps the crucial source of philanthropic support for Black Studies programs.
In the media discourse on Black Studies over the past decade or so, the dominant image of the field is one of controversy. One is hard-pressed to recall even a single positive or favorable account of Black Studies as a field of research. Black Studies has often been portrayed as having to choose between two supposedly irreconcilable paths, between being either a strictly academic endeavor, or its raison d’etre viewed as serving the needs of Black liberation. Whenever the debate is framed in these terms, as it was some years ago by Henry Louis Gates and Manning Marable in the New York Times, the cause of Black Studies as a legitimate area of research and inquiry always suffers. The false binary of scholarship versus activism can only benefit those who hold the position that Black Studies should disassociate itself from political engagement of any sort. In addition, that binary reinforces the perception that such programs are generally deficient in the area of scholarship. Moreover, in the absence of a Black social movement that is in any way comparable to the 1960s protests that provided the catalyst for Black Studies, the position that Black Studies must prioritize activism seems at best an exercise in wishful nostalgia. The terms of the debate — scholarship versus activism — preclude a more meaningful discussion of other objectives of the field, such as: (1) fighting to maintain access for African American students to higher education amidst attacks on affirmative action; (2) providing undergraduates, particularly underserved African American students, with the critical, intellectual, and writing skills that are essential for their future success; (3) providing an intellectual, political, and social resource for African American students on white-majority campuses; or (4) training the next generation of scholars in the field through the mentoring of graduate students and assistant professors. The problem with the “scholarship versus activism” debate is that it tacitly undermines the legitimacy of Black Studies programs. The debate itself, and variations on it in the form of internal bickering among Black Studies scholars predicated on claims of authenticity, is ultimately a reflection of the dependency of the field on the goodwill and largesse of white-dominated university administrations.
For whom does this unfortunate debate undermine the legitimacy of Black Studies? I submit that it sows confusion and ultimately, indifference among those whose commitment to and investment in Black Studies ought to be the strongest — African Americans, particularly Black college graduates and alumni. In a contemporary moment in which the connection between Blackness and a cultural heritage of freedom struggles and Black pride is being eclipsed by media and market-driven, debased, sexist and hyper-acquisitive constructions of Blackness, a disconnect between Black Studies professors and many African American students should come as no surprise. Most African Americans probably have little awareness of or interest in internecine debates over the proper ideological orientation of Black Studies. The lack of a clear articulation of African American interests by the field exacerbates a general hard-headed careerism among African American students and their parents that leads them to shun Black Studies, and humanistic studies, generally, for the perceived economic security of training in the sciences, engineering, and business.
Black Studies programs will continue to be marginal, ghettoized by university administrations and misunderstood and shunned by African American students and parents, unless these programs wholeheartedly embrace the production of high-quality scholarship as central to their mission. This is essential for gaining the respect that is due to Black Studies from all parties. In addition, the public needs to be convinced that while the origins of Black Studies as a product of social protest are unique, Black Studies as an academic program is in other respects similar to such interdisciplinary academic programs as American Studies, Women’s Studies, Judaic Studies, and so on. Like those other programs, Black Studies is a site where students can obtain the skills central to a liberal arts education, and a site for the education of informed, global citizens, as with any other undergraduate program or department worth its salt. Black Studies should be defined as a valid intellectual and academic program, but it is crucial that this not be done at the expense of civic engagement. Scholarship and active citizenship are distinct, but interrelated—each can inform and reinforce the other.
By more closely aligning itself with the interests of African Americans—both in higher education and through scholarship that addresses the needs and interests of African Americans generally in such policy areas as public health, economic development, access to higher education, the state of K–12 education, and incarceration, to name just a few—the field of Black Studies and its welfare will resonate more strongly with its primary constituencies of Black university alumni and graduates. Black Studies scholars should also consider the ways in which their scholarship can elucidate an independent Black political agenda that has larger democratic implications for American society. Black Studies scholars must provide intellectual leadership for people of African descent in the US and the larger society. Perhaps then Black Studies programs will attract more donations such as the widely celebrated one by the African American woman who donated her fortune of a half million dollars from her earnings as a domestic worker to a historically Black college. Philanthropy from African Americans, ranging from contributions to establish endowed chairs to more modest contributions, must be the objective of systematic outreach efforts directed at Black alumni and African American churches and other organizations.
I want to address the challenge of underfunded programs to build and overcome the marginalization from which many suffer. For this to happen, there must be an alliance between the leadership of these Black Studies programs and university administrators to employ these programs as a mechanism for diversifying the faculty of their institutions. In its initial phase, this commitment will necessarily involve partnerships between Black Studies programs and sympathetic academic departments that seek to hire top-quality young scholars, with an institutional commitment to mentoring them to tenure. And this model of diversifying the faculty must move beyond the tokenism that often prevails at many institutions.
In conclusion, Black Studies programs should not view themselves as competitors for scarce resources with other identity-based academic programs such as Women’s and Ethnic Studies. Instead, the growth of Black Studies programs in terms of faculty lines and appointments can be viewed as a means of infusing traditional academic departments with researchers and teachers working at the frontiers of knowledge production. The important intersectional work that has occurred within Black Studies over the past twenty years, in Black women’s history, critical race theory, social science scholarship on race, class, gender, and social mobility, and African American literature, to name but a few areas, suggests the future direction of an expansive Black Studies approach that redefines the study of African American peoples through an engagement with their connections with other peoples of African descent and other groups, such as Native Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans. In a manner that recapitulates the largely forgotten shared origins of Black Studies and Ethnic Studies programs, future scholarship in Black Studies and comparative ethnic studies will ideally be mutually beneficial for these respective fields.