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14 Challenges for Obtaining Philanthropic Resources

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.


Challenges for Obtaining Philanthropic Resources Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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