Esther Terry, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Over forty years ago, when the Black community demanded that white colleges and universities institute an area of studies committed to the recovery and accurate reappraisal of the historical and cultural record of its presence in America, what it knew was that its sons and daughters had been deprived by the society and its educational system of any such record. Influenced in no small degree by those demands, a small group of Black graduate students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst joined with several white professors to design a proposal for a department of Afro-American Studies, which would challenge the assumptions, practices, and methodology of other disciplines in the many areas where traditional practice had either negated or distorted the Black experience and Black contributions. We said this was necessary because, contrary to general opinion, the major function of Black Studies would not be merely to introduce little-known or ignored facts and events concerning the history of Black peoples. Rather, the major function of the field is to introduce and to validate new methods and sources, to create new interpretations of traditional materials, and to radically transform the notions, concepts, and perceptions of history, society, and culture presently embodied in white western academic traditions. In 1969, the university’s board of trustees voted the establishment of the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies.
Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts is thirty-five years old. In the twenty-six years between our establishment as an undergraduate department and the inauguration of our graduate program, we not only admitted, taught, and advised our majors, but carried major responsibility in the university’s general education program; students from other departments found ready access to our classes and sought us out as advisors on special projects that had been assigned in other disciplines such as sociology, history, English, and political science. Nor was it ever the case that all of the students were Black. White students also participated fully in the department’s programs, which included enrolling as majors. Our faculty was not estranged from our colleagues across the campus; we engaged in team projects, sat on dissertation committees, guest lectured, and served on university committees — the college personnel committee, the chancellor’s planning committees, five-college committees — with regularity. We were particularly mindful of the general pool of undergraduate students who were not our majors, for, as we wrote in our founding proposal, we have the parallel responsibility of leavening and affecting the quality and focus of the educational experience of all Black students regardless of their major field of study.
We inaugurated a graduate program that awards the PhD in Afro-American Studies (with concentrations in Literature and Culture; and History and Politics) in l995. In its eleven-year existence, we have made the following record: we have awarded eleven doctorates: six Black women, two Black men, one white woman, and two white men. All but one (who defended her dissertation just this past March) have been fortunate in securing teaching positions in such places as the University of Florida, South Alabama State, the University of Kentucky, San Diego State, St. Lawrence University, Southern Connecticut State, St. Cloud University, and the University of Central Michigan. Dissertation fellowships and postdoc fellowships awarded to our students include the Cassius Marcellus Clay Fellowship in the History Department at Yale University; the AAUW Educational Foundation Fellowship; the Charles Gaius Bolin Dissertation Fellowship at Williams College; a Faculty Fulbright at Berlin, Germany; the Northeast Consortium for Faculty Diversity at Monmouth University; Minority Scholar in Residence in the History Department at Carleton College, and the Five College Minority Dissertation Fellowship at Smith College.
We have admitted fifty-two doctoral students (twenty-nine men and twenty-three women) with the following racial/ethnic makeup: seventeen Black men, nine white men, two Asian men, and one Latino man; seventeen Black women, four white women, one Asian woman, and one Latina woman. Six students dropped out of our department and two were discharged. Twenty of our students currently hold ABD status, of whom five already have teaching positions.
The foregoing, then, is a brief recounting of the record of our efforts to create a department which, born of our commitment to the early yearnings of the Black community for recognition and articulation of the truth of its sojourn on American soil, may in some ways be thought to be a continuation of the work it began; but is presented here as a background against the questions, “How far have we come in institutionalizing the field of Afro-American Studies and how far do we have to go?” and, “What efforts must be made to move the field of African American Studies from the periphery of academia to the core?”
Over the past century and a half, as new disciplines have grown in the wombs of old disciplines and have been born to stand alone, equal with their brothers and sisters in academe, there have come into existence three marks or stigmata that signal their maturity. I have measured Black Studies against those three marks. First, one sees the establishment of the journals, professional associations, and conferences through which the ideas and problems of the new discipline are elaborated and developed. Then come the academic departments devoted to the teaching and research of the new discipline — initially staffed by men and women who have taken their degrees in one or another of the old disciplines, with ties to existing departments, but eventually staffed by men and women who have tenure in the department alone, thus signaling their belief in the permanence of the discipline and their commitment to it. Finally, there are established full-scale doctoral programs in the new discipline, located in and administered by the independent departments alone. With this last step the discipline is ready to reproduce itself in new generations. One turns to Black Studies to find that, building upon African American academic achievements going back especially to the immediate post-World War I era, one witnesses the establishment of journals, professional associations, and conferences through which the ideas and problems of Black peoples have been elaborated and developed. Over the past fifteen years, there have been established full-scale doctoral programs that are located in and administered by independent departments to respond to these problems. And the reproduction of a new generation of scholars is well underway. As an answer to the first question, then, let it be said that, at least from the Amherst perspective, the institutionalization of Black Studies has been accomplished.
In responding to the second question, “What efforts must now be made to move the field of African American Studies from the periphery to the core?,” I am led to pose yet another: In light of the continuing spread and cultivation of ideas of African American and allied scholars nurtured and developed by African American Studies departments, what does it mean, precisely, to move from the periphery to the core? Approaching the issue as one relative to the hegemony of ideas in the academy, especially with regard to the humanities, those perspectives emanating from the Black experience which were once deemed peripheral — not to say heretical or insignificant — are now at the very core of American Literary and Historical Studies: the contributions of Martin Delany and Frederick Douglass, for example. The period of Reconstruction, once bearing the heavy scent of southern oligarchic views, is now largely taught in the academy with the unmistakable perspective of W. E. B. Du Bois at the core. It remains true, however, that in general the social sciences have tended to be more successful in keeping Black American perspectives away from what they consider to be core teachings.
On the other hand, if, by core and periphery one seeks to highlight institutional arrangements, of course there are individuals who doubted the wisdom of African American Studies coming into being in the first place, and have tended to treat the field more as a brambly concoction of dangerous political positions than a serious academic endeavor, and look upon the imperatives of African American Studies as justifiably occupying a peripheral existence in the academy. For them, the way to move African American Studies from the periphery to the core rests in dispersing the multidisciplinary faculties now concentrated in African American Studies to their corresponding established disciplines in “traditional” departments. This would be an egregious error on two interrelated counts.
In somewhat the same way that the field of African American Studies emerged both out of and against traditional disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, the discipline of psychology separated itself from economics and philosophy, sociology from psychology, biochemistry from biology and chemistry, and communication studies from English and sociology. Like these disciplines, Afro-American Studies has gone through stages of development, culminating presently in the establishment of a number of highly successful doctoral programs across the country. Certainly, the field was born of political struggle, which distinguishes it from some of its fellow disciplines, but even in that regard it is not unique. A look at sociology, for example, will reveal its germination in a politically conservative reaction to the revolutionary expansion of capitalism in the nineteenth century. The discipline of economics, emerging a century earlier, grew out of a liberal attack on the entrenched power of the landed aristocracy. And philosophy itself, the first of all the academic disciplines, derived much of its impetus in ancient Athens from a reaction to popular democracy. There is ample precedent, then, to justify the existence of Black Studies in its existing institutional form.
Secondly, the field of African American Studies grew out of the Black experience — which like other experiences cannot be intellectually apprehended through a single academic discipline. A fact missed by many observers of the academic scene is that the continued and demonstrated ability of African American Studies to influence and to confront, in positive ways, the manner in which traditional disciplines regard all of American life itself, depends foundationally upon the existence of African American Studies’ multidisciplinary approach to examining the experiences of Black people in North America. The most intelligent and effective institutional means for maintaining that multidisciplinary character, in my estimation, rests in maintaining and building upon existing structures epitomized by independent Black Studies departments, rather than by folding them into generalized ethnic studies configurations or dispersing their faculty into “traditional’ departments — all towards some nominally exalted goal of “uniting the periphery with the core.”
African American Studies remains at the center of continuing debates concerning the nature and purpose of American society in all of its aspects. To the extent that the color line in its various and complicated expressions tends to be a problem of centuries, our academic field will retain our relevance to the study of the human condition.