Block I Illinois Library Illinois Open Publishing Network

2 Conversation for Sustaining Black Studies in the 21st Century

Retaining Relevance

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.


Conversation for Sustaining Black Studies in the 21st Century Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book