The Institutionalization of Black Studies
Esther M. A. Terry (University of Massachusetts, Amherst): We have connected ourselves with the basics of university requirements on the campus for general education and we do the service part of that. Students take our courses as a requirement, to live in the social world, and they take it as a requirement.
When an independent department with a degree-granting individual department moves to the position of granting degrees to its own students, and have those students then move into the world, I think we can say with good effort, this constitutes the kind of institutionalization that we should all aim for.
There are other programs that are equally as successful as we are and we count them. That allows us to say loudly and with great pride, along with those of you around the table, that Afro-American Studies is alive and doing very well.
And as I’ve said, and I’m being abbreviated here, … I think that one of the things that might be a problem, and I would like to have people discuss, is the notion that we should begin to move the sum of the graduate programs into other programs; dispense the department status and put faculty members in their older departments. I think no movement in that direction can be helpful.
James Turner (Cornell University): That has been traditionally problematic for Black Studies and for funding agencies and universities. The fact that there are these perceptions is not surprising because this is largely a Black project. There are always certain kinds of race-driven perceptions relative to Black projects. There are perceptions on the campus about minority fellowships, pre-summer programs; and about recruitment. All of those things are in the American academy. What we find because of responses in the first place, to those perceptions of others, that these developments, these initiatives, are being undermined. Not enough critique is being offered as to what is the motivation of these perceptions.
I remember when I was at Northwestern, we were talking to the head of the English department, and he said to us, “how are you going to have a course in African American literature?” He said there is no literature. The underlying assumption was that Black people aren’t capable of it. And we looked back in there and said Gwendolyn Brooks is the poet laureate of the state; Margaret Alexander Walker graduated from here. If we took just those texts we’d have enough for a one quarter course.
Shortly after that, the New York Times came out with the Arno series, and Robert Staples began his series of collections of studies of the Black family. These texts began to appear just when there was an argument being made that there was no empirical base for Black Studies.
From the inception of modern African American Studies, there have been good debates over matters involving association with so-called mainstream disciplines, academics, affiliations and the dominant disciplines in general, and institutional positioning and forms of administrative organization. This is really the heart of this discussion. For example, when we talk about department status in African American Studies that is often perceived in the language of separatism. Sociology is a tradition and a discipline; political science and anthropology, in particular, fought for distinctions, based on their disciplinary emphasis and specialization. And that’s how you develop a university. That’s how you get, not only territory and reciprocal relationships with others; that’s how you also command budgets and resources. But somehow it is perceived differently when it comes to Black Studies.
How far have we to go? The historiography of African American Studies must in some way still be configured. The African intellectual structures of the field should be engendered at the levels of its fundamental conceptualization and formulation in curriculum, pedagogy and research. Black women’s scholarships will of necessity instigate reconstructive histological formations for the field. Much of the same applies to the imperative to deconstruct heteronormative ascribed values and exclusions in the study of sexuality in the Black experience.
This is very important. What you hear often is that Black Studies must of necessity have joint appointment relationships, so much so that it overrides how these people come in and identify. When you have young scholars coming in trying to wear two or three hats, they look to the so-called dominant disciplines. African American Studies is an established discipline. The difference is who is dominant in these matters.
We’ve also advanced a discussion about knowledge production. “Regimes of knowledge,” as heard from others and Du Bois relates to regimes of power. And these are no less true in the academy than they are in the corporate world, in politics, or any other place in civil society. So this notion that you must base it on joint appointments in order for Black Studies to be legitimate is perhaps our enduring threat. It is our most challenging position. And that’s why what’s in these reports becomes important. Carol, I agree with you. But I worry about what’s in those reports and what’s interpreted in those reports, whether it satisfies or reinforces these biases and institutional prejudices or not. That’s my six minutes.
Alison Bernstein (Ford Foundation): I totally agree that we’re not discussing whether or not African American Studies is established. It’s whether or not it has dominance and what its relational position is to other departments that are the so-called “core.” Thought-provoking commentaries.
Lee D. Baker (Duke University): Both professors Terry and Turner reminded me, in terms of the dominance — if you think about it, we’ve been doing this for forty years. But things like Diaspora, globalization, and multi-disciplinary approaches to knowledge are seen as “new.” And I think these things that are so integral to both the interpretive social sciences and humanities with regard to cultural studies, are perceived as “cutting edge.” I think we need to name it and claim it and point out that we’ve been doing Diaspora study — systematically, institutionally — for years. The same thing with globalization and multi-cultural approaches to knowledge. …
Molefi Kete Asante (Temple University): My question to both professors Turner and Terry, given the fact that you both represent departments that are freestanding, how much support have you received from funding agencies? For example, there’s a new book out by Rooks, you may have heard of it [White Money/Black Power].
Alison Bernstein (Ford Foundation): We helped to fund it.
Molefi Asante (Temple University): I figured so. I disagree with the basic premise of the book. I disagree fundamentally with the idea that Black Studies grew out of a coalition of white students and Black students; because that didn’t happen at ucla where I went. Maybe that happened at San Francisco. The second thing is, given the fact that Esther Terry’s department has a Ph.D. program, how much funding did you receive from Ford?
Esther Terry (University of Massachusetts): We didn’t have funding. I have to say none. We didn’t have any.
Molefi Asante (Temple University): But you’re institutionalized.
Esther Terry (University of Massachusetts): We never had funding. But we are institutionalized. We get our funding through the same channels as other departments in the state… .
The question regarding the role of state funding in the process of institutionalization is asked of Turner, who answers, “Not recently. And not in the beginning, either.”
Molefi Asante (Temple University): The point I’m raising, this question of institutionalization and particularly as we see the two texts being written; one text is being written on the ground with the people who are working in Black Studies departments; another one is being written by individuals who have articulated the position that Professor Turner mentioned regarding programs. These things need to be ferreted out and I think, as we discuss, we will deal with that.
James Turner (Cornell University): There also is a problem about external support. I think all agencies have their own perceptions about what’s worthy to support and to some extent when African American/Black Studies, was formed questions arose as to whether “you could you go out and raise your own money” kind of thing; then ideationally what we’re talking about converged or was understood by the people who we are receiving support from. This is an old story of going back to the American dilemma — why Gunner Myrdal was brought in and why Du Bois and all these others were ignored.
If, in fact your grants, your money, become the only basis [for existence], then you’re also in a tenuous position. The success to the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell, as they’ve pointed out, is that we have central hard money. I insisted from the beginning, not soft money. We’re in the budget item of the university: faculty lines, support, facilities, building, library; and then there’s money to compliment or augment these things. That’s where our struggle has been, all of us against historically white universities; not really willing to see that they ought to put their money into this as a central part of how they allocate.
Abdul Alkalimat (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign):
Terry Kershaw (University of Cincinnati): I want to agree with the power base analysis because it seems to me that is what we’re struggling with; this whole notion of how it dictates the academy.
For example, how we go about generating knowledge that pushes the “traditional” disciplines to where they don’t want to go. So it makes it extremely difficult to get a place in the academy in terms of the fight for resources, both in terms of money and personnel, it can be more difficult.
One of the things that can help is if agencies, like Ford, do provide resources that allow, for example, someone like myself, to go to Tech and say this is what we’re doing, where I’m bringing in resources; because that’s what they listen to in terms of bringing in resources; not to dictate how we do it, but the opportunity to do it in a way we need to do it and recognize our ability to do it and allow us to bring resources to that campus in ways that other “traditional” departments do.
So it seems to me that organizations and sponsoring agencies, like Ford, can make a contribution in terms of trying to support the things we want to do, as opposed to what the granting agencies want to do.
Warren Whatley (University of Michigan): We struggled with institutionalization for quite some time. I remember our biggest struggle was granting tenure, whether or not we had the authority. We thought that was [tied to] the authority to hire; to make tenure you are empowered in that realm. We discovered that tenure rested in the college; it never rested in the departments anyway. So, of course our department could not grant — tenure just like the economics and sociology and all the rest of the departments at the college. That was not a departmental power.
I don’t think we set salaries. We have a budget. It comes from the central campus. But we don’t set salaries. Departments actually still remain their priorities themselves. And that is very powerful to be engaged in those conversations. And I wonder how many other departments have that authority to actually secure the financing of the faculty.
Carole Boyce Davies (Cornell University): There has to be some kind of discussion of what happens in this corporate structure that universities are leaning towards. … This new corporate model has to be seen as something really significant and how do programs like ours position ourselves against, and in response to, any of the ways that I think can be seriously considered. What happens to Black Studies in that model?
Maulana Karenga (California State University, Long Beach): I was thinking in terms of Ford’s role in sustaining Black Studies. I was struck by what Professor Turner said … about what’s in the Ford report. But also what’s in the Ford project, and whether or not Ford, in helping to sustain Black Studies, actually chooses a certain position or tendency within the discipline and supports that at the expense of others.
I think that Ford’s greatest contribution can be to support diversity so that we can in fact have counters to mythic articulations of the development of Black Studies that we recently witnessed or the pathological and pathogenic interpretation that comes from The Chronicle and other such medium projects.
I think it’s very important for us not to sit here and make a diverse contribution and then make a selection of what seems most appropriate, rather than seeing difference as normative; seeing diversity as not only important, but essential to the quality and process of the development of the discipline.
There is no Black Studies without active tradition. There’s a conversation about Black Studies, but there’s no Black Studies out there.
We came into being, not only believing that there was an important elective for emancipation as a correct orientation to what it means to be human and African; but we actually wanted to use this knowledge to improve the human condition and enhance the human projects, beginning with ourselves.
I think it’s important to create publication space for diversity and to see that as critical to sustain.
The second thing is to support professional organizations. It seems to me we have a project of critical assessment and sustaining support. And the best way to do that is to strengthen the professional organization so that the organization can speak for the discipline.
We like to talk about diversity on the campus with other people. But we don’t think about diversity in the real sense. Sometimes we talk about diversity to undermine the integrity of the discipline. But we don’t talk about diversity as often as we should to talk about the strength of the discipline.
James Turner (Cornell University): I just want to say that our obituary has been written many times. Every year some of us get these telephone calls [from reporters], so we know so much about the veracity of these obituaries. The second is I also want to say that I think we also have to look at the way in which the field has moved away or is potentially moving away from its primary constituency, and these are students.
Some of the things you were pointing out at Michigan are some of the inherent problems of institutionalization that push academics to a great emphasis on “professionalization” more than it is on being involved in more hands-on community access, so that at this very critical time in American life, we find that Black Studies scholars are not as active on public policy questions, on questions of critical adjustments to race and social justice — that whole range of concerns.
Alison Bernstein (Ford Foundation): Let me say first and foremost, the decision to have this meeting predated and always has been part of our cycle of reinvesting in and reconsidering the work we’ve done. So what that means is The Chronicle article had nothing to do with this. And I want to underscore that. We would have had this convening whether there was a Chronicle article or not.
The last point is that it’s very important for you to know that we know that the Ford Foundation did not begat African American Studies. It is very important for you to know that the Ford Foundation stayed with the field a very long time and is deeply committed to the intellectual and, I might say, social justice project of African American Studies. And that’s important regardless of who’s sitting around the table. That continues and we can assert that.