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4 Question One Discussion

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.


Question One Discussion Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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