James Turner, Cornell University
The questions, as I interpret them, have two aspects: (1) How well have we developed the academic and intellectual structures of the discipline? What still needs to be done to further advance the intellectual traditions of Black Studies, and to enhance a comprehensive construction of the discipline? And, (2) how is the field positioned in relationship to the established, the core, disciplines? The implicit assumption is that African American Studies may not be sufficiently normative on its own terms. A core vs. periphery paradigm is problematic.
Black Studies emerged virtually two generations ago, as a student-initiated movement, located at the nexus of the Black Arts/Consciousness and Black Liberation Movements. From its beginning as an oppositional insurgent movement Black Studies has achieved routine institutionalization in the academy, under various structural rubrics.
“How far have we come in institutionalizing the field of Black Studies?”
The year 2006 marked the thirty-eighth year since the first recorded student protest for Black Studies in 1968 at San Francisco State, Howard University, Northwestern University, and Columbia University; and thirty-seven years after the installation of the first Black Studies departments in 1969 at San Francisco State University, San Jose University, Ohio State University, City College, CUNY, and Cornell University. The development of Black Studies/African American Studies has been among the most significant innovations in American higher education that has had dramatic influence on the intellectual culture of the academy and civil society. There are few developments in higher education that compare to the transformative effect of Black Studies, especially in the arts and humanities, and even the social sciences. For instance, as far as the social sciences are concerned, the study of racism is not unusual now; in fact, there has been enormous intellectual progress in regards to theories of race and racism. Even if there has not been comparable racial progress in civil society, we have generated new scientific language for the discourse on race.
Currently, we are able to theorize and historicize race in terms of constructions of Whiteness, systems of racial hierarchy, privilege, and power, and notions of racism as power relations that were popularized by Black Studies intellectuals. With regards to history and humanities (especially literature), the shelves of Barnes and Noble and Borders, and bookstores across the country —and Amazon.com— display dozens of titles on African American history and literature. I realize this is taken for granted, but it is nothing short of dramatic. Thirty years ago, Barnes and Noble barely welcomed Black people through their doors; a previous generation of Black authors languished with their manuscripts because the major and minor publishing houses refused to offer them book contracts. The racist argument was that Black people lacked an intellectual tradition and were neither literate enough to consume books nor capable of scholarly production. Presently, all the major publishers—Oxford, Random House, Harper & Row, Beacon Press, to mention a few — have sizeable Black Studies catalogues. The same is true for university presses from Harvard University to the University of Mississippi and Louisiana State. Who would have thought this a generation ago? This is directly attributable to the Black Studies Movement. Black Studies has made for new markets; African American Studies has been at the cutting edge of knowledge production in the country. Most importantly there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Black faculty in the academy who might not be there if it were not for African American Studies.
Moreover, the Black Studies Movement opened space for Asian American Studies, Latino Studies, Native American Studies, and Womyn’s Studies. Likewise, African American Studies introduced models of interdisciplinary curriculum and pedagogy when it was rare and controversial to do so. Presently, similar approaches in American Studies and Cultural Studies are commonplace. The range in knowledge production in African American Studies has simply been extraordinary. Graduate programs for master’s degrees are well established, at least six PhD programs are doing well, and several more are in the planning stage.
I began by talking about the successes of African American Studies and its enduring influences from the struggles of the 1960s. But the progress is not without issues. From the inception of modern African American Studies, there have been debates over matters involving association with “mainstream” academic societies, affiliation with dominant disciplines, and institutional positioning and forms of administrative organization.
“How far do we have to go?”
The historiography of African American Studies must be reconfigured. The academic and intellectual structures of the field should be engendered at the level of its fundamental conceptualization and its formulation in curriculum, pedagogy, and research. Black Womyn’s scholarship will of necessity instigate reconstructed epistemological formation. Much of the same applies to the imperative to deconstruct heteronormative ascribed value and exclusions in the study of sexuality in the Black experience.
“What efforts must be made to move the field from the periphery of academia to the core?”
The question, in my view, is phrased wrongly. African American Studies is not intellectually peripheral: in fact, the challenge has been to shift what conventionally has been considered the “center” in academia that is unabashedly Eurocentric and highly racialized. Professor Nathan Huggins observed the intersection of racism and education in the collusion of the dominant disciplines in order to propagate a “master narrative” about the history and culture of the United States. He referred to the outcome as producing a “Deforming Mirror of Truth.” African American Studies must maintain a critical stance towards the established order disciplines. Historically the mission of African American Studies has been to reconstruct how American history and culture is taught, and present clarifying evidence about the Black experience. In instances of mutual interests, African American Studies may engage in selective, joint relations with cooperative departments, but not in forms that induce dependence or erosion of its institutional integrity or identity. However, departmental status is the better means of institutionalization for academic efficiency and long-term stability.