Block I Illinois Library Illinois Open Publishing Network

1 Reflections on the Position and Positioning of African American Studies

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— 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.


Reflections on the Position and Positioning of African American Studies Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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