Austin Jackson, Michigan State University
Establishing intergenerational leadership in Black Studies begins first with moving beyond discussing its “relevancy,” its survival, or the need for its existence to engage in critical discussion towards restructuring Black Studies (conceptually, theoretically, and methodologically) to confront and disrupt structures of power and inequality that continue to reproduce crisis conditions in Black America and beyond. By virtually every academic barometer, Blacks in the US and across the Diaspora are in crisis, yet the dominant conversation in Black Studies today continues to focus on paradigm/ideological differences or debates about why Black Studies is needed in the first place. Workers in Black Studies must engage in a vigorous, honest (re)assessment of the real, material conditions, social, political, and economic circumstances of people of African descent at home and abroad; and, from there, engage in honest (re)assessment or evaluation of how what we do is “relevant” towards both understanding and transforming these conditions. From this starting point, we can begin to explore the nature of meaningful leadership in Black Studies in the new millennium, and how to nurture a new generation of Black Studies scholars.
This means confronting generational differences between the civil rights/Black Power generation (who established Black Studies) and (like the term or not) the Hip Hop generation of scholars who will pick up the mantle of Black Studies leadership in the twenty-first century. It means moving beyond paradigm or ideological battles to stimulating much-needed theoretical innovation in Black Studies. It means developing innovative new rhetorics and images of Black Studies to attract the best and brightest students to Black Studies as a viable career option. It means laboring to sustain the amazing growth in the numbers of students who graduate with degrees in Black Studies, as well as the construction of a Black Studies job market to employ these graduates. Establishing leadership succession in Black Studies also means constructing concrete structures of training and mentoring devoted to teaching graduate students both theoretical and pragmatic aspects of administering and establishing Black Studies programs and departments. Successful Black Studies leadership in the new millennium will not develop on its own. I contend here PhD programs in Black Studies must be considered ground zero in developing leadership succession in the twenty-first century.
Black Studies: Then and Now
African American Studies programs arose in reaction to state-sponsored terrorism and racial warfare waged against Black people since the “African Holocaust”—US trans-Atlantic slavery—and continuing through the civil rights/Black Power eras. What began in 1968 at San Francisco State College and quickly spread to other colleges and universities represents politicized and militant Black students’ response to overt structures of racial oppression; “Jim Crow” segregation in schools, housing, and public facilities; disenfranchisement through poll taxes, so-called grandfather clauses, and outright violence; denial of jury representation and due process in courts of law, and other forms of legislated racial injustice. Such anti-democratic structures were buttressed by U.S. higher education, which provided the intellectual and ideological justification through mostly white, racially exclusive college curricula. As Ray observes, the U.S. university at that time was “set in a racist mold, funded by capitalists and guided by their captured ‘scholars’ to preserve a tradition sanctioned by moral customs that permitted individual growth to be developed by slavery, lynching, and massacre. As a result, the university is the bulwark of this society, biased by design, function, and values.” Black students, fueled by the civil rights/Black Power revolution, radically transformed, sometimes peacefully, other times by force, the system of higher education by institutionalizing the study of Black people in US college curricula. The goal of Black Studies was not just to analyze the Black condition, but also to change it by confronting structures of racial inequality and injustice.
Ironically, the growth of Black Studies programs in the US over the last three decades has been juxtaposed against thirty years of deteriorating social and material conditions for millions of working-class African Americans. By virtually every measure, the promise of Brown has been broken; the venerated “dream” of King has been deferred. Black children remain trapped in poor, separate, and savagely unequal schools. Black men continue to languish in prisons at higher rates and with longer sentences than any other group. Black women suffer disproportionally from HIV/AIDS and face life-threatening illness from lack of affordable health care. Black people make up the majority of this nation’s unemployed, poor, and working poor. Crime, drugs, poor housing, police violence, and a lack of jobs, educational opportunity, and general sense of hope devastate Black communities.
New forms of structural racism quietly destroy old racial solutions, from affirmative action and welfare programs to the public education system itself. Black political gains of the past are reversed by right-wing “redistricting” schemes and felon disenfranchisement policies. Unfair mandatory sentencing laws result in Black males, only six percent of the US population, representing forty-five percent of the US prison population. In thirty-six states ex-prisoners lose their voting rights (Sentencing Project) as well as access to federal Pell grants to attend college. Ostensibly race-neutral forces, such as global hyper-capitalism, US corporatism, and the military-industrial complex exacerbate the problem, moving manufacturing to cheap overseas labor markets, and relocating poor and working-class Blacks into reluctant military service in a time of war. Liberal claims of progress since the 1960s and ’70s have been effectively shattered recently by the Hurricane Katrina disaster, which stripped away the veneer of race and class in America as thousands of citizens were criminalized and left to die because they were both poor and Black. In short, Black America is in crisis—a state of emergency that, in the words of Glen Ford and Peter Gamble of The Black Commentator [website], “is unprecedented since the epic struggles of the Fifties and Sixties.”
Then, and now, the purpose and utility of Black Studies in disrupting systems of power that continue to reproduce devastating racial outcomes remain points of contention. Nevertheless, the current crisis demands immediate attention to (re)defining the role and relationship of the new generation of Black Studies scholars and new structure of racial injustice. What follows is my attempt to do this within the context of the PhD program in African American and African Studies at Michigan State University.
Problem of Theory in Black Studies
In his examination of critical and post-colonial studies in the academy, Aijaz Ahmad observes that in most instances radical theoretical paradigms privileged in academic discourse are strangely removed or separated from the radical politics that generated them. From my own, limited, point of view as a doctoral candidate in African American and African Studies (AAAS) at Michigan State University, I see the same tendency in Black Studies. The Black radical tradition seems an object of nostalgic reflection, about the good-ole “glory days” of “The Movement” and “The Struggle.” It is almost as though questions concerning the relationship between capitalism and racism, socialism or nationalism, and social integration or transformation have been resolved through the institutionalization of and scholarly writing in Black Studies. However, scores of Black lives lost and dislocated — from Katrina in New Orleans to genocide in the Sudan — offers vivid testimony for the need to incorporate or structure — in a real, tangible way — the Black Studies ethos of “academic excellence and social responsibility” into Black Studies PhD programs. Future leadership in Black Studies will not and cannot simply develop by itself.
Vision for Black Studies into the New Millennium
Michigan State’s model in the PhD program offers a starting point for how we can actually begin structures to create this leadership. Let me briefly cover our international internships. The purpose of the international internship is to assure graduate students opportunities to connect their work to the wider African Diaspora. To my knowledge Michigan State is the only PhD program in Black Studies that requires an international internship. My own work was conducted in Jamaica. I explored three different rural communities in Jamaica. Initially I didn’t want to do the project because I didn’t think Black life in Jamaica was relevant to my more African American-centered project. But after conducting the international internship, I was able to make connections I would not ordinarily make.
The program of study also includes a domestic internship requirement, in which graduate students have to generate a community-based project or join an existing one for their dissertation research and community outreach. Geneva Smitherman’s project, My Brother’s Keeper, operating out of the Malcolm X Academy in Detroit, trains undergraduate and graduate students on how to go into a community and do service and teach literacy.
Graduate student apprenticeship. This is something started recently by an intern at Michigan State where a graduate student is selected to serve as an apprentice: sort of like a rite of passage where, if it were me, I’d learn the pragmatics of running the program; grant writing, financial planning, human resource communications, etc. Other than that, administration is a mystery for a lot of us. It has to be taught to us at a very young age in our career.
The last concern does not deal directly with public policy but could have public policy implications. Before graduation, each student is required to present their work to the community. Last year seven doctoral students presented their research proposals to a community center in Detroit. We had regular community people and activists in attendance. Former Black Panthers were present to serve as cultural brokers, assisting in the articulation of our research into language accessible for a general audience. This allowed students to get feedback from the community itself. Some community members rejected my proposal, which forced me to reformulate my research project. That painful process actually needed to happen.
Hopefully my brief reflections as a student in an African American Studies PhD program demonstrated that any discussion about leadership and the discipline must be rooted in the real tangible, social, political and economic conditions confronting Africans in the US and abroad. And the role of Black Studies in sustaining racial crisis conditions in the future must be structured within PhD programs and those developments will produce vanguard leadership in the new millennium.