Block I Illinois Library Illinois Open Publishing Network

34 Restructuring Black Studies for Intergenerational Leadership

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.”[1] 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[2] 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.


  1. Leroi R. Ray, “Black Studies: A Discussion of Evaluation,” in The African American Studies Reader, ed. Nathaniel Norment Jr. (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2001), 79.
  2. Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992).


Restructuring Black Studies for Intergenerational Leadership Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book