Edmund T. Gordon, University of Texas at Austin
I want to try to respond to these questions from the perspective of the African and African-American Studies program at the University of Texas. We have traditionally been at the margins, I think, of Black Studies in this country for reasons I don’t quite know except for the fact that Texas has often been at the margins in terms of things Black. [Our center] is actually in its thirty-sixth year, so we were one of the first to begin. But nevertheless, we’re not usually included when we’re talking about the pioneers in the area.
…[The question to be discussed needs] to be foregrounded by my impression [of what] … is under attack, which perhaps is different than some of the rest of us around the table. That is, in a sense, I think in terms of higher learning in general is under attack in this country. I think there is a prevalent anti-intellectualism which is very dangerous, which has characterized, particularly [by] the Bush regime, which has been pretty much building for a while. On campus there is an anti-activism, which I think is prevalent. Inasmuch as Black Studies, as I understand it, is based in a certain activist and political positional, I think we’re under attack in that regard as well.
Beyond that, Black Studies is under attack in a sense that the Black community in general in this country is less collectively oriented than previously. We can talk about that in the future. But it gets more and more difficult, I think, for Black Studies programs that are progressive and activist to mobilize Black students in terms of participation in our programs.
At the University of Texas, Africana or Black Studies is basically characterized by three important orientations. One is towards Black collectivity. I think we are in some sense non-cosmopolitan, and certainly not motivated by notions of universal humanism, which are two things that some Black scholars seem to be pushing these days. We are very much focused on Blackness. Blackness as identity both in terms of the way in which Black people interpolated or identify as Black, but even more than that, in the ways in which we create our identities, self-make our identities in our community and make our own Blackness. It’s about Black collectivity and Black identity.
The second focus of what we do as Black Studies, I think, has to do with a particular interest in power and social hierarchy, particularly racism as it begins for Black folks here, there, and everywhere, and how increasingly racism is articulated with other formations of power and exclusion.
In terms of the third area that characterizes our notion of Black Studies is the issue of Black agencies. In other words, ways in which collectivity is mobilized politically as for or against Black exclusion and social hierarchy based on race.
Having said that, the answers to the questions seem relatively simple. For example, in terms of the relationship of African American or Black Studies to Diaspora Studies, from my perception, from its very beginnings, Black Studies has been interested in a Pan-African perspective: interested in Black folks here and there. In some sense, our interest in Black Studies in Black identity and Black collectivities basically is an interest in Diaspora. Because as far as I’m concerned, Black identities and Black collectivities are not contained by national borders or continental shores. Those are artificial separations, which I don’t think Black Studies needs to take or should take as real separations.
Also, neither Black racism nor anti-Black sentiments are separated by national boundaries or continental shores. In fact, those of us at the University of Texas, at this point, are busy conceptualizing a notion of global racial formation. And in order to be able to understand global racial formation, one needs to be able to take a diasporic perspective. So Diaspora Studies seems to me, when we’re talking about Black Studies, we’re talking about the “African/Black” Diaspora.
The next question was: what should be our relationship to Afro-Latino/a Studies? Again, we have key concepts of agency, collectivity, and anti-Black racism come to the fore. Afro-Latinos/Latinas are part of the African Diaspora. The largest population of Blacks outside of Africa is in Latin America, so excluding Afro-Latinos from our notion of Black Studies seems artificial.
There are strong vibrant relationships between different aspects or different locations in the Diaspora of which African-Latino/a populations are an important part. Perhaps most importantly, African Americans are now ethnically complex; and if we try to define Blackness while excluding Afro-Latinos, we’re excluding an important part of our population. … I think that African Studies should also be a part of the Black Studies experience. Africa is part of a global racial formation. Racial practices are important within Africa, although often ignored. Also, Africa is a key location of Black self-making imagery.
Africana Women’s Studies are important also; first, as a way to contest the heterosexist and masculinist kind of an orientation of Black Studies in the past; but even more than that, especially at the University of Texas, Black feminist theory provides the key in the localization of sexuality. We use that as a key theoretical tool.