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Concluding Reflections–Phoenix Rising: Black Studies Is Here to Stay

Irma McClaurin, Ford Foundation

Born out of the ashes of the spring of 1968, Black Studies has a complicated and enduring history.   It can lay claim to having arisen from the water hoses, dogs, and racially motivated murders that marked the Civil Rights movement and symbolized white supremacy and white resistance to the struggle for Black people to exercise their civil rights.  Black Studies can also trace its beginnings to the ashes of the riots in April 1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King—America’s third murder of a key political leader in the twentieth century.

This in-the-street activism was paralleled by anti-war protests on many college campuses.  Black students  were a major force of social unrest at predominantly White campuses.  Their demands and the resulting responses catalyzed major institutional and curricula changes in American colleges and universities, the likes of which had not been seen since the 1800s.

Among ivory towers and behind iron gates, Black students, who since the late 1960s had been admitted to White institutions in unprecedented numbers, came face to face with the barriers within the culture of higher education. This culture was (and still is to a greater extent than we would like to acknowledge) comprised of White professors who did not believe that we Black students deserved to be enrolled; our discomfort at the lack of preparedness with which we arrived sometimes as a result of our unequal education; the absence of content that acknowledged the many contributions of Blacks to the building of America; and the total lack of Black faculty and staff.

History has dubbed the Black student protests, sometimes armed and sometimes quiet, “student unrest.”  Those of us who participated in these takeovers and the many forms of Black student activism know that these were not mere eruptions of unruly students.  Rather, they were well-planned, thoroughly researched, and intelligent strategizing by Black students to make our presence known at institutions that had invited us in, but thus far had ignored our needs for far too long.  We were, in the words of Fannie Lou Hammer, “tired, and tired of being sick and tired.”

For a while we played it safe, in many respects like some Black Studies programs have done inside academia:

We read books and communed with the “others” in their land;

We spoke their blunted language,

hung our anger on coathooks in dusty ivy hallways

becoming a new minstrel tradition: blacks in whiteface,

shadows tapdancing in cornfields.

This is a brief etiology of the birth and development of the field of Black Studies.   It has moved through a life cycle of forty years. And, at this moment in 2010, it is now possible to congratulate Black Studies for having arrived at adulthood in good form.  But as the history suggests, and as the papers in this volume confirm, Black Studies is far from safe.

It is this reality of historic vulnerability as an innovative intellectual intervention in higher education that precipitated the historic event almost three  years ago, “Conversations for Sustaining Black Studies in the 21st Century,” funded by the Ford Foundation.  Much has changed in this brief period of time.

The economic downturn has affected everyone, including funding organizations such as Ford, which over the past four decades was a strong supporter of Black Studies.   Changes in leadership and new directions in funding at major philanthropic organizations again raise the specter of whether philanthropy has abandoned higher education, especially interdisciplinary programs such as Black Studies and Women’s Studies. Finally, some of the field’s illustrious scholars and founders of Black Studies programs have since transitioned to become ancestors.

Despite these new challenges, and those of sustainable funding and institutionalization identified by the contributors to this groundbreaking volume of the International Journal of Black Studies, the field of Black Studies, and its scholars, embody the refrains of Sterling Brown’s epic poem “Strong Men”—”The strong men keep a-comin’ on/The strong men git stronger,” and Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”—”Phenomenally./Phenomenal woman,/That’s me.”

This volume is an historic collection of information, thoughts, discussions, and reflections that build on the legacy of activism and intellectual interventions described earlier, and point Black Studies in the direction of its future. Though there are many of the original founders of Black Studies represented here, the reflections and discussions preserved in this volume are not just products of the past; they represent the preservation of collective ideas and best practices on how to sustain Black Studies in the present and for the future.

The intellectual voices captured here demonstrate the synergistic nature of Black Studies and its ability to contain diverse, and sometimes divergent, perspectives on its interdisciplinary core, on whether to build alliances with white scholars and traditional disciplines and departments, on Black Womanist and Black Feminists perspectives, on what authentic autonomy and institutionalization should look like for the field, on Africology, on the  relationship of Black Studies to the sister fields of Diaspora Studies and Afro-Latino/a Studies, and on ideas about the directions future scholarship in the field should take.

Chronicled here are also the voices of young scholars, and of women scholars, two groups that have not been well represented in previous historical ruminations. They offer critical and necessary perspectives, if Black Studies is to become a permanent part of American higher education’s intellectual traditions.  But it must learn from the mistakes of the academy, and avoid exclusionary practices or intolerance for ideas that are new or challenging.

The record of ideas contained in this volume laid the foundation for the future of Black Studies.  It is a record to be assessed, evaluated, utilized, and critiqued.  The lessons learned from development work in the social world are that there are no easy answers, one model does not fit all, and change and innovation are inevitable, and while they can be delayed, they cannot be stopped.  For Black Studies, this means that it must continue to struggle to situate itself in the culture of higher education, that there is no definitive model of Black Studies in all its iterations (Africana, Diaspora, New World, Black Womanist/Black Feminism, etc), and that it must always look forward to its future, yet maintain respect for its past.  And to do this, such convenings as the one documented here must continue to occur.

Black Studies is a phoenix rising out of the ashes of its origins to face and formulate its future—Black Studies, by any other name, is still itself, and here to stay.


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iBlack Studies Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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