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Introduction: Raising an Academic Stepchild: Black Studies for the 21st Century

marilyn m. thomas-houston, University of Florida

Black Studies, according to Rist[1], like no other field  of study, has the unique institutional history “of seeking le­giti­macy si­mul­taneously in two opposing ‘normative type’ ref­er­ence groups.” The confrontational environment in which the contem­po­­rary units joined mainstream academia foretold the strug­gles ahead as the field’s various institutional formations de­veloped its arguments for relevance and legitimacy. Perceived as more of a special interest lying outside the central disciplinary struc­­tures of the academy, Black Studies had to grow up fast within the con­fines of an often-resistant institutional bureaucracy. The for­mative years of contemporary Black Studies units required dedi­cation, de­ter­mina­tion, and an allegiance to the field far greater than that required by disciplines with similar histories as relevance was join­ed by academic excellence and social responsibil­ity. If it is true, as Rist[2] suggests, that “Black Studies programs are most of­ten treated as academic stepchildren,” an emphasis on rais­ing Black Stud­ies from its (in many cases) marginal relationship to the uni­ver­sity struc­ture to mature institutionalization bears signifi­cance for the field in the twenty-first century. The focus of this issue not only addresses the matter of what it is like to nurture the field to ma­tur­i­ty, but also what is needed to sustain it as well as to clarify the directions that should be taken to continue its development.

Predecessors of Black Studies

Before the sit-ins and the push for desegregation of schools, be­fore the establishments of historically Black colleges and uni­ver­sities (HBCUs) and the Booker T. vs. W. E. B. debates on how “Ne­groes” should be educated, before Black Americans were “al­low­ed” access to literacy, there was the slave preacher and the “New Af­ri­can.” The “New African” (or newly arrived African) shared knowl­edge with the “Old African” and Creoles on the plan­ta­tion: knowl­edge about the old ways and cultural traditions of African ethnic groups. The slave preacher reinterpreted the Bible to instill a mes­sage of hope and resistance in Blacks. According to Crouchett, the push for Black Studies, an educational para­digm that fore­fronts the experience of Blacks and incorporates a message of social change, started with two figures — the preacher and the teach­er.[3]

During the 1890s when lynchings were occurring at the rate of one in every fifty-four hours, Blacks taught themselves Negro his­tory as a way to cultivate a sense of dignity in a time of overt White hostility and to provide arguments for equality in the face of dec­ades of published assertions of Negro inferiority by White, North­ern and Southern, scholars.[4] During this time, Washington and Du Bois, both recognized the importance of understanding the African past and Black Americans’ contributions; however, it was Du Bois who instituted a Black curriculum that incorporated a hol­ist­ic approach in 1897 during his first tenure at Atlanta Univer­sity.

Black Studies as a formal field of study entered broader univer­sity settings during the post-WWI era through the efforts of such im­portant scholars of the Black experience as Carter G. Woodson,  J. A. Rogers, W. E. B. Du Bois, Arturo Schomburg, Oliver C. Cox, Hu­bert Harrison, and E. Franklin Frazier, among others. The As­so­cia­tion for the Study of Negro Life and History stimulated this move­ment, which was responsible for adding individual courses to col­lege curriculums at Black institutions.[5] According to a 1919 re­port by Woodson,[6] history and sociology courses related to the ex­per­i­ences of Blacks were offered at a few Black colleges; a few historically White institutions, such as Ohio State, Nebraska, Stan­­ford, the University of Minnesota, Chicago, and Missouri, in­clu­ded Black history courses as a part of their curriculum.

Emergence of the Contemporary Institutional Structures

The student protests for Black Studies that took place in 1968 at historically Black institutions such as Howard University and his­torically white institutions such as Northwestern University and Co­lumbia University ushered in the era of mainstream univer­sity adop­tion of the field. Black Studies is now forty years old, and while for­ty years of age represents the beginning of middle age for an in­di­vid­ual, it is still fairly young for an academic discipline. Nevertheless, gene­ra­tion­al succession at the academy brings in a sec­ond stage in the growth of this young field. In large part, the suc­ceed­ing generation has been trained by the first generation, so a fur­ther re­fine­ment of the field is beginning, as occurs with any con­tin­u­ally developing set of concepts and concerns. It is this sec­ond con­certed effort to introduce into the university set­ting new meth­ods and sources and to change radically the under­stand­ings and rep­­re­sen­tations of Blacks and their experien­ces in the “new world,” specifically, and the African Diaspora, in general, that in­spires the pub­lication of the articles in this issue.

The value and even the validity of Black Studies aca­demic endeavors are periodically challenged like clockwork. The de­trac­tors of the field often use provocative language and stale rhet­oric as nails in the imaginary coffin of the field. Although others who en­vi­sion African American Studies as “alive and well” chal­lenge the obit­uaries that prematurely herald the death of the field, ad­min­is­trators in higher education in the United States managing bud­gets large and small of­ten have difficulty un­der­standing the value of the field.

The Contributors and Additional Perspectives

As Black Studies enters adulthood in academic years, the his­tory, accomplishments, and trajectories of the field are necessarily being documented and put into perspective. Although a number of “state of African American Studies” works have been produced, through conferences and symposia,[7] the papers generated for the most part focus on the research of individual scholars rather than forming centralized critiques of the field. This special edition of the International Journal of Africana Studies, in the spirit of Aldridge and Young,[8] is a compilation of position papers based on ex­per­iential knowledge and critical analysis and repre­sents diverse un­derstandings of university administrators, profes­sors, organiza­tions, and students who have dedicated their careers to the field of Black Studies. For many of the participants, the convening was the first time in a number of years they came together to discuss the field. Participants were selected because of their particular and unique contributions and the roles they have played and continue to play in the field. In the spirit of inclusion and broadening un­der­standings across ideological, theoretical, and experiential bor­ders, Mónica Carillo was invited to attend the convening as an ob­server and asked to contribute a reflection paper that connects Pé­ru­vi­an Studies of the African Diaspora to conversations for strengthening Black Studies in the United States. Carillo’s paper (provided here in both English and Carillo’s preferred language of Spanish) pre­sents a unique region­ally situated international per­spec­tive that of­fers a critique of the US-cen­tered­ness of Black Stud­ies, a point of view not often con­sidered in discussions. The stand­points of these scholars represent perhaps the broadest range of ide­o­logical per­spec­tives under one cover, yet they are uni­­fied by the com­mon goal of nurturing the field into middle age, and that theme runs through­out this issue.[9]


“Conversations for Sustaining Black Studies in the 21st Cen­tu­ry” is the result of papers, discussions, and conclusions brought about through funding by the Ford Foundation in April, 2006 that con­vened thirty-two scholars of African American Studies and pro­fes­sion­als interested in the field. This interest in the future of Af­ri­can American Studies by the Ford Foundation has an almost forty-year history. Between 1988 and 2004, the Ford Foundation award­ed approximately sixty-nine grants related to Black Studies research, pro­­grams, and institutionalization.[10] Despite this support for the field, an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education asked, “Can Black Stud­ies Be Saved?”[11] The article cited many contributing factors to the struggle for survival of Black Studies. This article, and the letters to the editor it generated that protested the dis­par­aging re­marks made by critic Shelby Steele, identified the nu­mer­ous chal­len­ges Black Studies programs face today: inade­quate fund­ing, lack of institutional support and validations, hiring di­lem­mas, and budget­ary declines. Such articles stood as evi­dence of con­tinued hostility within the academy. This 2006 Black Studies con­vening was de­signed as a means of addressing the above con­cerns.

The Ford Foundation, in its continuing mission to encourage and strengthen “counterposing voices of support” for the field and spurred by the vision of program director, Irma McClaurin, pro­vided the funding. The title of the introduction for this jour­nal was inspired by the non-published dissertation proposal of my student and research assistant, Jamie Johnson. Tesia Rolle and Ca­rolyn Fowler assisted with transcriptions and proofreading.

What the critics and those in support of the field have made clear is that in order to face a sustainable future, Black Studies will have to re­think its current structures, institutional relationships, con­tent, methodology, and strategy for leadership succession. Nine crit­i­cal questions were generated from these concerns, with at least two formal responses written to address them. The ques­tion topics ranged from examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the field to best practices and what is needed for survival. This special issue focuses specifically on answers to those questions and the dis­cus­sions generated around them.


Aldridge, Delores P. and Carlene Young, eds. 2000. Out of the revolu­tion: The development of Africana studies. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Chrisman, Laura and Tukufu Zuberi, eds. 2004. Transforming tra­di­tions: African, African-American and Africana studies in the 21st century. Special issue of  The Black Scholar, 30 (3 – 4).

Chronicle of Higher Education, 5(33), A9 – A11.

Crouchett, Lawrence. 1971. Early Black Studies movements.  Journal of Black Studies 2(2): 189 – 200.

Drake, T.E. 1950. Quakers and slavery in America. New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Marable, Manning, ed. 2000. Dispatches from the ebony tower: Intel­lec­tu­als con­front the African American experience. New York: Colum­bia University Press.

Rist, Ray C. 1970. Black staff, Black Studies, and white universities: A study in contradictions, The Journal of Higher Education 41(8): 618 – 629.

Wesley, Charles H. 1940. The concept of Negro inferiority in Amer­i­can thought. The Journal of Negro History 25(4), 540 – 560.

Woodson, Carter G. 1919. Negro life and history in our schools. Journal of Negro History 4 (July).

_______________. 1929. Negro history week. Journal of Negro History 11 (April).


  1. Ray C. Rist, “Black Staff, Black Studies, and White Universities: A Study in Contradictions,” Journal of Higher Education 41, no. 8 (1970): 620. Rist suggests that for Black Studies academicians there are tensions between their racially oriented alliances and their responsibilities to the academic community.
  2. Rist, “Black Staff.”
  3. See Lawrence Crouchett, “Early Black Studies Movements,” Journal of Black Studies 2, no. 2 (1971): 189–200; T. E. Drake, Quakers and Slavery in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950); and Carter G. Woodson, “Negro Life and History in Our Schools,” Journal of Negro History 4 (1919) for discussion of contributions Quakers played in the development of a special type of education for people of African descent. This histori­cal relationship of religion and social change for Blacks should not be lost in future studies of the Jeremiah Wright sermons.
  4. Charles H. Wesley in a 1940 article for the Journal of Negro History identifies a significant number of scholars and politicians who have sup­port­ed the assertion of Negro inferiority. See Charles H. Wesley, “The Concept of Negro Inferiority in American Thought,” Journal of Negro History 25, no. 4 (1940): 540–560.
  5. The association formerly changed its name to the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH) in 1972 and to the Association for the Study of African American Life and His­tory (still ASALH) in 2001.
  6. Woodson, “Negro Life and History.”
  7. See Laura Chrisman and Tukufu Zuberi, eds., “Transforming Traditions: African, African-American and Africana Studies in the 21st Century,” Special issue of The Black Scholar 30, no. 3–4 (2004); Manning Marable, ed., Dispatches from the Ebony Tower: Intellectuals Confront the African American Experience (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).
  8. Delores P. Aldridge and Carlene Young, eds., Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000).
  9. It is important to note that other scholars representing additional per­spectives were invited but were unable to attend due to illness, fam­ily emergencies, and previous commitments.
  10. Baker, Ejima, “Analysis on Black Studies Funding.” Internal Report, De­cember 5, 2005.
  11. Robin Wilson, “Can Black Studies Be Saved?” Chronicle of Higher Education 5, no. 33 (2005), A9–A11.


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