marilyn m. thomas-houston, University of Florida
Black Studies, according to Rist, 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 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.
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. 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. According to a 1919 report by Woodson, 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, 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, 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.
“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. Despite this support for the field, an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education asked, “Can Black Studies Be Saved?” 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).
- 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. ↵
- Rist, “Black Staff.” ↵
- 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. ↵
- 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. ↵
- 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. ↵
- Woodson, “Negro Life and History.” ↵
- 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). ↵
- Delores P. Aldridge and Carlene Young, eds., Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000). ↵
- 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. ↵
- Baker, Ejima, “Analysis on Black Studies Funding.” Internal Report, December 5, 2005. ↵
- Robin Wilson, “Can Black Studies Be Saved?” Chronicle of Higher Education 5, no. 33 (2005), A9–A11. ↵