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Black Studies and Black Scholars: Keeping the Faith

Black Studies and Black Scholars: Keeping the Faith
By Dr. Dwight A. McBride

I want to take this occasion to give institutionally marginal programs and departments a much-deserved moment of recognition. I specifically want to do so for African American studies programs and departments. Though African American scholars are not always synonymous with African American studies, the two do have much in common with each other in the dominant logic of institutions of higher learning. Both are ever in the process of having to prove to others that they belong there, a fact that consumes a great deal of energy and time that surely would be better spent on one’s work.

I am delighted to be a part of this special issue profiling emerging Black scholars. The colleagues featured here, and the many others they represent, have not only had to achieve intellectually at a very high level under circumstances often far less than ideal, but they also have had to manage the mentoring, advising, committee work, political institutional work, and the constant race education work of students and faculty and administrative colleagues. The demands on those unfortunate enough to be in situations where there are too few of them to share the burdensome load of being an African American faculty member often can be crippling and detrimental to otherwise successful career trajectories.

But none of this is new. Indeed, those of us conversant in the institutional discourse of diversity have learned to spout off such realities with the same ease that people rehearse the quartet of race, gender, sexuality and class when we talk about cutting-edge scholarship today. Indeed, the reason race, gender, class and sexuality can be taken as seriously as they are and be so central to how we now produce knowledge even in traditional disciplines is a direct result of the intellectual and institutional work that has for so long proceeded at the margins of the academy in departments such as African American studies. The margin forced the center to change, indeed, to alter the very ways in which we produce knowledge itself.

Our early 21st-century epistemologies are radically different from those of the middle of the last century. And we have not been fair about according much of the credit for that to those very programs, curricula and new disciplines that have been maligned, contested and starved for resources for so long. Still, they rose and evolved new vistas from which to comprehend and make sense of our world. We can only hope these kinds of intellectual interventions also will point up the urgency for us to be sure our institutions take seriously the responsibility to diversify their faculty and student populations. For while the biological significance of race has been thoroughly disqualified, I would hate to see the proverbial baby of representational politics thrown out with the bath water. Because while the particular racial markings of bodies may not theoretically matter, the narratives, the experiences, the social, political and economic dramas that animate our realities, the stories we tell and produce, and the intellectual questions we pose are as vital as ever. Therefore, we need to be ever vigilant and attentive to the status of race in our work as well as in our lives.

Building our African American studies departments and programs, according them the same respect and autonomy that we accord traditional disciplines, and making the hiring of minority faculty a priority across disciplines is not just good for Black faculty, it is good business. If knowledge continues to develop in the way it has over the last few decades, our scholarly communities, our curricula, and our institutional standings will rise and fall, at least in part, on our success in recruiting and retaining African American faculty, and on the building of strong African American studies departments.

β€” Dr. Dwight A. McBride is chair of the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern University.

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