The old-style Black Studies discipline has refracted into a rainbow of African American research.
In some ways, the state of the African American Studies discipline has never been healthier.
According to the National Council for Black Studies, four schools currently offer doctoral studies in the discipline. That list doesn’t include Harvard University, which announced plans to upgrade to the Ph.D. beginning this year, or Duke University, which has received faculty lines but still is awaiting the final go-ahead on its plans.
And today’s Black studies faculty members are generally more experienced and wield more power at their respective institutions than at any previous point in the discipline’s admittedly brief history.
“There are fewer programs than there were in the ’60s and ’70s,” notes Dr. Nellie McKay, professor of American and African American literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and former chair of its Afro-American Studies Department. “But the ones that have lasted are feeling much better about themselves.
“We’re less embattled; our faculty and our research are receiving some recognition. We have a greater sense of security and along with that comes the desire to move the agenda forward. It’s a desirable position to be in,” she says.
Then she pauses.
“Of course, that doesn’t mean there are no problems.”
Indeed, the story of African American Studies in 2000 is most definitely a good-news-bad-news kind of tale. Through the sacrifices and hard work of two generations of scholars, the discipline once known as Black Studies has come a long way from “no way.”
It is rare to find a campus where the discipline is a despised and marginalized subspecialty forced down the gullets of unwilling university administrators by activist students and faculty.
In fact, students clamor for the courses — admittedly, more loudly in some regions of the country than others. And what they’re getting is a rich mixture.
If old-style Black studies was a meat-and-potatoes kind of affair, with heaping portions of history and literature and sociology, the current state of the discipline is more like fusion cuisine, a scholarly kitchen serving up Caribbean culture, dance and visual aesthetics and West African languages along with the staples.
But this diversity of approach has not been easily won.
A Forward Motion
Fierce battles have raged within the discipline, pitting traditional scholars doing primary research in fields such as history and sociology against the more theoretically driven Afrocentrists, led by Temple University’s Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, and postmodernist thinkers inspired by Dr. Stuart Hall and the British cultural studies movement.
“What I see happening in the field is that the best elements of Afrocentrism are being refashioned with the great insights from critical theory, from feminist studies and all the cultural studies fields,” explains Dr. Robin D. G. Kelley, a professor of history and Africana studies at New York University. “It’s a really exciting level of methodological innovation.”
Dr. Richard Yarborough, associate professor of English and director of the Center for African American Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, says that the field is stronger intellectually than at any time since its founding amid the heated identity politics of the late 1960s and early ’70s.
But a strong intellectual foundation is only one element in building a healthy discipline. There’s a great diversity of opinion on what scholars and administrators need to do to “move the agenda forward.”
First and foremost for many in the field, there’s the issue of security — the question of whether African American Studies has indeed achieved acceptance on campus. And it’s worth noting that, despite the chill in the air regarding issues of diversity both on and off campus, many department heads appear to feel quite content in their corners of the ivory tower.
But they also know of campuses where amity is not the rule.
According to Asante, “At Temple, we’re comfortable; we’re secure. In other places, though, the departments have to look over their shoulders.”
And Yarborough goes so far as to muse, “I wonder how much of this security is only apparent.
“In literature, sociology, political science, certainly the contribution of African Americanists to those fields is well established. But in other fields — economics or psychology, for example — there are scholars who are still having to justify their existence.”
Indeed, Yarborough is one of many who notes that acceptance on campus is always complicated by the question of constituency. That is to say, African American Studies courses may be a popular option with undergrads and a no-brainer for administrators, but may still face rejection from faculty.
“Thirty years as a discipline isn’t a long time,” particularly when the other disciplinary departments are 100 years old or more, says political science professor Dr. Dianne Pinderhughes. She is also director of the Afro-American Studies and Research programs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and has collaborated, with Yarborough on a fall 2000 Ford Foundation report on 10 selected African American Studies programs.
When factoring in the youth of the movement, Pinderhughes adds, it’s no surprise that “we’re still integrating faculty into these institutions, integrating intellectual ideas into individual departments that can be very resistant to penetration.”
McKay explains, “I don’t think that resistance is always overtly expressed. In fact, I think it more often manifests itself covertly. For example, if an English department views teaching Shakespeare as one of its priorities, it will always make sure there’s someone there to teach Shakespeare.
“So this is one way of measuring a given department’s commitment,” she adds. “One asks, are they committed to teaching African American studies? Are they actively searching for (African Americanist) faculty? Or are they making a lot of excuses as to why they can’t find the faculty?”
The struggle is ongoing partly because African American studies is — well, different. Its roots are as much in activism as they are in curriculum and research.
That means that the faculty can carry tremendous burdens. They don’t just teach, write and serve on campus committees. They may be called upon to advocate for students, says McKay, or even to become activists in the community, note Pinderhughes and Kelley.
And those endeavors may be viewed with suspicion or even contempt by faculty in more mainstream departments who don’t have similar responsibilities or feel similar levels of commitment.
Of course, there’s the argument that any field with a recognized “star” system has definitely arrived.
Harvard has garnered a high profile in the news media of late by hiring, in quick succession, Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Dr. Cornel West and Wilson. Asante notes, however, that “among many Whites and even some Blacks, African Americans are not conceived of as scholars — and Harvard is the citadel of Eurocentrism. So the strategy was to attract these stars to overcome the resistance. And in that regard, the strategy has been successful.”
But the star system has its critics, too.
“I think the whole thing has been a disaster,” Kelley says. “What happens is that the media gets five or six names, and they get called on as experts on everything, even areas in which they have no expertise. And so you end up with too many statements that just sound ignorant. And people are participating in this by accepting every speaking engagement and every interview request.”
And what can get lost in the hubbub is the mission of the department: the teaching and the research, Asante adds. Funding and media attention do indeed follow stardom, but Asante states emphatically that “you don’t need funding to do the basic work of the department and the basic work of the discipline, which is teaching and research.”
Dr. Daryl Scott, who’s preparing to leave Columbia University to revitalize the University of Florida’s moribund African American Studies program, strikes a cautionary note as well.
“Right now, Harvard is recognized for its celebrity status and for its repackaging and popularization of knowledge. There are people there who are doing primary research, but [Harvard] is not yet recognized for the primary research that it’s producing,” he says.
Further, the focus on stars and their salaries and megabuck book contracts tends to obscure certain sober realities.
The Bottom Line
Salary information for faculty in the discipline tends to be closely held. Few discuss their own salaries; nor do they say what their schools generally offer to attract junior and senior faculty. But the general tenor of the comments seemed to indicate that things could be better.
Scott, for example, rejected his first offer from the University of Florida.
“Basically, I could have taught a summer school class” at Columbia and done about as well, he says with a rueful chuckle.
The picture is even grimmer at the administrative level.
“If there was one thing that I would have hoped would be different” from the 1970s, “it’s the fact that programs are still struggling for funding and support,” says Yarborough.
“Loaves and fishes” is how Pinderhughes describes the situation, sounding quite exasperated. “Faculty are being forced to do their own fund-raising, to approach Ford and other private foundations to support needs that, quite frankly, their own institutions should be funding,” she says.
Pinderhughes says the forthcoming Ford survey found some very basic needs were being neglected — things like secretarial support; a part-timer to build and maintain a Web site; a staffer to coordinate a special conference or reading series; a curriculum administrator to monitor the development of courses or to counsel and advise students.
“I know of one instance where an entire program was reduced from three full-time staffers to a director and a part-time graduate student,” Pinderhughes says. The former director died suddenly of a stroke, she explains, and the university bean counters seized the opportunity to slash the program.
Of course, faculty fund-raising efforts can result in significant windfalls. Temple’s Asante says his department recently received a $350,000, no-strings grant from the state of Pennsylvania’s Black Caucus, all of which was used to fund graduate students.
But not every program has a “name” scholar capable of attracting such outside support. As a point of fact, faculty shouldn’t be forced to carry the burden for fund-raising among all the other burdens they carry, Pinderhughes says.
What Comes Next?
All of these difficulties are going to fall into the laps of the next generation of African American Studies scholars. The fact is that the guard is changing. And it’s causing no small amount of anxiety among observers.
The effects can be seen not only in the shifting research emphasis — from Afrocentrism to diaspora studies and postmodern transculturalism — but more importantly and more pragmatically, the effects will soon be felt in terms of “butts in the seats.”
That is to say, senior faculty are either aging out or struggling with health issues. Asante is 57 years old, a landmark that has implications for the entire generation of scholars that came of age with him.
While the number of Ph.D. programs is growing, there aren’t enough to produce anything close to “replacement” levels of the scholars who Yarborough and Pinderhughes, among others, say will soon be leaving the profession.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, nine men and women received a doctorate in Black Studies in 1996-97, the most recent year for which numbers were available.
As Yarborough puts it, “Right now, the Ph.D. in African American Studies is just another option for people who would get a Ph.D. anyway.”
That number, at least, is on the rise: 1,847 African Americans received the doctorate degree in 1996, up from 1,253 in 1976. And many of those graduates will end up teaching in African American Studies by virtue of the fact that they’ve written dissertations exploring African American topics or pursued research interests that otherwise qualify them.
Still, there are dissenting voices. For Temple’s Asante, for example, the whole notion of concentrations of African American courses within a traditional departmental configuration is a problematic one.
“Aggregations of courses about Black people will not create a conceptual framework; they will not build a discipline,” he says. It’s a stance that puts him at odds with most of the scholars teaching in the field, but he remains firm in his conviction that divided disciplinary loyalties are an evil that must be rooted out.
Many are intrigued by how all these issues will play out in years to come against the backdrop of campus assaults on diversity and the rising popularity of area and ethnic studies programs.
Clearly, as Yarborough notes, “In the next decade or two, people in Black Studies are going to have to think very strategically” about the future of the discipline.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com