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Under the Media’s Radar

Under the Media’s Radar
Princeton’s program in African American studies boasts its own all-star cast

High-profile African American studies departments like Harvard’s with certified media stars like Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. usually tend to grab the lion’s share of the headlines. But focusing solely on departments and their “stars” offers a pretty distorted picture of what’s happening “on the ground” in the field of African American studies, observers say.

In other words, the view is pretty different from the vantage point of the African American studies programs.

It’s an indisputable fact that departmental status represents the pinnacle of academic success — in both scholarly and institutional terms. But it’s also a fact that African American studies remains a discipline dominated by programs, whether they focus solely on the American experience or include African diaspora and African studies: Afro-American, African American, Africana, Afro-Caribbean, Black Atlantic and just plain Black studies programs.

Nationally, that boils down to a telling statistic: There are only eight departments offering the Ph.D. in African American studies, history or literature. By contrast, there are more than 250 programs sponsoring research in the field and offering undergraduate certificates or minors.

Princeton University is one of the many schools with Black studies programs. Offering a certificate in African American studies, Princeton has as many stars as Harvard. Even without the recent addition of Drs. Cornel West and Kwame Anthony Appiah, the roll call includes a remarkable cluster of scholars in literary and film studies, religion, history, sociology and other fields — senior scholars such as Dr. Albert Raboteau in religion, the Nobel-winning novelist Toni Morrison and the late and greatly lamented literary critic Dr. Claudia Tate. But, traditionally, Princeton has also been far less a magnet for media coverage than Ivies with departments, such as Harvard or Yale.

And to a certain extent, that’s just fine with Dr. Valerie Smith — noted film and literary theorist and current director of the program, who confesses with good humor that she simply “hates” giving interviews to the press. But Smith is also quite clear on the more problematic aspects of the media focus.

“Of course, it’s easy to demonize the media, and I don’t want to fall into that. But the media tend to seize on certain styles of leadership. They tend to categorize people and phenomena in certain narrow ways that, if we’re not cautious, we (academic observers) can begin to reproduce,” she notes.

“When we think of leadership in the (African American studies) field, we tend to think Gates and West not just because they have extraordinary charisma, but because they’ve also identified projects that have made African American studies and certain aspects of African American studies research highly visible to an audience to which they might otherwise have been invisible. And that needs to be commended.”

But while those contributions are certainly important, people also need to be asking, “Who’s actually mentoring the younger scholars, enabling the reproduction of knowledge across generations? Who’s reading the manuscripts, brokering the relationships between junior scholars and presses? Who’s doing the teaching?” Smith notes.

Even though most Black studies programs do not garner the media attention that high-profile departments often do, they do indeed face particular challenges.

It’s an “enormous” administrative burden trying to offer full course coverage with what’s essentially part-time faculty, says Dr. Nell Painter, a pioneering historian who holds the Edwards chair of American history at Princeton. Hiring — that is to say, convincing the various departments to hire faculty members with African American specialties — also can be a complicated affair.

Given the constraints, Smith says, it takes teamwork to make a program successful.

“And that’s the real problem with the way the media cover African American studies — it creates this illusion that the whole thing is driven by a star system,” she says. “But the fact is one can’t be a successful leader without a successful faculty, and without faculty, staff, students all working together.

“I could not do my job unless I had support — no one could,” she says.

— By Kendra Hamilton

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