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Ongoing Debates Continue to Plague Black Studies

A recent article written by Howard University student Aleesa Mann that appeared on the website The Root looked at the dilemmas facing Black studies programs and departments at historically Black colleges and universities. The perennial issues, such as reluctant institutional commitment, chronic lack of funding, apprehensive students and perceptions of unhinged radicalism among faculty and students involved in the discipline, are a few allegations that plague many aspects of the discipline. As a professor whose teaches African-American studies, I am aware of the routine criticisms associated with the field.  They tend to be the following:

  • The discipline lacks sufficient academic rigor.

This is the inaccurate message that has been put forth either subtlety or in no uncertain terms again by right-wing cultural critics (and a few left-of-center ones) and even some critics in academia. As any sensible person knows, such a belief is nonsensical, misguided and wrong.

  • Scholars who teach African-American studies are radical, angry and harbor an anti-Eurocentric agenda.

While such charges could apply to a few professors, the fact is that such a mindset does not represent the vast majority of Black studies scholars. In fact, many Black studies scholars are often very inclusionary in the classroom and their scholarship. In fact, one could levy similar generalizations of certain faculty personal agendas in any academic field of study ranging from the humanities to the hard sciences.

  • What are you going to do with a degree in Black studies?

I am certain that many of us who are Black have heard someone (frequently another Black person) question the practicality of earning a degree in Black studies. I even heard this argument among some of my relatives when I was an undergraduate student. Guess what? A number of years later, they have seen the results. Elementary or secondary education, urban planning, diversity training, consulting, politics, higher education, journalism, public relations and government work are a few of the employment possibilities available to students who major in the discipline.


  • I am Black. There is no need for me to major in Black studies

 Many Black students assume that because they are Black, there is no need for them to waste their time in taking such courses or majoring in a field that they believe they are an expert in.  They are wrong on a multitude of levels.

 While one could expect (or even tolerate) a certain degree of ignorance from young, undergraduate college students or even some non-Blacks for that matter, it is much more disappointing to hear such bloviated rhetoric espoused by fellow Black academics.

 For example, a few years ago, I was at an academic conference in a Midwestern city. I was part of a conversation with several other 30ish/early 40ish Black academics discussing our respective institutions, families, scholarship, career goals, etc. The conversation eventually moved to African-American studies. Two of the individuals in question attempted to make the same antiquated argument that Black studies was, in essence, subpar.

 This set off a spirited, yet civil, debate among most of us in attendance. The vast majority of us were proponents. However, there were some fellow colleagues who were dismissive, or at the very least, ambivalent about the discipline. The fact that these were educated Black academics made such an experience even more disheartening.

Ever-shrinking economic budgets, ongoing dissention in certain quarters, pernicious myths and stereotypes aside, Black studies still survives as an important area of academic inquiry. It is like a Timex watch. It periodically takes a licking but keeps on ticking.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African-American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book “Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board” (Rowman and Littlefield Publisher, Spring 2008).

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