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Black Studies – The Never-Ending (Beautiful) Struggle

Much has been written about a former (recently fired) Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) blogger’s racist, dismissive, and uninformed rant against the discipline of Black Studies—particularly a group of Northwestern University graduate students—but very little scrutiny has been afforded the article that inspired the toxic torrent in the first place.

That would be “Black Studies: ‘Swaggering into the Future’: A New Generation of Ph.D.’s Advances the Discipline,” written by Chronicle reporter Stacey Patton. 

As one who earned the Ph.D. in African American Studies at Temple University, over a decade ago, I have some thoughts on the direction of the discipline beloved by so many … and reviled—and misunderstood—by far too many others.

Let me begin by saying that I am thrilled that Black Studies continues to attract the best and the brightest students at institutions of higher learning around the country. Moreover, I support the efforts of and look forward to one day meeting and perhaps collaborating with some of the scholars profiled, but, after reading and re-reading Patton’s article, there are a few things that must be said.

First, I find unfortunate the choice to elevate to the article title—thus memorializing—Duke University Africana Studies scholar Mark Anthony Neal’s catchy (but curious … and cliché) quote about “elite Black Studies programs” ‘swaggering into the future.’ 

As one commenter observed on the CHE website: “What is described with sensitivity about a topic that is carefully, if not elegantly covered, is announced with words that suggest a group of folks on a street corner or around a basketball court.”  

Not to mention the fact that “Black” is in lower case throughout the article (in keeping with the racist conventions of American journalism).

But that’s not the worst of the myriad problems presented in this, no doubt, well-intended report. 

In fairness to Patton, she merely reports what she gleaned through interviews of Northwestern University (NU) Black Studies graduate students and faculty, as well as participants in their recent conference, themed “A Beautiful Struggle: Transformative Black Studies in Shifting Political Landscapes.”

For instance, one NU student ventured that “the summit … [was about their] generation talking about where the older generation and fresh scholars should be looking.” Perhaps this explains why some of the reader comments suggest that the report seems arrogant and dismissive of those who already hold the Ph.D. in Black Studies.

Having said that, however, although I have tremendous respect for Patton as a writer and scholar, the very premise of her piece is profoundly problematic, in that it presents an “us versus them” dialectic between “this generation” and the “first two waves of [B]lack-studies scholars.” 

Further, the Chronicle article does a tremendous disservice to those of us already holding Ph.D.’s in African American Studies … and it attempts to recast the overall mission of Black Studies.

300 Degrees of Separation

For starters, no specific chronological demarcation of the said “waves” is offered, which is confusing. Thus, as a 2001 graduate, this scholar is not sure—of the 300 Ph.D.’s Black Studies referenced in the Patton piece—where those minted during my era fit in this timeline. I mean, are we part of this new third (?) wave … or the second (?) wave? 

More, not only is this approach divisive, but it is one-sided. Such a comparative piece should have, by necessity, demanded that the writer consult with some of the “previous scholars” who are alluded to (in a not so flattering light) throughout the article.

The very first line of the article begins the process of separation. 

“Northwestern University’s first cohort of black-studies Ph.D.’s was not baptized in the fire of racial politics,” writes Patton.

“Young black-studies scholars, like the five who enrolled in Northwestern’s inaugural Ph.D. class in 2006,” Patton continues, “are less consumed than their predecessors with the need to validate the field or explain why they are pursuing doctorates in their discipline. They have chosen dissertation topics with clear social relevance to this generation’s ethos and are expanding upon previous studies of race with more nuanced examinations of sexuality, class, religion, performativity of race in day-to-day interactions, and global views about blackness.”

Patton continues, “The struggle for civil rights and racial integration is not part of their lived experience. They grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, often attended the best colleges, and typically escaped at least some of the racial injustices their elders knew. Raised by parents who have provided more educational opportunities than the generation before, they are scholars who tend not to get hung up on victimization and alienation.”

Wow …. Let me just say, it is hard not to be struck by the elitism of this observation. 

Indeed, as one reader asks in a comment on the CHE website: “Does anyone else find the language in this article disrespectful to our elders and ancestors? It suggested that they did not attend the best colleges and that they were ‘hung up’ on victimization and alienation. Is anyone else driven a little nuts by this post-[B]lackness rhetoric?”

Ironically, the “fire of racial politics” would soon engulf the “swaggering” young scholars, when the Chronicle‘s Naomi Schaefer Riley—who has since been fired, after more than 6,500 people signed an online petition demanding her dismissal—proved the naiveté of their academic assumptions with one click of the submit button, unleashing the now infamous racist blog, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations,” thus pimp-slapping the Northwestern Five into the American reality.

But strangely enough, in a roundabout way, this debacle was one good thing (of many) to come out of the article. Of course, not Schaefer Riley’s hateful words, but—to borrow the title of the underground Hip Hop song by the artist NIZM—hopefully, it “Deswaggafied” this generation of Black Studies scholars … and disabused them of the unrealistic notion that the existential fight is over.

Black peoples will always have to fight for our very existence in this racist world, and so will the discipline of Black Studies. 

But I digress.

Stereotypes Abound

In my estimation, Patton’s report is evidence of a fundamental lack of understanding of the discipline of Black Studies, as envisioned by its architects.  Not only that, after purporting that they are challenging the stereotypes of Black Studies, the Northwestern group (and the Chronicle report) then proceeds to stereotype Black Studies … before the coming of this new generation.

Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes, chair of Northwestern’s Department of African-American Studies (DAAS), “says she hopes the conference will show how productive and successful graduates are and erase some pernicious stereotypes about [B]lack-studies programs that remain.”

“There are multiple departments across the country that challenge and defy that stereotype,” Watkins-Hayes says, “and [they] are producing a new [read: improved] generation of Ph.D. students who have become increasingly sophisticated in their ability to add texture and specificity within the black experience by focusing on a number of categories of race, class, sexuality, gender, religion and nationality.”

Watkins-Hayes states further that contemporary Black Studies scholars (no doubt matriculating at the “rich schools” she alludes to) are “not trying to capture the [B]lack experience but are accounting for [B]lack people’s multiple identities in the work they do.” “Everyone has that complexity. But previous scholarship has suggested that [B]lacks do not,” she noted.

All of which suggests that, according to the NU chair, previous Black Studies Ph.D.’s are unproductive, unsuccessful, unsophisticated, one-dimensional scholars who present African-Americans as a simplistic monolith.

Another noteworthy distinction pointed out by Patton is that—apparently unlike previous Black Studies scholars—“younger [B]lack-studies scholars are willing to work with advisers and mentors of different races. With more openness and trust on both sides, young scholars don’t necessarily feel that they are betraying their own people by working with someone outside of their race as a mentor.”

“It’s not about skin color, but rather about philosophical perspective … the cultural lens with which one views the world,” said Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, when consulted for his reaction earlier this week. 

Enter Dr. Martha Biondi, director of graduate studies and an associate professor of African-American studies and history at Northwestern, whose words—some of which were used by Patton to close her piece — promote a philosophy that is antithetical to that of the traditional Black Studies scholar.

“Black studies is not a social-service agency aiming to ameliorate racial discontent,” declares Biondi.  

“It is an area of rigorous intellectual inquiry that is here to stay … Now with the development of more Ph.D. programs, it is very clear that scholars in African-American studies are at the forefront of producing valuable research that’s interdisciplinary and cuts across law, literature studies, social science, and other disciplines …[and] have forged a path of integrating top-notch scholarship with social and political relevance.”

Because, before now, one is left to infer, “rigor” was apparently lacking … and the voluminous scholarship previously generated holds no value.

A Disciplinary Approach

Asante, (not Asanti, as misspelled in the article), the architect and founding chair of the first doctoral program in African American Studies, Temple University’s historic department—although mistakenly identified as a former program director in the CHE report, after having mentored over one third of the approximately 300 earned Black Studies Ph.D.’s, including this scholar—told me that he has not read Patton’s report, but he has been bombarded with calls and messages about the article.

After hearing the Biondi quote, Asante chuckled.

“Of course, Black Studies is not a social services-agency, but the agency of African people should always inform…and drive the research and academic inquiry of the Black Studies scholar,” Asante stressed.

And he takes exception with the notion of Black Studies being cast as interdisciplinary. 

“Black Studies must be defined in disciplinary terms, deriving from a philosophical base…from a theoretical frame of reference,” Asante maintains.  And for Asante this demands an Afrocentric approach to the study of African and African-descended people, which he sees as the only sane approach to the study of Black life and culture.

“Now…it is a discipline with many interests, like music, literature, politics, the study of the mind and what have you,” says the prolific author of more than 70 books. But Asante rejects the idea of Black Studies departments filled with professors with dual appointments in other departments within universities.

A Tree Without Roots

One thing conspicuously absent in the Chronicle article—and in the remarks attributed to the new scholars touted therein—is any mention of the continent of Africa, the ancestral homeland and cultural wellspring of Africana peoples. 

This is a major problem.

It is not sufficient to begin the history of African-descended peoples with the Holocaust of African Enslavement, commonly known as slavery. In other words, “Slave studies” is not enough. 

As the African proverb advises, “To go back to tradition is the first step forward.”

The great civilizations of Africa—like Mali, Ghana, Songhai, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Kemet (now know as Egypt)— should be the classical reference point in all areas of Black Studies, lest Black peoples share the fate of a tree with no roots: certain devastation. 

“These young voices are rewriting the history of race,” writes Patton; however, I didn’t come away from the piece convinced that the new jacks of Black Studies even see Africa.  Perhaps they do, but it is not espoused in their elitist rhetoric.

In conclusion, Black Studies is not, as Martha Biondi suggests, just about the production of scholarship, which is, of course, a major goal of all academic enterprise. Scholars of the discipline should be charged with the mission of producing liberatory, life-saving—and yes, rigorous—research and scholarship … and committed to bringing it to the masses of the African Diaspora.

In the words of the classic freedom song of the Civil Rights Movement, Africana Studies scholars, regardless of “generation” or “wave,” must keep our minds —and our eyes—“Stayed on Freedom.”

As the perspicacious proverb goes, “When you’re at the edge of a cliff, sometimes progress is a step backward.”

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a cultural critic, public speaker and associate professor of Africana literature at Virginia State University.

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