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African American Studies

African American Studies

Five minutes on the World Wide Web makes the point more plainly than a full weekend with a stack of college catalogs: There are as many types of African American Studies programs as there are institutions of higher learning offering them.
Some programs — like those at California State University-Long Beach and Cornell University — follow Temple University’s Afrocentric model. Others, like University of California-Los Angeles and University of California-Berkeley, are organized as “diaspora” studies programs with course offerings on the Caribbean and Africa as well as on African Americans. On the East Coast, at schools like the University of Virginia, “the Black Atlantic” is the buzzword, while at places like Yale, a postmodern transnationalism informed by cultural studies is the rage. Programs like Harvard University’s tilt heavily toward the American aspect of African American. While at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the goal is to turn out Ph.D.s who look like that school’s famous alum, W.E.B. Du Bois.
The range of courses and program configurations is dizzying and exciting. But it is also confusing. The layman is left with the question: Is African American Studies a discipline with or without a methodology?

The answer to that question depends very much on whom one asks. Ask Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, whose Ph.D. program at Temple — the nation’s first — is celebrating its 12th anniversary this year, and the answer is: Without.
“In the ‘60s, we said we wanted an approach that would show the efficacy of the African way,” says Asante.
 The way Asante forged was Afrocentrism, which he defines as an “authentic” way of “accessing, locating, interpreting and understanding African peoples based on the centeredness and agency of those people.”
Rather than advocating any one method of study, Dr. Percy Hintzen, professor and chair of African American Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, advocates a kind of theoretical, methodological and analytical pluralism.
For Hintzen, Afrocentricity is important only “when we’re talking about the ways in which people who identify themselves as being of African descent negotiate their reality,” Hintzen says.
Berkeley’s focus is on what Hintzen calls “diasporic identities”  —  the ways in which Black people understand their “Blackness” from various locations in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas.
As a historian, Columbia University’s Dr. Daryl Scott admits he has a bias toward empirical research, and it concerns him that “the movement toward a transnational history of people of African descent is being spearheaded by the least empirical people — (scholars in literature and aesthetics) who don’t have the burden of doing fieldwork.”
Scott is an agnostic on Afrocentrism — “unlike a lot of people, I don’t find the paradigm inherently bankrupt,” he says — and he finds merit in the work of “diaspora” scholars as well. But he thinks both approaches may share a common problem.
“The question for those who want to talk about the ‘Black World’ in a transnational, non-Afrocentric way is, ‘Will they be able to create a body of knowledge that will justify their ambition?’ ” Scott says.
Only time will tell.

Disciplinary Suicide
Of course, there is also the argument that the question itself is flawed. One would be hard pressed, for example, to find five professors of English at a Modern Languages Association conference who could agree on what the boundaries of that discipline are or what English Ph.D. graduates absolutely need to know.
Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley, a professor of history and Africana studies at New York University, goes so far as to argue that “there is no such thing as a discipline of Black Studies just as there is no such thing as a discipline of history. Though,” he adds with a chuckle, “that might unsettle a few of my colleagues (in history).”
What Kelley means, of course, is that disciplinary boundaries are, in some ways, irrelevant because they in no way correspond to the ways in which people live or experience their lives. Still, not everyone within African American Studies is comfortable with such postmodern insouciance.
Asante, for example, is deeply troubled by the current state of the discipline. It disturbs him, for example, that “most of the people who are teaching African American Studies were not trained in the field. Their training may have been in history, literature, even sociology —  and the only reason they’re teaching African American Studies is that that’s where they got a job,” he says.
Asante has certain tests for African Americanist faculty. Are they attending the major  conferences, such as the Diop or the National Council for Black Studies conferences? Are they publishing in Imhotep or the Journal of Black Studies or the Western Journal of Black Studies? Or are they publishing instead in literary or anthropology or political science journals? Are they in communication with others in the field about programming or curricular decisions?
If the answers to those questions are no, then these people, to Asante, are doing nothing to “build” the discipline.
Asante’s solution to this problem is a radical one. He thinks that African Americanist faculty must commit what he calls “disciplinary suicide.”
“When I came to Temple in 1984, I had been chair of the department of communications at Buffalo, and they asked me if I wanted a joint appointment. I told them no, and I put my whole life — my career, my reputation, my scholarship, my direction of graduate students — all of that, into African American Studies. And that’s what’s necessary for this field to develop and grow. People have to be willing to commit disciplinary suicide and put all their marbles into African American Studies.”

 Strength in Diversity
Unfortunately, that’s a tough sell both for faculty and graduate students who hope one day to teach. The fact is that people like their traditional disciplines — they like being historians or anthropologists or sociologists. And presenting the matter of disciplinary loyalty as an either-or proposition is most likely to elicit a blank stare.
Then, too, questions of the proper approach to building the African American Studies discipline are complicated by the rise in popularity of other “area” studies programs: women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, Native American studies, Latino studies and the current “hot ticket,” —according to Dr. Richard Yarborough, director of the University of California–Los Angeles’ Center for African American Studies — Asian American studies.
But it seems that, for the time being at least, African American Studies will remain highly diverse. And, many in the field argue that will be its strength.
“We will certainly have to begin to speak (more often and more formally) to each other if this discipline is going to survive,” says Dr. Dianne Pinderhughes, a professor of political science and director of the Afro-American Studies and Research Program at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
But in some ways, disciplinary uniformity may be undesirable — if not impossible.
“Look at us. We are a highly creative, volatile, improvisatory people, very influenced by even subtle shifts or changes in society,” Pinderhughes says. The diversity of theories and methodologies “may reflect the way African American culture constantly innovates.”
Kelley agrees.  “We have a methodology. It’s the methodology of [jazz musician]  Coleman Hawkins,” he says. “Now, granted,  [Thelonius] Monk is my man. But the methodology is like Hawkins in that it’s deeply improvisatory. It’s interdisciplinary. Its practitioners assess the situation and come up with the most appropriate approach to a set of problems.”
And the problem?
According to Kelley, it’s in large part the same as it was in the 1960s, at the founding moment of Black Studies: the struggle for the liberation not just of Black people but of all humanity from racism and from economies that keep people in poverty.       

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