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Celebrating Africana studies: program gets ‘coming out party’ at New York University

In the 1960s, college administrations cobled together
piece-meal Black studies programs to placate African American students,
inspired by Black Power and African independence struggles, demanding
curriculums and professors “relevant” to their experiences.

In the ’90s, Black studies is the discipline du jour, thanks in
large part to the recognition, respect, and even celebrity that Harvard
University’s Dream Team of Black scholars, led by Dr. Henry Louis Gates
Jr., is bringing to the field. And as the new millennium draws near,
other institutions are following suit, courting the prestige of
contemporary Black thought.

Last month, at “New Voices in Black Studies” — an event described
by program director Dr. Manthia Diawara as a “something of a coming-out
party for NYU Africana Studies” — the work of seven New York
University scholars took center stage on this Greenwich Village campus.
The gathering drew an audience of some 250 students, scholars, and
Village residents, most of whom were African American.

“I felt it was genuinely a celebration of Black authors in Africana
Studies, an area where there is such an explosion of new scholarship,
new writing,” said NYU historian Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley, who
participated in the event.

Jocularly dismissing the Ivy League establishments as “minor
competitors” in comparison, Dr. Catharine Stimpson, dean of NYU’s
Graduate School of Arts and Science, praised the work of her
colleagues, saying, “They take the world as their subject and learning
as their specialty.”

The scholarship putting NYU “on the map” explores the contributions
that Black people in Africa and throughout the diaspora have made to
the modern world. NYU historian Dr. Tricia Rose, who co-moderated the
evening with Stimpson, noted that what unites this expansive work “is
the power and necessity of narrative, the stories we tell ourselves,
the stories told about us.”

A major theme coursing through the event was the ways contemporary
Black thought reinterprets and refashions “mythic” European narratives.

The excerpt that veteran legal scholar Derrick Bell read from
Afrolantica Legacies — the fourth installation in his series of
Socratic dialogues with fictional lawyer-prophet Geneva Crenshaw —
spins the French fairy tale Bluebeard as an allegory of Blacks urging
America to live up to its ideals.

Hamlet proves a particularly Elizabethan artifact, rather than a
universal drama transcending cultural differences, in film scholar Dr.
Clyde Taylor’s The Mask of Art: Breaking Aesthetic Contract, which
exposes the concept of “art” as a tool of Western ethnocentricity.
Taylor read of Tiv tribal elders in Nigeria who, upon hearing the
Bard’s tragedy, found the play’s premises wholly implausible within
their cultural world view.

In Neglected Stories: The Constitution and Family Values, Peggy
Cooper Davis, a law professor and a former family court judge,
challenges traditional jurisprudence in her reinterpretation of
post-Civil War constitutional amendments, especially the Fourteenth.
Current legal theory argues that individual freedoms ensured by the
U.S. Constitution apply to civil rights but not family rights law.
Cooper contends that these amendments, fought for by abolitionists who
understood that “the first thing a slave lost was family,” were created
to protect it.

Critic, novelist, and playwright Dr. Ngugi wa Thiong’o refashions
Plato’s Republic in Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: The Performances
of the Arts and the State in Africa. This collection of four essays,
first presented as lecture at Oxford University, explores the
relationship between rulers and writers in contemporary Africa, where
writers are often viewed as the enemy of the postcolonial state.

He also read from his novel-in-progress, that is written in his
native Gikuyu language, which is spoken by the Kikuyu people of Kenya.
The novel embraces a second theme featured during the symposium: the
role “homegrown” narratives and traditions play in overthrowing
colonialist, supremacist legacies.

The Black oral tradition grounds anthropologist Dr. Steven
Gregory’s Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban
Community. This examination of political culture and activism in an
African American neighborhood in New York City recalls John Langston
Gwaltney’s groundbreaking Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America
(1981) in its reliance on Black voices and perspectives to guide its
research and conclusions.

In his Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional, Kelley argues that twisted
misinterpretation of Black culture has undermined public policy,
scholarship, and social movements. Since Daniel Moynihan’s 1965 study
which called whole Black families–and especially Black mothers–a
“tangle of pathology,” the playful art of the dozens, Kelley says, has
become vicious vitriol in the mouths of Charles Murray of Bell Curve
fame, “neocon boy wonder” Dinesh D’Souza, and even William Julius
Wilson. Kelley’s incisive and insightful scholarship forces these
critics “to defend their own mamas and their own behavior, not to
mention their research.”

Literary scholar Diawara closed the evening with a hilarious
account of recreating Woodstock as a teenager in his hometown, Bamako,
Mali, during the ’60s. His deadpan descriptions of the kitschy
trappings of liberation he and his friends so earnestly cultivated
during those heady times of African liberation and Black Power
struggles emphasized not only the innocence of youth, but the role of
song and the importance of laughter in fighting for freedom.

Following the reading was a lively, almost intimate question and
answer period, with topics ranging from the role of public
intellectuals, to the need to bring these “narratives” to younger

New York literati like George Lemming, Louise Meriwether, Ted
Joans, and Jayne Cortez mingled with students, professors, and Village
residents, as a four-piece jazz band played standards, and readers
signed their works.

“[It was] one of the most warm and inviting cultural events that
I’ve been to in a long time,” Taylor said days later. “It hit upon an
unusual form. There were eight authors represented at once–and not
just poets at a slam, but eight Black nonfiction authors presenting
before a receptive audience. It was a brilliant evening.”

“It wasn’t a critical event as far as this relates to, say,
Harvard,” Kelley added. “We are not in competition [with that
institution], last time I checked. This is just evidence that all over
the country there [are] not only new scholarship and books, but new
centers for the study of Black people in the modern world.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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