Uncivil War

Inside the Years-Long Battle Over the Future of Afrocentricity and Its Place in the Black Studies Renaissance

At the request of Carolyn Adams, then the dean of arts and sciences, Asante resigned as chair in the fall of 1996. Joyce, a candidate from outside the university, was selected by the African American studies department on a 2-1 vote. Seven faculty members, including Asante, protested proceedings by abstaining.

Although Asante admits he should have removed himself from the Forbes reappointment process, he insists there was no plagiarism. Forbes, who is now a tenured associate professor in the department, spoke to me at length, but perhaps sensitive to the stigma in the Black community attached to the Black woman who conspires with the white man to bring down a high profile Black male, refused to talk about plagiarism of her manuscript.

Former Temple University African American studies chair Joyce Ann Joyce: Attacks against her began when she was picked to replace Molefi Asante.
Photograph by Tara Engberg
Former Temple University African American studies chair Joyce Ann Joyce: Attacks against her began when she was picked to replace Molefi Asante.

Those close to Joyce say she too harbors such reluctance. But after four years of silence, during which she's been widely portrayed as the bogey "man" of Black studies, she is finally speaking out. By the fall of 1997, she'd authored three books of literary criticism and co-edited a major anthology of African American literature, The New Cavalcade. Along with her reputation as a productive scholar, Joyce, who came to Temple by way of Chicago State University, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Maryland, had long had a reputation as a rebellious one. Early on in her career, she bumped heads with another Black studies big man—Skip Gates, now of Harvard dream-team fame. She took him to task for his interpretation of the role of deconstruction and poststructural theory in African American literary criticism at a time when challenging him was considered academic suicide.

Interestingly enough, however, her clash with Asante wasn't an ideological one. Though Asante charged that she was "not an Afrocentrist" from the moment she arrived at Temple, their scholarly differences before that day had been almost nil. In fact, in his Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge, published in 1990, Asante praises Joyce as "a brilliant critic and theorist." Likewise, Joyce generously references Asante in her 1994 book Warriors, Conjurers and Priests: Defining African-Centered Literary Criticism. Only recently has she begun publishing papers discussing ways Afrocentricity can expand—a conversation that's already been going on among African-centered scholars who see Afrocentricity as only a small part of the African-centered school of thought.

It doesn't take long in Joyce's presence to realize she doesn't suffer fools. And those who know her personally say she ran afoul of Asante not only because he didn't handpick her as his successor but because Joyce had a different model of administration. She began almost immediately to establish protocols not based on favoritism, instituting changes that Asante and his supporters, including some graduate students, perceived as attempts to destroy their department. More than that, Joyce was also an outsider who took the job that few nationally recognized African-centered scholars dared apply for. In doing so, they thought, she cast her lot with the university administration that ousted the department's fearless leader.

The anti-Joyce campaign swung into high gear. Skirmishes began on the ground at Temple. Asante led a demonstration in the middle of campus, complete with bullhorns and placards that proclaimed, "Joyce must go!" Temple's campus police seized a pin-stuck voodoo doll with a note attached that read, "Joyce must die!" It had been stuffed in Joyce's department mailbox. The keyhole in her office door was injected with Krazy Glue. Notes were scrawled on a bathroom's walls and mirror; in permanent black marker, they spelled out "Fuck Joyce."

An open-letter e-mail Asante wrote on "the Joyce Joyce affair" in the fall of 1997 was widely circulated via the Internet. "The appointment of Professor Joyce to the Chair of African American Studies was a racist act," wrote Asante in the dispatch. It "is an attack on African agency, an anti-African affair, and a deliberate, illegal, in-your-face assault on the Afrocentric paradigm."

The Joyce-is-the-problem spin on the trouble at Temple spread through Black studies departments across the country, mostly through word of mouth, as Asante and his supporters boldly attacked Joyce at academic conferences like the National Conference of Black Studies. For four years, Joyce has been cast as the source of all trouble.

"People do not invite me to conferences the way they used to," Joyce says of how her career suffered as a result. Of the scores of Black studies scholars interviewed for this story, regardless of the region in the country, all were familiar with what most saw as a power struggle typical of academia, albeit one that stooped lower than most with personal attacks. And given Asante's distinguished reputation in the field, until now he has been seen as a victim rather than the cause of his department's decline.

"One has to ask who benefits," says T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, director of African American studies at Purdue University, of the verbal attacks on Joyce. "It immobilized a department that had reached national prominence and that was turning out Ph.D.'s who were doing interesting work."

Editor of the Black Feminist Reader, Sharpley-Whiting also stresses that sexism mustn't be ruled out as a factor: "Asante and Gates [when they bumped heads] could spar and keep it gentlemanly. The viciousness of the attacks on Joyce, the way in which it became amplified, the way it was never just a case of 'We simply differ ideologically,' I would argue that that's gender."

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