Black to the Future


Three years ago, Princeton University appointed Harvard professor Cornel West as the school’s newest professor of religion. This came after Harvard president Lawrence Summers questioned the quality of West’s “scholarship” to colleagues and the press. Despite the fact that West had written or edited over a dozen books, Summers had taken issue with West’s alliances with failed presidential candidates Bill Bradley and Al Sharpton and West’s recording of a spoken-word CD.

Amid the furor over West’s departure from Harvard’s celebrated department of African and African American studies came a much quieter yet no less disturbing contretemps. That June, a group of conservative scholars withdrew from a panel on the prominent philosopher Sidney Hook that featured West as a discussant. Asked to explain the boycott, CUNY’s John Patrick Diggins told
The New York Times, “I’m concerned about whether [West] has any point of view in matters of philosophy,” despite the fact that West holds a Princeton Ph.D. in the discipline and devoted some of his 1989 book
The American Evasion of Philosoph y to Hook.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education this April, Robin Wilson portrayed African American studies programs as fighting against irrelevance—and for their very survival. The article depicted a field in the midst of an “identity crisis”: departments struggling to attract students while budget cuts thin the faculty, courses cross-listing with other departments, programs “scrambling to reinvent themselves” and “broadening their courses” by changing their names or widening focus to study African peoples from the Caribbean and Europe.

It is a portrayal that many African American scholars of various disciplines blasted as ridiculous and patently false, especially considering that quite a few “traditional” disciplines, such as sociology and English literature, did not become formal courses of study until the end of the 19th century.

“Black studies is 30 years old and we’re already talking about its demise?” asks Dwight A. McBride, a professor of English and head of the African American studies department at Northwestern. “Did anyone talk about the demise of sociology at 30? We are not crediting disciplines like black studies for making inroads, working from the margins to produce this knowledge in this country.”

Though West and other public intellectuals usually bear the brunt of such attacks, mainstream criticism of black intellectual scholarship has been around since the first black studies program rose from the ashes of pain and protest at San Francisco State University in 1968. Students and activists steeped in the ideals of black nationalism and the black power movement began to clamor for an educational experience that in some way reflected their life experience. “There was a void in the traditional Eurocentric educations,” says Shirley Weber, head of the Africana studies department at San Diego State and president of the National Council for Black Studies. “Students demanded inclusion in the curriculum and professors that looked like them.”

By the end of the ’60s, 100 colleges and universities had black studies programs, but they faced a structural dilemma: Professors hired to fill such programs, despite their interest in Africana research, had doctorates in traditional disciplines. In addition, several institutions allowed them to become, as Gerald Early pointed out in the
Times, “freighted, absolutely deep-sixed with therapy and utopian politics—the need for race solidarity and to heal the diminished, damaged black mind.” Indeed, SUNY trustee Candace de Russy said as much in February 2002, causing an uproar when she charged black studies with being “therapeutic in nature,” with the goal being “consciousness-raising as opposed to conveying solid scholarship.” Conservative academic Shelby Steele of Stanford concurred, telling the
Chronicle, “It was a bogus concept from the beginning because it was an idea grounded in politics, not in a particular methodology. These programs are dying of their own inertia because they’ve had 30 or 40 years to show us a serious academic program, and they’ve failed.”

“Anything black, anything that is African centered, will always be questioned on its worthiness by the institution,” says Weber. “The question is always whether we are scholarly enough.”

Although the number of actual majors has never been high (the Department of Education notes that fewer than 700 undergraduate degrees were conferred in the field in 2002), the courses remain popular on many
campuses. Approximately 450 colleges and universities grant degrees in the subject, a number that has remained stable for a decade, and many programs, such as the elite departments at Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, Michigan, and Columbia, continue to draw students of all types into their classrooms.

“It surprises me that this debate is out there, but then again, it’s always been there,” says Rebecca Wender, a 2000 Columbia graduate in African American studies and dance. “To me, it’s obvious that [black studies] is not integrated into our education at all, and we do not have a full history of America.”

African American studies may have only existed as an academic discipline since 1968, but the foundation was laid at the turn of the 20th century, when seminal works like Alain Locke’s
The New Negro, W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk
, and especially Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro
provided the groundwork for many of the prevailing ideas that led to the discipline’s creation. Despite this long tradition of scholarship, current public thinkers like West, Asa Hilliard, Michael Eric Dyson, and Molefi Kete Asante still find themselves having to explain the relevance of their work.

Many departments find themselves with growing pains as they evolve from concentrating on the study of the black experience in America to the study of the African diaspora and beyond, incorporating the study of black people throughout Latin America, South America, and the Caribbean.

“There has always been an international component to black studies,” says Eisa Nefertari Ulen, a professor of English at Hunter College. “These issues of displacement and identity, the diverse ways of being black in America, will come up, especially from younger writers. This sense of sameness is something we have to grapple with and eventually get away from.”

Others in the field believe that the future of the discipline lies in its democratization: Scholars of all stripes must learn to form a “knowledge network” to share informa
tion and avoid the isolation inherent in academia—to work within the community to learn more about it. “The future is going to be a function of what’s going on in the black community,” says Abdul Alkalimat, head of the Africana studies department at the University of Toledo. “If class polarization continues, we’ll have only a certain kind of student . . . who does not share the mass black experience.”

All of these changes, say scholars and students alike, represent an evolution, not a struggle of survival.

“It’s difficult to argue incline versus decline,” says Alkalimat. “It’s more like an ebb and flow. It’s part of the give and take, the fight for stabilization. It’s an ongoing thing.”