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Black Studies Today

The New York Times Education Life, April 14, 2002

Born of the protests in the 1960’s and bruised by the culture wars of the 1990’s, African-American studies has always been a place where thorny issues are tackled, whether over affirmative action or the emergence of multidisciplinary fields like ethnic studies. Much as the young discipline of sociology was host to the defining ideas of the 1950’s and 60’s (the end of ideology, the lonely crowd), black studies is more “open” to hot-button cultural debates than more settled fields in the academic universe.

It is remarkable, then, that black studies has transformed itself from a peripatetic, quasi-academic pursuit into a mature field of study. No longer is the question whether it is a discipline. Rather, a second generation of scholars is engaged in a series of (sometimes heated) intradisciplinary disagreements about its scope and content. Should black studies be a department or a program? Should it integrate itself into a Eurocentrist curriculum or stand apart from the Western canon? Should it take a global or an American perspective? Is it a form of feel-good nationalism for the black community or a dispassionate academic field? And what are the parameters of scholarship – a question that Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard’s newly appointed president, brought to the forefront when he famously rebuked the star professor Cornel West recently for, among other things, making a “spoken word” CD of social philosophy.

Noliwe Rooks, associate director of Princeton’s African-American program, views questions about the direction of black studies as a sign of a healthy pluralism. “The field has matured to the point where there are a variety of positions – Afrocentric, diasporic, social scientific – about what constitutes African-American studies, all of which are valid,” she says. New York University emphasizes urban studies, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst concentrates on history, Harvard on cultural and literary matters. Given the current cachet of globalization among the chattering classes, it is no surprise that the most discussed trend is the move, now cooking at Boston University, nearby Northeastern, Duke and Princeton, to reorient the field’s scope toward the African diaspora.

According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, there are roughly 400 black studies programs or departments; 140 offer degrees; about 24 of them offer master’s and 5 of them Ph.D.’s. (Columbia University is working on plans to offer doctorates within the next few years.)

However it is defined or constituted – whether in a department at working-class, Afrocentric Temple University or as a program at elite, white Princeton – African-American studies has thrived.

Temple: The Black Canon

With 1,150 students enrolled this semester, black studies is one of the more popular departments at Temple, a sprawling public university in Philadelphia of 30,000 students, 25 percent of whom are African-American.

Attend an undergraduate class like “Hip-Hop and Black Culture” and it is easy to see why. Taught by Nathaniel Thompson, a dynamic young visiting professor, the course promises to “engage hip-hop not as a mode of entertainment, but as a medium of communications which impacts, represents and misrepresents the life experience of African people in the United States,” according to the syllabus.

His hair set in neat cornrows, Mr. Thompson wears a black, hooded sweatshirt and baggy black jeans. “I’m not of the school that believes hip-hop is a culture,” he announces. He then proceeds to analyze the genre using Molefi Kete Asante’s Afrocentric categories, as described in his book “Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge”: Does it have a cosmology, axiology (value system), epistemology or aesthetic? When the discussion gets too abstract, he brings it down to earth with a seemingly simple question: “Am I dressed hip-hop today?” This leads to a heated debate about the relation between the designer Ralph Lauren and black culture, and ends with the class dissecting the oft-used phrase “Keeping it real.” One woman asks, “What is the ‘it’ that is always being kept real, anyway?”

Temple’s African-American studies department, which was founded in 1969, was the first to offer a black studies Ph.D., in 1988. Its fame emanates from Dr. Asante, the graduate program’s founder and the chief theorist of Afrocentricity. As defined in his 1980 book of the same title, Afrocentricity is “interpretation and analysis from the perspective of African people as subjects rather than as objects on the fringes of the European experience.”

Nathaniel Norment Jr., the department’s current chairman, underscores the relationship between the theory and mainstream scholarship: “Ninety-five percent of the research done on African-Americans has been done by whites, and 95 percent of it has been negative,” he says. “From ‘The Moynihan Report’ to ‘The Bell Curve,’ African-American people have been portrayed as subhuman and inferior. Through Afrocentricity and African-centeredness, African-American studies can act as a corrective to this bias.”

A brief listing of this semester’s courses – “The Black Family,” “Blacks in Cinema,” “African Aesthetics,” “The Black Woman,” “Psychology of the Black Experience,” “Mass Media and Black Communication,” “Dimensions of Racism” – evidence Temple’s attempt to redress the shortcomings of the Eurocentric perspective by constructing a distinct, oppositional canon.

During his 12 years as chairman, Dr. Asante built the department into a nationally recognized center that promoted his popular ideology, and he enjoyed unchallenged autonomy. He stepped down in 1996 amid charges that he misappropriated a professor’s work for a textbook and then denied her tenure when she complained. The conflict was deemed a book contract dispute, not misconduct, but the junior professor was granted a new tenure review, minus Dr. Asante. The department was further divided during his successor’s term. Some faculty members – and Dr. Asante – had supported a different candidate and accused the new head, Joyce A. Joyce, of undermining the Afrocentric mission. She accused them of wanting to control the department. She resigned last June after four years of bitter battles. During all this turbulence, half the faculty was lost.

Under Dr. Norment, an imposing, gregarious man who punctuates his cross-campus strolls with frequent pauses to greet students and colleagues with hugs, the department is beginning to get back on its feet. “What is unique about Temple is that our methodology has been the Afrocentric paradigm, however you interpret it,” says Dr. Norment, who moved to Temple from City College in 1989. “At Temple we have a different canon, a different body of knowledge.” For instance, he explains, “In traditional sociology, there’s no mention of any black sociologists, not even William J. Wilson. Our students know both areas of knowledge. We are teaching about those white individuals who have made contributions that have impacted upon the black experience.”

Majors concentrate in one of three departmental tracks: social behavior (sociology, psychology), cultural aesthetics (dance, performance, the arts) or public policy. The policy track was never fully developed, and Dr. Norment plans to build up this area. The department has awarded 84 Ph.D.’s and 127 master’s degrees to students who have gone on to teach at Antioch, Howard and other colleges and universities. About 70 undergraduates major in African-American studies each year, with an additional 30 either minoring or double-majoring in it. Currently 65 graduate students are enrolled in the department.

Jason Neuenschwander, 31, has been at Temple since 1989, earning his B.A. and M.A. and working toward his Ph.D. He is part of Temple’s Future Faculty Fellows program, which grants full tuition and stipend to members of ethnic groups – nonblacks, in his case – that are underrepresented in particular disciplines. He decided on African-American studies because he found few courses in the political science or history departments on the subject he wanted to study: the history of American racial politics. “I’m from West Virginia, and I could never understand why one group of people had such disdain for another group, especially when they had so little contact,” he says.

As one of the few nonblack graduate students in the department, Mr. Neuenschwander is aware of the impression he makes. “I’m either seen as a pleasant anomaly or an aberration, an invited guest or an invader,” he says. “When my students come in to class and see that their teacher is this big white dude, they are shocked. But it’s fine after the second or third class.”

Karanja Keita Carroll, 25, of Teaneck, N.J., received a B.A. in psychology with a double minor in history and African-American studies from Montclair State University. He was attracted to Temple’s graduate program because of its reputation. “Afrocentricity really opens you up and helps you critique different models of knowledge,” he says. He is currently teaching a class on African psychology, which he argues is different from, say, European psychology. “There is no such thing as an Oedipus complex for African people,” he says. “It comes from a distinctive cultural perspective that we simply don’t have.”

In his course, Mr. Carroll uses Afrocentricity in tracing the roots of the word “psychology,” which is usually attributed to the Greek “psyche.” He tells students it actually comes from African culture – the word “sakhu” (“soul”) in Medew Netcher, the language of Egyptian hieroglyphics. “But they aren’t going to tell you that in a traditional psychology class,” he says.

Mr. Carroll says Temple’s is the only department where he could pursue his research project (the historian Cheikh Anta Diop’s relation to the Afrocentric paradigm). “Other universities call themselves departments of African-American studies but have people teaching from a psychological, sociological or historical perspective,” he says. “If you aren’t studying from the African perspective, then just whose perspective are you using?”

Princeton: The Diaspora and Beyond

Readings for a recent session of Nell Painter’s class, “Whiteness in Historical Perspective,” were extremely dull. Even the professor thinks so. “How many of you were bored to death by the reading?” she asks at the start of class. Hands shoot up in agreement. “Well, this is a good thing!” she explains in her best Martha Stewart voice. The readings – texts by the 18th-century naturalists Carolus Linnaeus and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon – are intended to give students a taste of the exhaustive but fruitless quest for a scientific basis for racial classification. They are boring, she says, because we don’t share the author’s 18th-century episteme; we have different ways of thinking about knowledge and racial differences.

The course, which begins with readings by Herodotus, Julius Caesar, Pliny the Elder and Tacitus, promises to examine the “seven great but incommensurate historical circumstances – European voyages of discovery, the elaboration of natural history, European colonization, 19th- and 20th-century European immigration, the Shoah and the flowering of African-American studies” that, according to the syllabus, “have revolutionized discussions of whiteness.” No mention of Medew Netcher here.

In contrast with Temple, black studies on this suburban New Jersey campus is firmly rooted in the European tradition. And it is a program, not a department, a significant distinction. Black studies at Princeton has no faculty of its own. Instead, professors are drawn from related departments, predominantly history and English.

Lacking the authority to hire and promote means the program was not involved in the job offer made last spring to Cornel West, a move he says he is now considering because of what he saw as a challenge to his scholarship and as Harvard’s lack of commitment to affirmative action – and what Dr. Summers saw as a misunderstanding. In a recent interview, Dr. West said he would announce his intentions in mid-April. The philosopher K. Anthony Appiah, also of Harvard’s dream team in African-American studies, joins Princeton in the fall.

“There are other people who are interested in coming here, and we are interested in them,” Amy Gutmann, Princeton’s provost, said in late March. “Of course, we are interested in Skip Gates,” the director of Harvard’s African-American studies department. “We are very proud of our first-rate program in A.A. studies,” she added, “and if building on their success means going from a program to a department, we are open to that.”

Indeed, the program is now in the middle of a well-orchestrated lobbying effort to become Princeton’s newest department. As a program, it offers no degrees, only certificates for undergraduates who concentrate in the subject (after declaring a major in a traditional discipline). Roughly 20 students do so each year, a third of them white (200 of Princeton’s 2,500 undergraduates are African-American).

Brigitte Anderson, a 20-year-old from Phoenix, is an anthropology major but concentrating in black studies. Her required senior thesis is on race and elder care. Although she is not sure she would have majored in black studies, she is disappointed it was not an option. “The program doesn’t feel like it gets the university’s full support,” she says. “Maybe it is a remnant of that third-world mentality.” Still, it has had enormous impact on her thinking. She had already confronted many of the racial issues some of the white students were learning about for the first time in classes like “Race, Class and Intelligence.” But she relishes having a black professor and discussing taboo subjects like affirmative action openly – “to look at the issues through an intellectual lens,” she says.

The eclectic mix of senior theses are further evidence of the degree to which Princeton integrates African-American studies into the rest of the curriculum. “African-Americans in Engineering: From Slavery to Corporate America,” “Looking Back With Faith: Experiences With African-American Mormons Previous to the Revelation of 1978,” “Common Cent$: How the Private Sector Can Sustain Economic Activity in the Inner City” – clearly the products of minds who aim to change society from within the system.

But faculty members believe their efforts to design a coherent curriculum are hindered by the discipline’s status. “Program, rather than department status, gives the unfortunate signal that Princeton is not fully supportive of African-American and African Diaspora Studies,” reasons the program’s proposal for departmental status. “Inescapably, and unfortunately, program status further suggests that the field of study and the people being studied are not of central importance to the university’s intellectual and social missions.”

If their goals are realized (and with the university’s new president, Shirley M. Tilghman, it seems more likely they will be), the new department will have a formal connection to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York and have its own public-policy center.

It will also have a new intellectual mission: the growing study of the African diaspora. “There are as many as a billion people of African descent around the world,” says Colin A. Palmer, a historian and the program’s acting director. “Africa has 750 million, the Americas broadly defined has 150 million, and then there are Africans all over Asia and elsewhere.” Dr. Palmer compares the department’s curriculum to that of a comparative literature department. Majors would specialize in two geographic areas, perhaps the United States and the Caribbean or Latin America.

In diaspora studies, the emphasis is on the way groups change across geographic space and time. “The interesting question is how do a people of seemingly similar background and history, placed in different contexts, produce something so different,” he says. “We’ll look at the cross-fertilization of ideas that takes place across the diaspora: Caribbean folk coming to New York, for instance, and transforming the texture of life there. Folks in the Caribbean influenced by black American traditions. This is the study of globalization, but with a particular phenotype and history.”

Dr. Rooks and Dr. Palmer argue that this mission requires a method that takes the inherently interdisciplinary, thematic nature of this subject into account. Dr. Rooks, who holds a Ph.D. in American studies, says that establishing an interdisciplinary department is now possible because of the emergence of scholars who have been trained in its methods. “For a long time, interdisciplinary just meant that you grab two disciplines and slap them together,” she says. “But now it is possible to hire someone who is not a historian or lit person who just wants to do ‘other stuff,’ but who is actually trained to do interdisciplinary work. Someone who does interdisciplinary work on, say, poverty is going to draw different conclusions than a sociologist or literary critic.”

THE path from program to department is often not smooth: it was not until the head of Yale’s program, Hazel Carby, threatened to resign that African-American studies was finally granted departmental status in 2000.

And not everybody believes it is desirable. “The weakness of being a department is that you risk being cut off from others in your discipline. If you are the only person doing literature in an African-American studies department and there is also an English department on campus, there is something unnatural about that,” says the literary scholar Arnold Rampersad, who directed Princeton’s program for three years before moving to Stanford in 1998. “I believe that if you draw a sharp line at race as a student, you are doomed,” he says. “If you don’t see all of literature as your province, you probably won’t do anything of great value for African-American literature. For that reason, I think programs are probably the way to go.”

Dr. Painter, who ran the Princeton program from 1997 to 2000, understands her former colleague’s point, but disagrees. “If you’re not a department there is no way to design a coherent curriculum, to guarantee that crucial courses are offered at regular intervals, to create a consistently high-quality intellectual experience for students,” she says. “Departments don’t have to be intellectual ghettos, especially not departments that depend on communicating with other disciplines.”

Dr. Painter says she is amazed how the relationship between African-American studies and the university has changed, even in the time since she received her Ph.D. in history from Harvard in 1974. The pre-1960’s study of black culture took place largely outside of elite institutions, whether it consisted of W.E.B. DuBois’s work at Atlanta University or Charles S. Johnson’s at Fisk University. “The issues have always been there, but the high level of scholarship is new,” she says. “There is just so much more knowledge to reflect on, to teach from, and to add to. The advances of scholarship have given African-American studies a more global vision. It is a field that has the responsibility of examining the ideologies of the whole culture. And this requires that we stay in touch with what is going on everywhere.”