Where does African American studies go from here?

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."

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