[By Danielle Hall]
I was recently asked by one of my colleagues (who would be identified as a white male), “why is there a need for a separate black studies department?” I am certain that some would have a similar argument, especially since there is no separate “white studies” department (although I must note that in recent years “White or Whiteness Studies” have flourished in academia).
Because of the profundity of my answer that such a question would warrant, I did not have an immediate response, but somehow I felt that if he had those questions, certainly there are others at SIUE who question the purpose of our Black Studies program. So the question about “why the need for black studies?” provided me, instead, with the opportunity to articulate why our program at SIUE is necessary and to enlighten those who are unfamiliar with the history of the organization of Black Studies programs nationwide as departments, as academic disciplines (majors/minors), and as areas of specialization and why they are indispensable.
It is no secret that black people, since the first Africans arrived in America to the present 2011, have a consistent history of being covertly or overtly discriminated against and exploited in matters of politics, economics, social-cultural life, sexuality, and education. While the study of the history and lived experiences of African Americans is not a new trend, Black Studies as a stand-alone discipline/department at the college and university levels began to emerge during the height of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 70s.
These programs emerged in direct response to students who demanded access to their own history and culture through formal education. The students demanded faculty members whom they felt were qualified to teach them about the history and lives of black people throughout the Diaspora.
Black Studies at SIUE
Here at SIUE, Black Studies has established a space on campus to meet the needs of marginalized and under-represented students who could and would benefit by having a cultural, social, and intellectual space to build group solidarity and a strong support network among other students and faculty with individual and shared interests in an academic setting. This is done through a variety of programs and exhibits that Black Studies coordinates throughout the school year at SIUE and within the St. Louis and Metro-East communities.
The “majority” on this campus have hardly been concerned with what it’s like to be black, what it feels like to be the “only” black student in a classroom, or to be 1 of 2 black female students in a single academic department. My own interest in history was to learn, situate, write, and disseminate the pieces of my history that have been missing. Black Studies gave me an outlet for creativity, intellectual conversations, and a stimulating learning environment.
Black Studies provided an outlet when classes and/or professors with similar interests were not available to me and others. Certainly, these are not statements to elicit sympathy, but to challenge some and educate others on the unique experiences of black men and women at SIUE.
Race in America, Race at SIUE
I find it a bit disconcerting when people whether black or white lay claim to the conviction that “race is not an issue” or that “they don’t see color.” The first things we identify when we have initial contact with someone are their race and gender, THEN everything else. There are certain degrees of white privilege that provide some with the luxury to ignore or pretend not to recognize race and color. However, for so many black men and women, thinking about race is necessary and unremitting.
For something that impacts just about every facet of our lives (from the Declaration of Independence on down), talking about race still makes many of us uncomfortable. What is it that compels us to become silent about race matters?
First, having conversations about race, or slavery, or “white privilege” in America, does not make one racist. A racist is a person or group of persons that believes, teaches, and perpetuates an ideology of racial superiority over another group deemed as inferior. Racism is an oppressive system or set of systems that are the derivative of racist ideologies and are structured politically and economically to keep the oppressed individual or group exploited.
Race consciousness, on the other hand, is simply being conscious of these factors that shape and affect our lives politically, economically, culturally, and socially. Race in America is something that is not only socially constructed, but is also socially assigned, and for Americans, race is socially assigned primarily based on the physical attribute of skin color (although it is not limited to hair color and texture, nose, lips, etc.)
In my view, the Du Boisian theory of “double consciousness” expressed in The Souls of Black Folks is still relevant for black people in America today. I often refer to a notion of “triple consciousness,” because I am black, American, and female. There are things that black students (whether they are cognizant of it or not) have to encounter that a program like Black Studies might provide assistance.
Danielle Hall is a Spoken Word poet from St. Louis, Missouri, and a second-year graduate student in the department of history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where she also serves as a program coordinator for the Black Studies Program and as a Fellow for the Eugene B. Redmond Collection. She writes about black women intellectuals, movements in black political and cultural history, and African American poets and film studies. This summer, she participated in the Furious Flower Poetry Center Seminar on Sonia Sanchez at James Madison University and the 28th Annual International Katherine Dunham Technique Seminar.