Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Black Studies vs. Black (literary) Studies

I was recently reading the third installment of Tanner Colby's three-part series on massive liberal failures on race. At one point, Colby goes "The integration of white institutions poses an existential threat to the viability of historically black institutions. Jackie Robinson didn’t just integrate the Major Leagues; he destroyed the Negro League."

For some time now, I've had a similar thought concerning the silent tension between Black Studies and Black literary studies. Back in the day, Black Studies programs were an important way in for black scholars, including scholars of African American literature. Well, Black Studies and HBCUs were the way in. But as English programs at major white institutions became more willing to integrate black professors into their departments, Black Studies programs and English departments at HBCUs began to lose potential candidates.

These days, many African American literature professors have appointments or affiliations with Black Studies programs, but those professors' "home" departments tend to be in English. Black Studies programs are almost always smaller and less resourced than English departments at institutions. This might explain why African American literature scholars have dominated more of the publishing landscape. 

The downside, however, is in teaching and links to students. Black studies programs emerged out of a more direct link to student activism across disciplines. So more so than English programs, Black Studies programs have student interests, and sometimes especially African American student interests, at their core. Even today when you read about black student activism taking place on college campuses, you'll see the organizers have links to Black Studies programs more so than Black (Literary) Studies.
There are, of course, exceptions to the circumstances I'm mentioning. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for instance, has long been one of the most visible forces in African American Studies while at the same time serving as one of the most prominent scholars of African American literature. By and large however, the majority of established scholars of African American literature are situated in English departments.

The tensions between Black Studies and Black (literary) studies are not really hostile, but the differences do affect the configurations of the fields and how they relate to black students and others. And there might be some intellectual benefit in considering how the integration of African American scholars into English departments influences the development (and stagnation?) of Black Studies.  

Black Intellectual Histories 
Field of African American Literary Studies  

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