Wednesday, June 1, 2016
Debates and tensions in Black Studies
As a complement to my "Black Poetry Debates: tracking histories of tension, vs., and questions," I decided to produce a list related to Black Studies. Although Black Studies programs began appearing on university campuses in the mid to late 1960s, a wide range of historical events, discussions, collaborations, and yes, arguments shaped the formation of the programs. The following list offers brief descriptions of some of the general recurring debates and tensions in the field.
• Black curriculum vs. conventional, Eurocentric curriculum – For many proponents of Black Studies programs, one main problem was prevalence of Eurocentric approaches and curriculums throughout the academy and the exclusion of African and African American perspectives. Black Studies programs were designed to offer alternatives.
• Names for the programs – Over the years, scholars and participants have struggled over the names and implications of the programs. Some of the names have included: “Black Studies,” “African American Studies,” “Afro-American Studies,” “African and African American Studies,” “African American and African Studies,” “Africana Studies,” and “Ethnic Studies.” Many universities shifted names for their programs; each name, of course, signals distinct orientations and interests of the programs.
• Dealing with anti-black racism – Many, if not most, Black Studies scholars agree that anti-black racism has been a destructive and debilitating force in the lives of African Americans. There’s far less agreement among Black Studies scholars, though, on how exactly people should deal with racism.
• Political vs. Cultural focus – During the 1960s, some black activist groups wanted to concentrate on what they viewed as ‘political’ issues, exemplified in some respects by the platform of Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (i.e. issues pertaining to housing, healthcare, employment, police brutality). Other black groups wanted to take a cultural or artistic approach, doing more to utilize the arts to highlight African American concerns and interests. The political groups and the cultural groups sometimes had serious conflicts about which focus to prioritize.
• Research vs. programming – Some of the programs concentrate on research ad scholarly production. Other programs concentrate on programming, primarily for undergraduates. The different points of focus create a variety of subtle and direct tensions for students and faculty involved in the programs, particularly with respect to funding. Within the frame research vs. programming, there is also strain on whether the priority should be graduate students or undergraduates.
• Programs vs. Departments – Many universities have Black Studies programs or certificates. A smaller number have Black Studies majors, and a few universities offer a Ph.D. in Black Studies or African American Studies programs. On the one hand, some program directors aspire to creating a major and possible department. On the other hand, some note that that small enrollments and lack of job opportunities make expansion untenable and problematic.
• Humanities vs. Social Science – There is a long-running, sometimes low-key debate among social science and humanities. Should the programs concentrate on political science and sociology or literary arts and popular culture such as rap? From what department or discipline should program directors emerge, and how will that choice influence funding, research, and programming priorities? These are just some of the questions and tensions associated with the humanities vs. social science focus.
• Afrocentric vs. African American-focused approaches – During the 1980s and early 1990s in particular, there was an intense debate about whether Black Studies program should adopt an Afrocentric or African American studies focus.
• “What can you do with a minor or degree in Black Studies?” – It’s a recurring question about post-graduation options and careers for students who minor or major in Black Studies. Given all the pressing concerns about employment for African Americans, there’s often anxiety with the question, and because of attacks on Black Studies programs over the years, there is also a fair amount of defensiveness when people ask what can be done with Black Studies, especially beyond academia.
• History vs. Popular Culture focus – The tensions between a focus on historical subject matter as opposed to popular culture topics are hardly treated in any extension way. Yet, based on their research topics, conferences, and syllabi, the scholars clearly have differing and sometimes conflicting preferences.
• The case for black feminism – Since the inception of Black Studies programs during the late 1960s, black feminist scholars have offered important critiques of how patriarchy directs many aspects of the programs, in addition to the ways the programs historically excluded or downplayed the contributions of black women. In the process, black women scholars presented alternatives and essential revisions to Black Studies programs. Notably, in recent decades, a larger number of black women have assumed director positions for the programs.
• Integration of African American scholars into traditional disciplines – From the late 1960s through the 1980s, Black Studies program served as a central destination for a wide range of African American academics. Over time, traditional departments such as English, history, sociology, and Creative Writing began to employ more African Americans than they had in the past. Accordingly, there has been less of an incentive and in fact fewer opportunities for scholars to work in separate, stand-alone Black Studies programs. Scholars will often have an “affiliation” with Black Studies programs, while their “home” departments are in traditional disciplines.
• Black Public Intellectuals – On the one hand, black public intellectuals are, for many, beloved figures, favored as speakers on college campuses across the country. There are popular and highly visible, frequently called upon (and handsomely paid) to speak on ‘black issues.” Not everyone holds public intellectuals in high esteem with many making the case that black public intellectuals are largely products of our celebrity driven culture. Also, commentators highlight the extents to which black public intellectuals are popular among white audiences in ways that might suggest they are hardly presenting ideas for African Americans.
• Henry Louis Gates, Jr. – As one of the most prolific and well-known African American scholars of all time and as the long-term director of the African American Studies program at Harvard University, Gates has many admirers and detractors. His admirers highlight his extraordinary accomplishments as a literary scholar, director, and ambassador for a wide range of African American-related projects. His detractors critique the notions that: his projects are overly entrepreneurial or opportunistic; he takes too much credit for the contributions of others; he adopts a position that diminishes the militant roots of Black Studies.
• Generational shifts/conflicts – Although folks in black communities place value on “honoring elders” and “listening to the young people,” there’s continually tension and struggle between senior scholars and junior scholars/graduate students. Often, there’s all kinds of agreement and collaborations across ages, but sometimes, it’s difficult to ignore the generational conflicts and differences.
• Make black studies courses a diversity requirement for everyone – We’ve seen this proposal appear more frequently recently as black student protestors demanded that administrators require all students at universities to take black studies courses as diversity requirements as one way for addressing racism and racial insensitivity on campuses. Some black studies scholars counter that proposal, pointing out the limits of equating black studies courses with diversity training. Further, requiring all students to take courses in programs that are historically under-funded and under-staffed creates additional problems. Besides, what happens when students who choose and deeply desire black studies courses are placed in classes with students forced to be there?
• Can or should white people teach African American Studies courses? – Since the launch of Black Studies programs to the present, students, faculty, and administrators wondered about and sometimes debated whether white professors can and should be employed to teach ‘black’ courses. On the one hand, observers note a long line of white and other non-black scholars have made invaluable contributions to the field. At the same time, others note that black studies courses represent some of the only opportunities that students might have to encounter black professors on campus.
• Black Studies statuses – Some are Black Studies scholars; some are affiliated with Black Studies; some are scholars who do Black Studies-related work; and so forth. The differences seem minor, yet they in fact have different connotations for individual scholars, departments, programs, and funding.
• Digital humanities vs. social media scholars – A large number of Black Studies scholars produce work related to social media (i.e. Black Twitter, online activism). A smaller number of Black Studies scholars actively participate in realms labeled digital humanities (DH), where scholars study, build, and utilize digital tools, such as text mining and geo-spatial and software. The groups of scholars producing work concerning black social media and online activism do not necessarily have conflicts with the groups of scholars doing African American-related work in DH. The more pressing problem might be how distant the communities appear at times.
• STEM vs. Black Studies – The number of funding opportunities for students in STEM fields far surpasses the opportunities available to those pursuing Black Studies, who tend to have majors in the humanities and social sciences. The high value and priority that university place on undergraduates in STEM as opposed to in Black Studies creates bias and potential conflict. Further, the relative absence of STEM in Black Studies curriculum and programming also signals distance and discomfort between the fields.
• Black Intellectual Histories