Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Success and Black Studies

In a review of Manning Marable's Malcolm X biography, Stanley Crouch praises Marable's work but takes a shot at the field of African American Studies:
Any high-quality work that comes out of the world of ethnic studies, or is focused on ethnic concerns, is more often than not a condemnation of the entire field. The problem is not the interest itself, but the tendency to tilt more toward indoctrination than education, self-pitying myth rather than the facts and nuances of human life, which are never as simple as a placard. Whatever criticisms one might have of Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, he has done serious battle over the years with the mumbo jumbo of "Afrocentrism," a hustler's lure if there ever was one.

He then notes that "few have produced scholarship on the level of David Levering Lewis ("W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race" and "W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century"), Annette Gordon-Reed ("The Hemingses of Monticello") and Isabel Wilkerson ("The Warmth of Other Suns")."

I agree that Gates, Lewis, Gordon-Reed, and Wilkerson have produced important, notable works. However, it's troubling that Crouch thinks that the successes of these scholar-writers somehow represents a "condemnation of the entire field." It's not true.

If anything, the success of those figures is directly connected to the development and expansion of African American studies over the decades. That is, African American studies, black studies, ethnic studies have helped create the context for the kind of wonderful works that Gates, Lewis, Gordon-Reed, and Wilkerson have produced.

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