For one, I noticed the growth of the field based on the increasing numbers of references to major African American writers and scholars in dissertations from 1960 - 2018. In addition, I observed increases in key terms such as "African American literature," "black literature," "Harlem Renaissance," "Black Arts Movement," and so forth.
What I've discovered is that the mid to late 1990s were critical growth periods for African American literary studies or, more broadly, for subjects pertaining to African American literature. ProQuest includes a graph that represents the frequency of citations in a given year. Note these charts on "African American literature" and "Toni Morrison," both from 1980 - 1999. Take a look:
|Graphs on ProQuest of "African American literature" and "Toni Morrison" from 1980 - 1999|
The growth moving toward the late 1990s stands out, but also the similar trajectories of "African American literature" and "Toni Morrison" are prevalent as well. The specific numbers, though, are different. There are 1,054 dissertations that mention "African American literature, while there are 2,137 dissertations that mention Toni Morrison between 1980 - 1999.
I suspect several factors account for the perceptible growth, including the expanded numbers of professors with training in African American literary studies working at universities. In addition, scholars outside the field were likely introducing and encouraging their students to write about African American literature more than had happened in the past.
• A Notebook on ProQuest Dissertations and Theses