Black studies on the move

A dispute at Harvard sets off a debate about whether a field born of social activism is losing touch with its roots

For scholars of the African-American experience, it's a debate that has no easy answers.

Black studies has come under scrutiny in the weeks since Harvard University President Lawrence Summers and superstars in the school's Afro-American Studies Department went public with a disagreement over scholarship.

The disagreement itself has prompted top scholars to consider moves to other universities. But it has also sparked tensions about the direction of Afro-American studies. As the field matures and delves into a wide range of scholarly research, some in the discipline have argued that it is straying too far from its roots in political and social activism.

The case at Harvard grew out of exchanges between Dr. Summers and Cornel West, a high-profile professor of both Afro-American studies and philosophy whom Summers criticized for investing too much time on such activities as involvement with politician Al Sharpton and the recording of a music CD.

The criticism touched on an issue that some say lies at the heart of the dispute at Harvard: community ties. While they may have seemed unconventional to traditional academics, they argue, Professor West's activities were an appropriate way of reaching out to the nonacademic black community, an effort very much in keeping with the early spirit of the field.

"Maybe recording a rap CD was not the best way to do it, but at least it was an attempt to reach the community," says Edmund T. Gordon, director of the center for African and African-American studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Professor Gordon worries about what the dispute says about the direction of his discipline. "Some of the intellectual work done over the past 20 years is very important, but the field should be much more activist," he says. "We've moved dangerously away from our origins."

As a field, African-American studies today is very diffuse. A core of political concerns about social justice that marked early programs is no longer a defining principle. Instead, departments have branched off to probe the African-American experience in many spheres.

The African-American studies department at the University of California in Santa Barbara, for instance, is noted for a focus on literature and music. The department at Columbia University in New York is better known for an emphasis on contemporary social analysis. The course listings at the University of California, Berkeley include classes in geography and environmental science, and a research project aimed at assembling an oral history of blues music.

The focus on the humanities and the concurrent movement away from a core interest in politics and social justice is a concern for some who work in the field, including James Stewart, president of the National Council for Black Studies and a professor of African and African-American Studies at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

Speaking of the department at Harvard, Professor Stewart says, "To suggest that these humanity approaches are what black studies is, means a diminution of the examination of inequality in this country." When he looks at the field today, Stewart says he sees "a smaller percentage of social and political scientists associated with the field and more [scholars] in the humanities." The result, he says, has been the creation of "a field out of touch with its own roots."

Where it all began

The first black studies department was launched at San Francisco State University in 1967. The notion of an interdisciplinary department - one that drew together courses from other fields such as political science, economics, and history into a new form of major - was novel.

But it was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 that really fueled growth for the field. The days following Dr. King's assassination were a period somewhat akin to the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, recalls Russell Adams, chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

"There was a realization that people in this country didn't understand [race relations] as well as they thought they did," he says. "There was a desire in higher education to know, to understand better."

Many black students were also vocal and angry in calling for courses more relevant to their experiences.

Some schools responded quickly with new programs because they felt it was the right thing to do. Others may have acted more out of a sense of coercion. But most jumped into the burgeoning field without a great deal of certainty about exactly what such departments would teach or who would do the teaching.

By 1975, there were 65 academic departments offering bachelor's degrees in the field at various US colleges and universities, with a couple of hundred more sponsoring programs or centers with the words "Afro-American" in the title.

To a large degree, these early departments saw their mission as a corrective one, aimed at filling in the gaps where black achievements were left out of history books, or repairing distorted views of blacks and their experience, both historic and contemporary. Most saw the question of racial injustice as their central concern.

But few academics were prepared to take on the task. "There was really a problem of amateurism vs. professionalism in the field," Prof. Adams says. "Institutes that couldn't get scholars took who they could get, and it was an eclectic mix."

Eventually the stronger departments put down permanent roots, while some of the weaker disappeared. In addition, the focus shifted: "The 1970s saw a transition from the activist to the more scholarly," says Professor Charles Henry, chairman of the African-American studies department at the University of California at Berkeley. In the 1990s, the move toward the scholarly was even more marked, as the number of departments offering graduate degrees increased. (In 2000, colleges granted 604 undergraduate degrees, 70 master's degrees, and 7 doctoral degrees.)

But as positive as such expansion is, Dr. Henry notes with regret that "the firm community links most departments started [with] have been disappearing."

Boosting prestige

Among academics in the discipline, feelings about the department at Harvard are mixed. Few deny, though, that its existence has done much to raise both the profile and the prestige of the field.

In general, the Ivy League was slow to embrace black studies. In 1980, Harvard had only one professor and no students majoring in the field. But in the 1990s, then-president Neil Rudenstine made a serious commitment to the discipline, bringing in top names like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. Anthony Appiah (who is now leaving for Princeton University), in addition to West. Harvard's department now has 11 professors and offers 43 courses.

The star-studded department has produced a mix of both scholarly and popular contributions to the field. And some of the research done by Harvard is the envy of other specialists, involving attention-grabbing breakthroughs like Professor Gates's discovery of the earliest known novel by a former slave.

But some critics charge that departments like Harvard's focus more on creating a dialogue with the rest of the white academic world than on maintaining rich contact with the black community.

Still, they say, while black studies programs may not always hew to their original goals, they have helped put black concerns and the black experience into many disciplines and have influenced the world of higher education in other ways as well.

For one thing, African-American studies departments greatly accelerated the numbers of black faculty on campuses. Today, about a quarter of all black professors nationally are associated with the departments. In addition to teaching, these faculty members serve on innumerable campus committees and often are role models and mentors for black students.

"I wouldn't still be at Smith" if it weren't for majoring in African-American studies, says Nicole Junior, a senior at the prestigious women's college in Northampton, Mass. Ms. Junior says her black studies classes created for her both an intellectual awakening and a support system she badly needed as a black woman at a largely white school.

For many white students as well, courses in African-American studies have offered a fresh perspective. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes is the director of the African-American studies department at largely white Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and says she never has more than five or six black students in a class.

But she is gratified by comments from white students. "Why didn't I know this before?" is a question she often hears. And students who have gone on to teach have told her they learned a key lesson: the importance of including history too often neglected in the past.

• Send e-mail comments to marjorie @csmonitor.com.

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