Challenging the Future of Black Studies

Article excerpt

"I don't think I was aware of how really alienated the young folk are from the mainstream tradition of the discipline until this conference, and some of the older folk who were there were concerned -- I won't say disillusioned, but concerned..."

-- Dr. Howard Dodson, Director, Schomburg Center

NEW YORK

While hundreds of Black scholars from across the nation were making plans to converge on New York City last month for what promised to be one of the landmark conferences of the year -- "The State of Black Studies: Methodology, Pedagogy and Research," -- the New York Times was announcing yet another crisis for the discipline: the "fearful" implications of the rising numbers of Latinos in the nation's census.

The newspaper's analysis drew nothing but scorn from scholars attending the three-day conference co-sponsored by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Princeton University.

"We need to look critically at what's happening here," noted Dr. James Turner, professor of African and African American politics and social policy at Cornell University, at the opening plenary. "We need to ask, why is the demographic shift being proposed to us in precise terms of opposition to African Americans? And is that data accurate or is it political?"

His assessment was echoed by fellow panelist Dr. Maulana Karenga, chair of Black Studies at California State University-Long Beach and one of the founding fathers of "Afrocentricity."

"What is this madness, to argue that Latinos are a challenge to us? They are a potential coalition for us," Karenga said.

"Black studies has always included Blacks of the diaspora and on the continent, and some of them were Latino, some of them were Native American, some of them were Afro-Asians. We've already done (the work in this area); it's the European that's not reading," Karenga said, drawing raucous laughter and sustained applause from the standing-room-only crowd.

Spirited exchanges such as this one seemed to point to an inescapable conclusion: Black studies, born from the ferment of the Black power, Black consciousness and Black arts movements of the late '60s and early '70s, has been a resounding success. It's led to a brilliant efflorescence of knowledge about African Americans and the African Diaspora, conferees said. But even more importantly -- and the point was made repeatedly throughout the conference -- Black studies has established methodologies and pedagogies that have been critical to the establishment and success of a host of "sister" studies: feminist studies, gay and lesbian studies, ethnic studies including Latino studies, even "Whiteness" studies.

As Dr. William Strickland, associate professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, noted, "The (White) system did not disseminate that knowledge. (Black studies) created that revolution in knowledge."

But while conferees challenged the notion that Black studies had become "old-fashioned" or even "irrelevant," they were also quite clear that the opportunities created by success also masked significant dangers.

For Dr. Carole Boyce Davies, professor of English and director of African-New World Studies at Florida International University, the most significant occurrence in Black studies in the last year has been "the realization that we are back in the middle of hard-core, old-style racism, from the comments of Trent Lott, to the president's statement in support of the University of Michigan White students, to, ... going further back, the issues with Cornel West."

All of these are related to what many at the conference pointed to as the most serious internal danger to the discipline: the growing disconnect between disciplinary practice in the academy and the people whom Black studies was founded to defend and protect.

"We seem at this point to have lost our initiative and to have lost our ground," Turner said. …