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

Article excerpt

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. …