Problems and Possibilities for Black Studies for the 21st Century

By C, John | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Problems and Possibilities for Black Studies for the 21st Century


C, John, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


It appears that African American studies faces a future fraught with uncertainty for the 21(st) century. The next few years will reveal if its present stasis will be subjected to severe regression, similar to that during the Reagan years, or if it will be catalyzed by increased interest in U.S. multiculturalism and interdisciplinary, comparative teaching and scholarship on race and racism.

Black Studies formally began in the 1960s as part of black student demands for inclusion in higher education. It has developed as an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary field of study that examines the cultural expressions, historical, social, legal, economic and political realities and agency of African Americans on some campuses in the United States, and on others as comparative diaspora studies. By its very nature, African American Studies critically examines interactions and power dynamics primarily between blacks and whites, but also between blacks and other social, political, and ethnic groups, in particular in regard to racialization and its effects.

African American Studies progressed prominently in the 60s to the 80s, contributing significantly to such traditional fields as history, literature, political science, and sociology, and to new fields of inquiry and analysis such as race, class, and gender studies. But despite the enormous increase in knowledge, the academic and media communities for the most part resist the obvious need for further inclusion of African American Studies in academia as a distinct field of study contributing to the social sciences, humanities, and arts. This resistance, sometimes overt, but most frequently covert, is multiple and varied.

Resistances notwithstanding, African American Studies has maintained a significant presence on most campuses despite attempts over the years either to get rid of it, or to incorporate it in such a way as to render it meaningless for its professors and students, but useful for administrators to calm restless students and Black faculty, and fulfill federal affirmative action requirements. Moreover, since the 1980s, U.S. Supreme Court decisions and recent initiatives in California and Washington State have undermined the legal push for full integration and have weakened many of the Court's earlier positive and morally unimpeachable decisions, from the Graduate School Cases (1948-50), through Brown v. The Board of Education (1954), to the Columbus Board of Education v. Penick (1979), where the Court ordered systemic remedy to continued school segregation.

The Court's retrenchment coincided with the Reagan presidency -- very difficult years for African Americans as a group but in that period, Black Studies survived. Many professors did not survive the tenure process for a variety of reasons, but then as now, there were very few places where prejudice against the new field of study and its institutionalization did not play a role. Others, supported by students who in some instances had to confront college and university administrations, gained tenure, later distinguishing themselves. Thus, there developed a small but solid foundation for the continuance of the field in programs or departments of African American Studies, Black Studies, or Africana Studies.

At my own university, African American Studies is a concentration within the major of American Ethnic Studies. Between 1990 and 1995, a period marked by a decline in the Black Studies major in many places, our African American Studies concentration held steady at approximately 13 per year. Between 1995 and 1999 that figure rose to 28 per year. Interestingly as the number of African American students on campus declined from 3.1% in 1995 to 2.8% in 1999, the number of whites concentrating in African American Studies rose! In 1995, for example, black student concentrations in African American Studies numbered only 8 and whites 5, but in 1999, when the black student population plummeted to 2.8%, the Black student concentrations rose to 12 and the white student concentrations rose dramatically to 16. …

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