Between Activism and Academia: Black Studies Legacies at Yale

Article excerpt

"Scholars have an obligation not just to interpret but to act."

-Manning Marable (2000, p. 189)

The growth of Black Studies has been documented by numerous scholars in the field, many of whom grew intellectually with the student protests of the late 1960s (Alkalimat, 1990; Karenga, 1982; Marable, 2000). A new cohort of intellectuals is now coming together to put forth an agenda for the discipline in our contemporary moment of social and political crisis: the post-Affirmative Action, neo-liberal moment. This moment is also constitutive of a professional crisis; as the U.S. political system and social culture bend toward conservativism, so too do our intellectual institutions and our students, much to the detriment of our careers in the profession. The assault on truly liberal programs within U.S. colleges and universities necessitates the buttressing of Black Studies as a location for radical inquiry and conscientious effort within and between our communities. I will discuss Black Studies at Yale University with attention paid to the ways in which its scholars and students understand the New Haven community and the academy at large. Through that focus I articulate my investment in Black Studies as a site in which to address pressing intellectual, material, and political conditions within U.S. and global societies as well as a pivot point in the struggle against the supreme individualism and isolation of a professionalized class of intellectuals in the U.S. academy.

The Corporate Academy, Race, and Labor

The academy is a particular site of contradiction within U.S. society, especially with respect to its relationship to studies of race and to the bodies who produce fields of knowledge about race. Scholars from my own institution have been vocal about the intersections of race, class, and the academy, particularly through writings about academic labor. This focus on class and labor is a necessary component of Black Studies scholarship. Scholars like Manning Marable (1983) have pushed Black Studies towards a needed political economy analysis but we as academics additionally have to address a sphere closer to home; in addition to economic effects in the broader society, the academy has become a battlefront in the critique of neo-liberalism and U.S. labor practices. Scholars of Black Studies at Yale have played an important role in addressing this issue. Yale graduates Michelle Stephens (Robins & Stephens, 1996) and Cynthia Young (1996) warrant notice for their scholarship, but additionally for their vocal commitment to enacting an engaged critique of this complicated intersection which places undue demand and stress on the lives and professional opportunities for scholars of color. Their work highlights the important function of identity politics in the maintenance of the corporate university; they are used to delimit who teaches, what is taught, and who receives instruction. The conditions under which these women taught and studied while at Yale sheds some light on their acute sense of labor's work in the production of knowledge and power relations.

During their graduate careers, both Stephens and Young were leaders in the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), a union of graduate teachers founded in the interest of entering into contractual relations with Yale University. Labor actions, coalition-building, and research characterizes much of the work of the organization which is persistently denied the right of collective bargaining by the University. The involvement of these women in the organization made way for me and other people of color to advance a multi-faceted approach to labor which has recently addressed issues of the under-representation of faculty of color in the academy (2004-2005) as well as mount a public campaign for prison divestment by colleges and universities (2005-2006). For me, these projects exposed the critical role of activism in Black Studies and it is this dialectic in the discipline which sustains my investment in the academy. …

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