Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Under the Media's Radar

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Under the Media's Radar

Article excerpt

Princeton's program in African American studies boasts its own all-star cast

High-profile African American studies departments like Harvard's with certified media stars like Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. usually tend to grab the lion's share of the headlines. But focusing solely on departments and their "stars" offers a pretty distorted picture of what's happening "on the ground" in the field of African American studies, observers say.

In other words, the view is pretty different from the vantage point of the African American studies programs.

It's an indisputable fact that departmental status represents the pinnacle of academic success - in both scholarly and institutional terms. But it's also a fact that African American studies remains a discipline dominated by programs, whether they focus solely on the American experience or include African diaspora and African studies: Afro-American, African American, Africana, Afro-Caribbean, Black Atlantic and just plain Black studies programs.

Nationally, that boils down to a telling statistic: There are only eight departments offering the Ph.D. in African American studies, history or literature. By contrast, there are more than 250 programs sponsoring research in the field and offering undergraduate certificates or minors.

Princeton University is one of the many schools with Black studies programs. Offering a certificate in African American studies, Princeton has as many stars as Harvard. Even without the recent addition of Drs. Cornel West and Kwame Anthony Appiah, the roll call includes a remarkable cluster of scholars in literary and film studies, religion, history, sociology and other fields - senior scholars such as Dr. Albert Raboteau in religion, the Nobel-winning novelist Toni Morrison and the late and greatly lamented literary critic Dr. Claudia Tate. But, traditionally, Princeton has also been far less a magnet for media coverage than Ivies with departments, such as Harvard or Yale.

And to a certain extent, that's just fine with Dr. Valerie Smith - noted film and literary theorist and current director of the program, who confesses with good humor that she simply "hates" giving interviews to the press. But Smith is also quite clear on the more problematic aspects of the media focus.

"Of course, it's easy to demonize the media, and I don't want to fall into that. But the media tend to seize on certain styles of leadership. …

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