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
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
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
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
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
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
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. …