Dashikis and Democracy: Black Studies, Student Activism, and the Black Power Movement

By Joseph, Peniel E. | The Journal of African American History, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Dashikis and Democracy: Black Studies, Student Activism, and the Black Power Movement


Joseph, Peniel E., The Journal of African American History


Contemporary Black Studies programs owe a large, and largely forgotten, debt to radical social and political movements that resulted in student protest demonstrations across the country at both majority white institutions such as Columbia University, and historically black institutions such as Howard University. (1) During the decade of the 1960s black students demanded education that was relevant to their specific history of racial oppression. (2) These demands were a central component of larger, and at times radically utopian, political and philosophical imperatives that undergirded the Black Power Movement. (3) The proponents of the Black Studies movement of the 1960s and 1970s argued that educational institutions in American society (with an emphasis on, but not exclusive to, the university) had to be radically transformed for humanity's sake. Historically, Black Studies advocates supported the utilization of scholarship for the larger pursuit of social justice and a broader, more inclusive democracy. (4) However, the "modern Black Studies Movement" represented perhaps the greatest political and pedagogical opportunity to fundamentally alter power relations in American society. Building on the early-twentieth-century "Negro History Movement" pioneered by historians Carter G. Woodson and J. A. Rogers, the modern Black Studies Movement emerged from the hotbed of black radicalism that emerged during the 1960s. Black Studies provided a practical and political education for a variety of captive and captivated audiences during this era. The movement simultaneously promoted community building, black nationalist consciousness, class struggle, education opportunity and restructuring, employment creation, and anticolonial struggles through think tanks and study groups. While not completely successful, these efforts should by no means be considered a failure. On the contrary, Black Studies programs remain one of the enduring and outstanding legacies of the Black Power Movement.

Efforts at institutionalizing Black Studies have their roots in the heroic work of W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson as well as lesser known, although no less important figures, such as Arturo Schomburg, Hubert Harrison, and others. (5) While ideologically diverse, all of these individuals substantively explored and disseminated African American history through books, editorials, symposia, study groups, and public speeches. While these pioneers undoubtedly paved the way for contemporary African American Studies, the modern Black Studies Movement has its immediate roots in the depths of a Cold War that witnessed unprecedented and unexpected black political radicalism. This essay explores the origins of the modern Black Studies Movement focusing on the grassroots intellectuals and student activists who sought to utilize intellectual work and political activism to transform American society. While not advocating for Black Studies in the specific institutionalized context that would erupt during the late 1960s, the organizations discussed below provided the intellectual and practical political context, especially consciousness raising, for the political environment that led to the Black Studies Movement.

THE COLD WAR AS CLASSROOM: WORLD BLACK STUDIES

Historian Manning Marable has argued that Black Studies is simultaneously descriptive, corrective, and prescriptive. (6) One may also add that the historic development of Black Studies has been experiential. That is to say its evolution has been directly affected by the larger flow of international events. The threat of international communism and its utilization of American antiblack discrimination provided Pan-Africanism with an at times begrudging support from the U.S. (7) The Cold War presented a generation of African Americans with a real-world political experience that would effectively undermine anti-communist hysteria by introducing a catalogue of revolutionary figures into the consciousness of African Americans. …

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