"Not an Academic Affair": African American Scholars and the Development of African Studies Programs in the United States, 1942-1960

By Gershenhorn, Jerry | The Journal of African American History, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

"Not an Academic Affair": African American Scholars and the Development of African Studies Programs in the United States, 1942-1960


Gershenhorn, Jerry, The Journal of African American History


  [T]he study of Africa was not an academic affair; it was viewed as
  the only means by which all peoples of African descent could become
  accepted members of the human race

  --Elliot Skinner (1)

In October 1969 African and African American scholar-activists staged protests and disrupted panels at the African Studies Association (ASA) conference in Montreal demanding fundamental structural change in the organization to reverse over two decades of white domination of the field of African Studies. Black students and scholars, who had created a separate black caucus at the 1968 ASA meeting in Los Angeles, and formally named it the African Heritage Studies Association (AHSA) in June 1969, embraced black control over African studies and a Pan-Africanist perspective, wherein "all black people are [considered] African people." (2) AHSA leader John Henrik Clarke observed that the "conflict is over who will interpret African history," white or black scholars. (3) The AHSA demanded that the ASA set aside the same number of seats on its board of directors for black and white researchers. AHSA also demanded that the ASA embrace an activist stance against colonialism, apartheid, and white racism in Africa. (4) Clarke declared, "As scholar-activists, our program has as its objective the restoration of the cultural, economic, and political life of African people everywhere." (5) Black activists asserted, "African peoples will no longer permit our people to be raped culturally, economically, politically, and intellectually merely to provide European scholars with intellectual status symbols of African artifacts hanging in their living rooms and irrelevant and injurious lectures for their classrooms." (6) When the ASA rejected most of the AHSA's demands, the AHSA split from the ASA. (7) This division lasted for close to twenty years. (8)

The protest in Montreal emerged in the context of widespread contestation launched by black cultural nationalists who demanded the establishment of black-controlled Black Studies programs at predominantly white colleges and universities. (9) But it was also a continuation of a longer struggle dating to the immediate post-World War II era when black students and scholars fought for access to funding and influence in African Studies. Tired of white control, black Africanists took action in Montreal to reverse their decades-long marginalization. To better understand the conditions which led to Montreal, the story of challenges by African American scholars and black colleges to the domination of African Studies by white scholars and white foundation officials during the 1940s and 1950s must be told.

BLACK SCHOLAR-ACTIVISTS AND THE PHILANTHROPIC FOUNDATIONS

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

American participation in World War II and the emergence of the Cold War required the creation of area studies programs to produce experts to help the United States execute policies to serve its global interests. Black scholars sought to capitalize on these developments and the concurrent increase in interest in Africa among philanthropic foundations and the federal government and in the creation of African Studies programs. Because black scholars were regularly denied appointments at predominantly white universities, they made their pitches for foundation money from their base at black colleges and universities. (10) During and after the war, prominent African American scholars--such as sociologist Charles S. Johnson of Fisk University, historian Rayford Logan and sociologist E. Franklin Frazier of Howard University, Horace Mann Bond, president of Lincoln University, and anthropologist St. Clair Drake of Chicago's Roosevelt University, a predominantly white college with a significant black enrollment--sought foundation support for African Studies programs. However, all four universities faced enormous obstacles, including competition from predominantly white universities, limited funding from philanthropic foundations, the small number of black scholars who specialized in Africa, and scarce internal resources. …

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