Black Studies: Challenges and Critical Debates

By Phillips, Mary | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Black Studies: Challenges and Critical Debates


Phillips, Mary, The Western Journal of Black Studies


This paper addresses the major problems and debates in Black Studies that could possibly harm the growth of the discipline. This essay will highlight three major concerns in Black Studies including: a.) administrative set-backs in the discipline and loyalty to the discipline, b.) interdisciplinary debates in the discipline, and c). Black Women's Studies. These problems are normal given the fact that Black Studies is one of the youngest disciplines in the academy. Although the forerunners of Black Studies include Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Arthur Schomburg, E. Franklin Frazier, Anna Julia Cooper, and John Hope Franklin to name a few, the field was not officially institutionalized into the university system until the socio-political awareness period of the Black Power Movement. With the first Black Studies department established in 1968 at San Francisco State headed by Nathan Hare, the development of the main Black Studies professional organization, National Council for Black Studies (NCBS) (1975), and the creation of the first PhD Black Studies Department at Temple University in 1988 Black Studies was truly moving in the direction of being recognized as a legitimate area of study in the academy. As we embark on the fortieth anniversary of Black Studies in the academy we are still receiving heavy critiques from opponents of the discipline and grappling with major issues regarding definition, theoretical ideas, and structure. In looking at the future of Black Studies I seek to propose solutions to the topics outlined above in an effort to promote growth in the discipline.

Administrative Set-Backs

Unlike graduate students in traditional disciplines, graduate students training in the Black Studies are under additional stress due to lack of administrative green lighting in transitional moves from program to departmental status. One of the major problems with Black Studies programs is the lack of financial resources available to students and faculty and the lack of power to hire and grant tenure to faculty. Many Black Studies faculty are jointly appointed causing programs/departments to share and borrow faculty from their home discipline to teach in the program. Two exceptions are Temple University and University of Massachusetts at Amherst; however, many other programs/departments function in this capacity. In many instances jointly appointed professors are most committed to their home disciplines. Consequently, support and mentorship for graduate students in Black Studies is often compromised. The racism and white supremacy perpetuated by many administrators hinders the institutionalization of Black Studies at major universities. Their lack of respect for Black Studies places graduate students and the program itself in an unstable position. Graduate students progressing in these programs are most directly affected by these problems. Faculty and graduate students committed to the discipline must challenge administrators to promote institutional change with regard to Black Studies programs.

The fact that there is an increasing number of faculty that does not possess any loyalty to the discipline remains another pressing concern. They are not rooted in the discipline and do not value the discipline as a useful area of inquiry. Black Studies scholar Mark Christian (2005) has coined these individuals as "opportunists [who] have no genuine connection to the philosophy and practice that brought about Black Studies in the turbulent 1960s" (p. 706). He reinforces Maulana Karenga's argument that many of these disloyal intellectuals use Black Studies as an alternative to application rejections in traditional fields. As a graduate student, I have witnessed numerous ways that professors have "pimped" Black Studies. They often teach classes in Black studies programs/departments that are not rooted in the black experience, seek departmental administrative positions in Black Studies to advance their own research projects, and do not attend professional organizations such as NCBS but serve as public figures on the black experience. …

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