Black Studies

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Black Studies

Black studies, also known as African studies, is "the multidisciplinary analysis of the lives and thought of people of African ancestry on the African continent and throughout the world" (Harris, Hine, and McKay, 1990, p. 7). Black studies is interdisciplinary; its earliest roots are in history, sociology, literature, and the arts. The field's most important concepts, methods, and findings are still centered within these disciplines.

Black studies consists of research; courses at the high school, college, and university levels; and organizational structures such as programs, centers, and departments. This entry focuses on the historical development of research in black studies in part because the research aspects of the field are much better documented in the literature than course offerings (Lyman, 1972; Meier and Rudwick, 1986). Also, there were few course offerings outside of historically black institutions prior to 1970 (Ford, 1973). Readers can examine other sources for a discussion of organizational issues; they are beyond the scope of this entry (Harris, Hine, and McKay, 1990; Hu-DeHart, 1995). Because of its limited scope, this article focuses on historical and sociological research in black studies; scholarship in literature and the arts is not discussed. Readers are referred to the following sources for treatment of these research areas: Baker and Redmond, 1989; Campbell et al., 1987; Dallas Museum of Art, 1989; Jackson, 1989.

The typology of the development of black historical scholarship conceptualized by John Hope Franklin (1986) is used to organize this entry. It is appropriate to use this typology to describe the historical development of black studies because history was the field's birthplace and remains an important center. Franklin describes four generations of scholarship in African-American history. These periods are not clearly distinct but are overlapping and interrelated.

The First Generation of Black Studies

The first period or generation is marked by the publication of what is generally regarded as the first history of African Americans in 1882, History of the Negro Race in America by George Washington Williams, published in two volumes (1882 and 1883). Williams, the first black to serve in the Ohio legislature, was not a professionally trained historian but was a gifted and interesting orator, writer, soldier, minister, journalist, lawyer, and politician. Other significant works published during this period included The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1896 and Story of the Negro by Booker T. Washington in 1909. Du Bois's book, a carefully researched and respected publication, was his Ph.D. thesis at Harvard.

An important goal of the writers during the first generation of African-American scholarship was to counteract the negative images and representations of African Americans that were institutionalized within academic and popular cultures. A key tenet of social science research of the time was that blacks were genetically inferior to whites and that Africa was the "dark continent" that lacked civilizations (Caldwell, 1830; Ripley, 1899). The American Negro Academy, founded in 1896, had as one of its major goals "to aid, by publications, the vindication of the race from vicious assaults, in all lines of learning and truth" (Moss, 1981, p. 24).

It was also during this first generation that "early black literary associations sought to preserve and to publicize the legacy of African peoples" (Harris, Hine, and McKay, 1990, p. 7), and black academics initiated research studies. In 1899 Du Bois published a landmark sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro. He implemented, at Atlanta University, a series of important studies from 1898 to 1914 known as the Atlanta University Studies. The series consists of more than sixteen monographs (Harris, Hines, and McKay, 1990).

Carter G. Woodson and the Professionalization of Black Studies

The rise of Carter G. Woodson as an influential scholar and the founding of the Association for the Study of Afro-American [formerly "Negro"] Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915 signaled the beginning of a new era in black studies. Woodson, his publications, and the people he mentored and influencedsuch as Charles H. Wesley and Rayford W. Loganwere destined to dominate the second generation of black studies.

Woodson probably had more influence on the teaching of African-American history in the nation's schools and colleges from the turn of the century until his death in 1950 than any other scholar. With others, he established the ASNLH. He founded the Journal of Negro History in 1916 and served as its editor until his death. It is one of Woodson's most significant contributions to the study and teaching of black studies. In 1921 Woodson established Associated Publishers, a division of the ASNLH, to publish scholarly books and textbooks on African Americans. In addition to publishing Woodson's major books, Associated Publishers also published important books by scholars such as Horace Mann Bond and Charles H. Wesley.

Woodson, a former high school teacher, played a major role in popularizing African-American history and in promoting its study in the nation's black schools, colleges, churches, and fraternities. He initiated Negro History Week in 1926 to highlight the role that African Americans played in the development of the nation and to commemorate their contributions. In time, and with vigorous promotion efforts by the ASNLH and its branches throughout the nation, Negro History Weeklater expanded to Afro-American History Monthbecame nationally recognized and celebrated. Woodson never intended for Negro History Week to be the only time of the year in which black history was taught. Rather, he viewed it as a time to highlight the ongoing study of black history that was to take place throughout the year.

In 1937 Woodson established the Negro History Bulletin to provide information on black history to elementary and secondary school teachers. He also wrote elementary and secondary school textbooks that were widely used in black schools, including African Myths (1928a), Negro Makers of History (1928b), and The Story of the Negro Retold (1935). His widely used and popular text The Negro in Our History, first published in 1922, was published in eleven editions.

More White Scholars Participate in Black Studies

The period from about 1945 to the late 1960s marked the third generation of African-American scholarship in history and the social sciences (Franklin, 1986). Franklin notes that this period was characterized by an increasing legitimacy of the field and by the entrance of increasing numbers of white scholars. Prior to the 1940s most of the research done in black studies was conducted by African-American scholars who taught at small, historically black institutions.

From 1940 to 1960, whites began to publish significant works in black studies. The Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal published An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy in 1944. Supported by the Carnegie Corporation and begun in 1939, it was the most expensive and comprehensive study of race relations ever undertaken in the United States. It is significant that a Europeanand not an African Americanwas chosen to direct the study. However, Myrdal drew heavily on the works of African-American scholars such as Allison Davis, W. E. B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, Ralph Bunche, and Charles S. Johnson. Some of these scholars wrote original papers for the Carnegie project.

Two European-American scholars who made significant contributions to black studies were Franz Boas, an anthropologist at Columbia University, and Robert E. Park, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. Boas challenged the dominant paradigm about race, which stated that some races were inferior to others and that the environment could have little influence on heredity (Stocking, 1974).

Park taught one of the first black studies courses at a predominantly white university. In the fall quarter of 1913 he taught the course "The Negro in America" at the University of Chicago (Bulmer, 1984). Park was a leader in the "Chicago School" of sociology, which became distinguished for its empirical studies on cities and minority groups. Park also trained some of the nation's leading African-American sociologists, such as Charles S. Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, and Horace Cayton. Some of the influential books by Park's former students include Shadow of the Plantation by Johnson (1934) and The Negro Family in the United States by Frazier (1939/1966). St. Clair Drake, who also studied at Chicago, coauthored a seminal sociological study with Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, published in 1945.

Important historical works published by white scholars during this period included The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South by Kenneth M. Stampp (1956), Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life by Stanley Elkins (1959), and Negro Thought in America, 18801915 by August Meier (1963).

African-American scholars continued to produce significant and landmark publications in black studies, even though their institutions provided them with little scholarly support. Among the influential historical works produced by African Americans during this period were What the Negro Wants by Rayford Logan (1944); The Negro in the American Revolution (1961) and Lincoln and the Negro (1962) by Benjamin Quarles; The Free Negro in North Carolina, 17901860 (1943) and The Emancipation Proclamation (1963) by John Hope Franklin. The first edition of John Hope Franklin's influential college textbook From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans was published in 1947. It is still one of the most popular textbooks in African-American history.

A New Era of Black Studies Begins in the 1970s

Prior to 1970 most African-American students attended historically black colleges and universities in the southern and border states. One consequence of the civil rights movement of the 1960s was that an increasing number of African-American students attended predominantly white institutions, especially in the Midwest, East, and West. Many of these students, a significant percentage of whom were admitted to college through equal opportunity or open admission programs, were from working-class backgrounds. Many were the first children in their families to attend college. Their presence on college campuses was destined to have a significant influence on the curriculum and the ethnic makeup of the faculty.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s African-American studentsoften in strident voices that reflected their sense of marginalization on predominantly white campusesmade a number of demands on universities. These included demands for black studies programs, black professors, black cultural centers, and in some cases, separate dormitories.

In responding to the demands of African-American studentswho were often joined by the black community and later by other students of color who made parallel demandscolleges and universities established black studies courses, programs, centers, and institutes. In time, some of these programs and centers became departments.

In part because of the political climate out of which they emerged, black studies courses, programs, and centers had a rocky beginning in the early 1970s. Many university administrators created instant programs and hired professors who did not have standard academic qualifications in order to silence ethnic protest. There was a shortage of individuals trained in black studies. Courses and programs were developing more rapidly than qualified individuals could be trained in doctoral programs. Another problem that haunted early black studies programs was the series of budget cuts that colleges and universities throughout the United States experienced in the 1970s and 1980s. Because they were the last hired, many teachers and administrators in black studies programs were highly vulnerable to financial downturns.

Black studies programs and black studies scholarship have experienced a renaissance since the early 1970s. According to a report prepared by Robert L. Harris Jr., Darlene Clark Hine, and Nellie McKay (1990) for the Ford Foundation on the status of black studies in the United States, most black studies programs have gained legitimacy on their campuses, are valued by campus administrators, and are becoming institutionalized. Because of the growth and increasing legitimization of black studies, more black professors are being hired on predominantly white campuses.

Despite their march down the road toward institutionalization, black studies programs still face important challenges as they enter the twenty-first century. These include retaining and acquiring new resources in an era of aggressive budget cutting; attaining departmental status so they will gain needed control over budgets, tenure, and promotion; and educating and mentoring a new generation of scholars to whom the torch can be passed. Black studies programs must also determine the amount of time and resources to devote to a consistent research agenda and how much time to devote to the new wave of racist social science epitomized by the publication and public reception of The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994).

Scholarship Since the 1970s

The period from 1970 to 1995 was one of the most richly prolific periods in black studies scholarship. Many well-trained African-American scholarswho are teaching and doing research at some of the nation's most prestigious universitiesentered the field. They have written many significant and landmark publications. David L. Lewis's seminal biography of W. E. B. Du Bois was the recipient of the Pulitzer, Parkman, and Bancroft prizes in 1994 (Lewis, 1993).

Important studies produced by black scholars since the 1970s include The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1988); Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature and Culture by Houston A. Baker Jr. (1972); The Slave Community by John W. Blassingame (1972); Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and The Foundations of Black America by Sterling Stuckey (1987); The Black Church in the African-American Experience by C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya (1990); and The Truly Disadvantaged by William Julius Wilson (1987).

Many white scholars are also producing significant publications in black studies. Notable works written by white scholars since 1970 include Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slave Made by Eugene D. Genovese (1972); The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 17501925 by Herbert G. Gutman (1976); and Black Culture and Black Consciousness by Lawrence W. Levine (1977).

The Afrocentric Paradigm

In the 1980s the Afrocentric movement became important within black studies. It has been influenced most significantly by Molefi K. Asante (1987, 1990) and his colleagues at Temple University. The Afrocentric paradigm is a radical critique of the Eurocentric ideology and research paradigm that, in the view of Afrocentric theorists, "masquerades as a universal view" in the various social science and applied disciplines (Asante, 1987, p. 3). Afrocentricity, according to Asante, means "placing African ideals at the center of any analysis that involves African culture and behavior" (p. 6). Afrocentrists believe that all knowledge is positional and that Eurocentric knowledge reinforces and legitimizes dominant group hegemony and structural inequality (Ani, 1994).

Black Women's Studies

Another important challenge black studies faces is how to incorporate the new field of black women's studies into the discipline. Feminist researchers such as Stanlie E. James and Abena P. A. Busia (1993), Patricia Hill Collins (1990), and Angela Y. Davis (1981) have developed concepts, paradigms, and insights that describe the extent to which black women have been marginalized in black studies. They document ways in which black studies has traditionally been and still is primarily black men's studies. The title of one of the earliest edited works in black women's studies exemplifies this marginalization: All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, 1982). Betty Schmitz and colleagues write that, "A new field of study, black women's studies, emerged in part because of the failure of both black studies and women's studies to address adequately the experiences of women of African descent in the United States and throughout the world" (1995, p. 711).

Black women's studies is a growing and significant field. Significant and influential scholarly works are published each year. An important early publication is an edited collection by Toni Cade, The Black Women (1970). Other notable works in the genre include The Afro-American Women: Struggles and Images (1978), edited by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and S. Harley, and When and Where I Enter by Paula Giddings (1984). Major original, scholarly works include Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (1985) by J. Jones, a white scholar; and Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 18801920 (1993) by E. B. Higginbotham.

In the 1990s two major collections of studies on the African-American experience were produced. Black Women in United States History, a sixteen-volume collection of studies and primary resources edited by eminent historian Darlene Clark Hine and colleagues, was published in 1990. By the end of the decade, one of the most notable of African American studies units emerged at Harvard University under the direction of Henry Louis Gates Jr. In 1999 Gates and Harvard philosopher Anthony Appiah published Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.

The Future of Black Studies

Black studies seems anchored to face successfully the challenges related to its quest for legitimacy, financial constraints, and the need to be transformed so it can incorporate concepts and paradigms related to the experience of black women. If the field meets these challenges, not only will it be revitalized but so will the curricula of the nation's colleges and universities.

See also Afrocentrism; Black History Month/Negro History Week; Woodson, Carter Godwin


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james a. banks (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005