African American Studies

views updated May 29 2018

African American Studies


African American studies (also called black studies, African and African American studies, Africana and Pan-African studies, and African diaspora studies) combines general intellectual history, academic scholarship, and a radical movement for fundamental educational reform (Alkalimat et al. 1977). From its inception the field has embraced the focus of academic excellence and social responsibility in a unique approach that addresses traditional issues of town and gown. Though born out of turbulence, the disciplines ability to persevere since its formal establishment in university settings makes it a lasting testament to the legacy of the Black Power movement and the goals of a long list of black intellectuals dedicated to bringing the history and culture of African Americans into a place of prominence in the American academy.

The first concerted calls to break from disciplinary foci that ignored the culture and background of black people came during the 1930s at the annual meetings of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History). Building on the efforts of W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) and Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), Joseph Rhoads (1890-1951) and Lawrence D. Reddick (1910-1995) called for black colleges to expand traditional departments. By the 1940s historically black institutions such as Howard University were offering courses within the traditional disciplines that addressed issues of black concern. Arturo A. Schomburg (1874-1938) joined the efforts of these early proponents of black studies with his enormous collection of materials documenting the black experience. The donation of the collection to the New York Public Library and his work as the curator of its Black Life Collection led to the establishment of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, hailed by the New York Times (May 11, 2007) as a cultural anchor in a sea of ideas.

Early twenty-first century formations of African American studies at historically white institutions emerged as institutional responses to the black studies movement. Once the numbers of black students at historically white institutions developed into a critical mass, the general unrest and civil rights movement of the 1960s fueled the dissatisfaction that often led to aggressive and violent expressions. Cornell, Howard, Michigan, Rutgers, and San Francisco State are a few of the institutions where students demanded that black studies curricula be instituted and black faculty be hired. This black studies movement led to the formation of programs, departments, institutes, and centers at numerous colleges and universities, thus marking the period as a moment of radical rupture in the evolutionary history of the discipline.

The establishment of the first department of black studies occurred under the duress of a student strike. At San Francisco State, 80 percent of the racially and ethnically diverse student body joined forces and made or supported unequivocal demands (Rooks 2006, p. 4). Similar strikes occurred at Howard (March 1968), Northwestern (May 1968), Cornell (April 1969), and Harvard (April 1969). San Francisco State responded to the demands with the appointment of Nathan Hare as the acting chair of the Department of Black Studies in 1969. Other universities followed this course, with James Turner at Cornell (1969), Andrew Billingsley at Berkeley (1969), Ronald Foreman at the University of Florida (1970), Carlene Young at San Jose State University (1970), Herman Hudson at Indiana (1970), and Richard Long at Emory University (1970).

The establishment of black studies as a legitimate academic discipline required intense discussions over the direction the course of study should take. Some of the earliest texts, including Introduction to Afro-American Studies (Alkalimat et al. 1977), Introduction to Black Studies (Karenga 1982), and All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Womens Studies (Hull et al. 1982), represented the differing perspectives and were foundational beginnings for many departments. Although the application of knowledge from a non-Eurocentric perspective is essential to the diverse intellectual frameworks that constitute the field, Africology, an Afrocentric perspective, was principally established in the work of Molefi Asante. Other (often competing) perspectivessuch as St. Clair Drakes Pan-Africanist view, Maulana Karengas cultural nationalistic Kawaida theory, Abdul Alkalimats paradigm of unity and technologically focused eBlack studies, James B. Stewarts concept of the field as a disciplinary matrix, Gloria T. Hulls focus on black womens studies, Manning Marables scholarly commitment to the assault of structural racism in the context of global capital, and Henry Louis Gates and Cornel Wests focus on cultural studiesmake important contributions to the intellectual trajectories of the field. Black British cultural studies in the work of Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy generate new flows of ideas of a decentered cultural region and add to the discourse on intellectual frameworks for studying the black experience. Key to the mission of black studies throughout its evolutionary stages is the application of knowledge to promote social change, and it is at the core of the diverse intellectual and methodological approaches to the field. As with most social science disciplines, black studies scholars continue to reexamine the field.

The differences within African American studies, though important to each proponent, are far less destructive than many detractors suggest and provide evidence of the vibrancy and necessity of the discipline. Rather than leading to the demise of the field, diversity broadens and strengthens it as the research and scholarship of various practitioners contribute to a growing literature examining the complexity of the historical, social, and cultural phenomena that influence black lives in an increasingly globalized world.

A holistic view of black studies (whether under the formation of African American studies, Africana studies, Afrikan studies, etc.) reveals the focus of the discipline to be a search for understandings of what it means to be of African descent in a world where unequal power relations developed as a result of colonial pursuits. Institutional structure (whether a department, program, center, or institute) and the extent of institutional support determine the strength of the degree programs in African American studies offered by more than three hundred American universities. While many of the programs in this field embrace similar objectives, what they are named (i.e., department, program, center, institute) sometimes signals their intellectual trajectory, programmatic foci, and institutional mission.

The value and success of African American studies can be determined by its contribution to the transformation of higher education. The commitment to blending scholarship and activism instituted by most programs of study is reflected in different ways in other disciplines. The conditions under which feminist studies, ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, gay and lesbian studies, and cultural studies could articulate their positions were established by the introduction of African American studies into the academy.

Important to the continued development of the field are the many organizations and institutions that support African American studies. In addition to repositories such as the Schomburg, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the National Council of Black Studies (NCBS), the Association of Black Cultural Centers, and are among a number of organizations dedicated to the gathering and dissemination of knowledge on the black experience. Through their meetings, journals, and public programs, these organizations (along with myriads of local community organizations and dedicated scholars) continue to address the diverse challenges facing black studies and the social sciences in the twenty-first century.

SEE ALSO African Americans; African Studies; Afrocentrism; Black Power; Blackness; Cultural Studies; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Hall, Stuart; Pan-Africanism; Race; Race Relations


Alkalimat, Abdul. 2007. Africana Studies in the U.S.

Alkalimat, Abdul, et al. [1977] 1986. Introduction to Afro-American Studies: A Peoples College Primer. 6th ed. Chicago: Twenty-First Century.

Hall, Perry A. 2000. Paradigms in Black Studies. In Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies, eds. Delores P. Aldridge and Carlene Young, 25-38. Lanham, MD: Lexington.

Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds. 1982. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Womens Studies. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist.

Karenga, Maulana. [1982] 1993. Introduction to Black Studies. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.

Marable, Manning. 2000. Dispatches from the Ebony Tower: Intellectuals Confront the African American Experience. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rooks, Noliwe M. 2006. White Money Black Power: The Surprising History of African American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education. Boston: Beacon.

Woodyard, Jeffrey Lynn. 1991. Evolution of a Discipline: Intellectual Antecedents of African American Studies. Journal of Black Studies 22 (2): 239-251.

Marilyn M. Thomas-Houston

African American Studies

views updated Jun 11 2018


AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDIES, a field of academic and intellectual endeavors—variously labeled Africana Studies, Afro-American Studies, Black Studies, Pan-African Studies—that was a direct product of the social movements of the 1950s and 1960s. The quests for African liberation, the civil rights movements, and the black power and black arts movements had created an ambience in which activist members of the faculties at colleges and universities and black students who had come of age during the late 1960s sought to foster revolutionary changes in the traditional curricula. In search of relevance—to use a word that became a cliché during that period—the students wanted a curriculum that forth-rightly addressed their particular history and the social problems that adversely affected the lives of the vast majority of African Americans, not only at predominantly white colleges and universities but also the masses in African American communities as well. Consequently, all-black organizations sprang up on most major campuses around the nation and demanded courses in black history and culture. In so doing, black students shunned traditional European and European American courses in hopes of not only establishing blacks' contributions to history and society but also of engendering robustly ecumenical perspectives in the curricula.

The first African American Studies units were founded as a response to student protests at San Francisco State College (now University), Merritt College in Oakland, California, and Cornell University. With the support of the Black Student Union, and many students from other racial groups, Nathan Hare, a sociologist who had written an exposé of the black middle class while teaching at predominantly black Howard University, compelled San Francisco State's administration in 1968 to create the first African American Studies department in the United States. One year later, James E. Turner, a doctoral student, was appointed the head of the African Studies and Research Center unit at Cornell University, after widely publicized pictures of gun-toting black students were circulated by the mass media. Although there were no strictly operational definitions of what constituted the field of African American Studies in the early years, most of its practitioners concurred in the opinion that it was the study of African peoples and their brethren the world over—with emphases on history, cultures, and social problems. The purpose of the field was not only to ameliorate the conditions under which black people lived but also to enhance their self-image and self-esteem, and build their character.

Despite the idealistic goals of the founders, the economic crisis that lasted from the mid-1970s until the early 1980s wreaked havoc with the budgets of most institutions of higher learning. As a result, African American Studies came under the scrutiny and criticism of both the administrations at those institutions attempting to trim their budgets and the prominent black academics who were critical of what they perceived as the units' lax academic standards, unqualified faculties, and poor leader-ship. Although administrators slashed the budgets of many fields in the humanities, African American Studies units were especially vulnerable—primarily because they were still in a fledgling stage.

Martin Kilson, a distinguished political scientist at Harvard University who refused to join his institution's unit, and the Duke University scholar of English, Kenny Williams, raised serious questions about the intellectual integrity and validity of African American Studies. Critical of the instability and the hyper-politicization of African American Studies in the 1970s, the aforementioned scholars compelled a reassessment and fostered a reconceptualization of its curriculum and position in the academy. As a result, in the 1980s, such leading black academics as Ron Karenga, the author of a popular textbook entitled Introduction to Black Studies (1982), sought to provide a theoretical base for African American Studies with his concept of Kawaida, which provided an holistic cultural nationalist approach to black history, religion, social organization, politics, economics, psychology, and the creative arts. During this same period, Molefi Kete Asante was appointed the head of African American Studies at Temple University. That institution nurtured the department, and in 1988, it became the first institution in the country to award the doctorate in the comparatively new field.

Asante's theoretical conceptualizations were significant, for he attempted to center his work and that of his students and colleagues on the examination of African and African American culture, which he labeled "Afrocentrism." This brand of cultural nationalism deconstructs "Eurocentrism" and seeks to reclaim his peoples' "pre-American heritage."

In recent years, Asante and other Afrocentrists have been criticized for presenting a static view of history and culture, and thereby ignoring the dynamic interaction between blacks and European and European American cultural, economic, and political structures. Despite the futility of his attempt to conceptualize the field, Asante, like Karenga, made a heroic effort to set up some parameters for the focus of African American Studies.

The goal of standardization and definition of African American Studies has become increasingly difficult—especially with the emergence of other notable scholars in the field who have an ideological orientation that differs from those of the founders. Manning Marable, the political scientist, historian, journalist, and director of the Institute for African American Studies at Columbia University, for example, purveys the social democratic ideology; the sociologist Abdul Alkalimat and his heroes—Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, W. E. B. Du Bois—were socialists. In short, as the 1980s came to a close there was no single theoretical orientation in the curriculum of African American Studies that most scholars concurred in.

As the twentieth century came to a close, the most vocal and visible African American Studies unit emerged at Harvard University, under the direction of literary critic and historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. The program, which at one time included the noted philosopher, orator, and theologian, Cornell West; the philosopher, Anthony Appiah; and the distinguished sociologist, William Julius Wilson, was what Arthur Lewin, an associate professor of Black and Hispanic Studies at Baruch College, call "inclusionist." In other words, Gates and his colleagues sought to foster a great appreciation and tolerance of African Americans by the American public by dispassionately informing them of black peoples' history and culture. Africana: The Encyclopedia African and African American Studies (1999) is just one example of their endeavors.

African American Studies units have been in existence for over thirty years. Nonetheless, they continue to maintain varying identities, which militates against the development of the status of the discipline. The field has made persons aware of the contradictions and paradoxes that mire both European American and African American thought on race.


Aldridge, Delores P. "Status of Africana/Black Studies in Higher Education in the U.S." In Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies, edited by Delores P. Aldridge and Carlene Young. Landham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2000.

Exum, William H. Paradoxes of Protest: Black Student Activism in a White University. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985.

Harris, Robert, Jr. "The Intellectual and Institutional Development of African Studies." In Three Essays: Black Studies in the United State, edited by Robert L. Harris Jr., Darlene Clark Hine, and Nellie McKay. New York: The Ford Foundation, 1990.

Hayes, Floyd W., III. "Preface To the Instructor." In A Turbulent Voyage: Readings in African American Studies, edited by Floyd W. Hayes III. San Diego: Collegiate Press, 2000.

Vernon J.WilliamsJr.

See alsoCivil Rights Movement ; Education, Higher: African-American Colleges .

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African American studies