The following is an excerpt from the Introduction and Conclusion of The History of Black Studies, by Abdul Alkalimat (2021). Reprinted with permission from Pluto Press.
This book tells the history of Black Studies, familiar to many as the campus units that teach college-level courses about African-American history and culture. This book will present a comprehensive survey of all such programs, but Black Studies has been more than that.
The term “Black Studies” emerged in the 1960s but, as this book will demonstrate, Black Studies developed over the entire course of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. This book defines Black Studies as those activities:
- that study and teach about African Americans and often Africans and other African-descended people;
- where Black people themselves are the main agents, or protagonists, of the study and learning;
- that counter racism and contribute to human liberation;
- that celebrate the Black experience; and
- that see it as one precious case among many in the universality of the human condition.
Each of these five points will be considered further along in this introduction.
Now is an appropriate time to write and read a history of Black Studies because colleges and universities across the USA have been celebrating the fiftieth anniversaries of the founding of their Black Studies programs. Campuses are bringing together the alumni, faculty, and community activists who helped found their respective programs. Each has its own particularity but, to draw larger conclusions, we need to consider frameworks that can be used to compare and talk about all these local histories.
This is also a moment when the generation who founded Black Studies at mainstream colleges and universities is moving into retirement and facing health challenges and mortality. This brings with it a crisis of both individual and institutional memory loss, a crisis that calls for activities to capture local accounts of the founding and development of Black Studies on each campus.
Finally, Black Studies faces threats. The economic downturns of 2008 and 2020, the latter due to the coronavirus pandemic, have put pressure on higher education. Before then, endowments and public funding kept higher education relatively insulated from economic pressure. But for more than a decade, tuition increases and limits to financial support have impacted Black enrollment as well as support for Black programs.
The resurgence of racism contributes to this daunting atmosphere, both as a broad social reaction and at the highest levels of political leadership. All in all, the most fundamental negative obstacle facing Black people all over the world at this moment hinges on the concept of race.
Science has discredited race as a concept (American Anthropological Association 1998; important studies include Gould 1996; Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin 1984; Prewitt 2013). It is a term that posits a biological and hierarchical classification of humans, Homo sapiens. On this concept rests the practice of racism: large and small prejudicial beliefs, words, and actions that are systematized, institutionalized, persistent, and more or less violent. A liberal justification for the use of the concept of race argues that race is socially constructed. But this falls woefully short. Race is nothing less than a socially constructed lie.
Race serves as a good example of Alfred North Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concreteness: an abstract idea that does not fit reality (Whitehead 1985 ). Racism exists, but races do not. But as the sociologist W.I. Thomas observes, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (“Thomas Theorem” 2018). Racism infects virtually all areas of scholarship and public policy. Black people are systematically lied about as a justification for their continued exploitation and marginalization in American society.
Racism can be understood as some combination of three false ideas: deficit, difference, and dependency. The deficit idea centers on denying that Black people can reason and think just as well as anyone else. The concept of human reason itself has even been claimed by Eurocentric thinkers as originating in Greece and Rome (see Blaut 1993). Of course, this is self-serving. It also contradicts what we know about the mind and the brain. Any human brain has the same structures or centers that mobilize both thinking and feeling.
The idea of deficit has long taken the form of attacking the capacity of Black people’s brains. One early effort involved classifying head size and shape. It defined the cephalic index as “the ratio of the maximum width of the head of an organism (human or animal) multiplied by 100 divided by its maximum length (i.e., in the horizontal plane, or front to back)” (Boas 1899). Franz Boas, distinguished anthropologist at Columbia University, took his students Zora Neale Hurston and Margaret Mead to Harlem in the 1920s to measure the heads of Black people as part of disproving this theory (“Sigerist Circle Bibliography on Race and Medicine” n.d.; Helmreich 2004; Boas 1899; Fergus 2003).
Intelligence testing and IQ theory was a second argument made for Black people being deficient, starting with the British psychologist Cyril Burt and followed notably in the USA by William Shockley, Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, and Charles Murray. The book by Herrnstein (at that time the former chair of the Harvard University Department of Psychology) and Murray, The Bell Curve (1997), became the magnum opus of this argument. This sparked a debate that produced several volumes of criticism: Jacoby and Glauberman’s The Bell Curve Debate, Fischer’s Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth, and an expanded edition of Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (Herrnstein and Murray 1997; Jacoby and Glauberman 1998; Fischer 1996; Gould 1996). Scholars have debated the basis for intelligence: nature (genetic inheritance) versus nurture (social influences). One of the revealing aspects of the research reported in The Bell Curve is that a great deal of it was undertaken in apartheid South Africa by racist scholars. Leon Kamin, in his article “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics,” spells out two disastrous failings of the book:
First, the caliber of the data cited by Herrnstein and Murray is, at many critical points, pathetic and their citations of those weak data are often inaccurate. Second, their failure to distinguish between correlation and causation repeatedly leads Herrnstein and Murray to draw invalid conclusions.
(Kamin 1995, 82)
The false theories that support the idea that Black people are intellectually deficient are accompanied by false theories that explain that Black people are just fundamentally different. This view has been held even by liberals who have worked in what they thought were in the interests of Black people. Robert Park, a University of Chicago sociologist who served as president of the Chicago Urban League, worked closely with Booker T. Washington and mentored E. Franklin Frazier. Yet, he wrote:
The Negro is, by natural disposition, neither an intellectual or an idealist like the Jew; nor a brooding introspective like the East Indian; nor a pioneer or frontiersman, like the Anglo-Saxon. He is primarily an artist, loving life for its own sake. His métier is expression rather than action. He is, so to speak, the lady of the races.
(Park and Hughes 2009, 139)
This is not simply a view held by so-called white people (another socially constructed lie), but a fallacy based on limited understanding of how the diversity of experience falls under the universal category of being human (for more on Robert Park, see Raushenbush and Hughes 1992).
Correspondingly, many Black people feel there is something “different” about white people, especially as compared to themselves. The Senegalese artist and politician Leopold Senghor famously stated, “Emotion is Negro as reason is Greek” (Constant and Mabana 2009, 69). His philosophy of Negritude not only argued that Black people were culturally different, but also negated reason for Black people and emotion for the Greeks. Perceptual differences can be found in great diversity between Blacks and whites, as well as among Blacks from different countries and different regions within the USA and different classes. The key is to always find the link between particularity and universality by which every community can be regarded as fully human.
The still-more ominous arguments about difference have to do with differences that suggest antisocial behavior and tendencies toward violence. Some racists argue that Black people have enlarged sexual organs and an uncontrollable lust that predisposes them to promiscuity and rape. This argument has been used to delegitimize Black women with children applying for welfare support. It has also served as a cover for lynching Black men, especially on the charge that their sexual lust leads them to defile white women (see Graves 2005, Chapters 3 and 4).
Deficit and difference feed into the third fallacy about Black people: Black people are dependent on the largess of white people (Fraser and Gordon 1994). This old argument includes claims that colonialism and even slavery were benevolent practices that saved Black people from their savage selves. Today, the argument covers the view that Black people are lazy, don’t want to work, and therefore have led the USA in the negative direction of the welfare state. This view argues that if Black people are too lazy to work then they need to starve—so down with all forms of welfare. Of course, this view depends on the false image of welfare recipients being mainly Black people. But the opposite is true: even though Black people are on welfare at a somewhat higher rate than white people, most welfare recipients are white (Tracy 2017).
Black Studies responds directly to these deficit, difference, and dependency theories of Black people’s supposed inferiority. The five aspects of the definition above are crucial to the response, and each merits elaboration.
First, Black people are the object of study. African Americans are primary, but this links to Africans and the peoples of the African Diaspora. African Americans are those with the historical experience of the transatlantic slave trade, the Middle Passage to the Americas, living through a slave society and various forms of racist oppression, with a tradition of resistance in struggles for freedom. This study includes comparative research that places Black people in a national and global context. And as with most definitions, this one is challenged by emergent social phenomena, in this case, post-slave-trade African migration to the USA, and Black Studies has responded to this.
Second, Black people are the main agents of research, knowledge creation, cultural creativity, and teaching about the Black experience. This specifies cultural creativity as an important form of intellectual production that is highly visible in Black Studies. And while non-Black scholars have made important contributions, Black Studies must be understood as primarily the intellectual productivity of Black people working on behalf of their own community.
Third, Black Studies is fundamentally anti-racist scholarship that contributes to Black liberation in its analysis and its advocacy for change in higher education and the society in general. The study of the Black experience involves defining the conditions of oppression and exploitation under which Black people have lived, and continue to live, and the forms of resistance to these conditions. As such, Black Studies contributes to the freedom struggle.
Fourth, Black Studies encompasses the cultural celebration of the Black experience, especially as it includes the study of the historical forms of Black culture and the traditional rituals of celebration. This combines theory and research with cultural practice.
Fifth, the study and celebration of the Black particularity functions as one path in the search for a universal understanding of the human condition. It is a legitimate arena for seeking knowledge about humanity. This celebrates diversity and universality, and searches for ways that the Black experience, like all peoples’ experience, can be a gateway for grasping the universals that define all levels of human attainment.
To sum up, Black Studies consists of a broad set of intellectual activities generated by Black people in order to rationally and culturally reflect on and celebrate their own experience. An autonomous process, it evolves in dialogue and struggle with mainstream institutions of power. It is the intellectual and cultural manifestation of centuries of Black people’s resistance to the racism and national oppression that began with the transatlantic slave trade.
Social forces shape this dialectical process. At every historical moment of Black Studies, three main underlying dialectical processes are at work: (1) the interaction between middle-class forces and working-class forces; (2) the dynamic of formal structures arising out of social movements; and (3) the interplay between dogma and debate. Put simply, Black people created Black Studies, and this book demonstrates and explains how they did it.
* * *
This book advances four important arguments in this history of Black Studies:
- Black Studies is an anti-racist intellectual and cultural activity that affirms the importance of the Black experience for American society, as well as the universal human experience.
- Black Studies has always been based on the intellectual agency of Black scholars, community institutions, and social movements as the foundation of the radical Black tradition, linking research and advocacy, study and struggle, theory and practice.
- Black Studies has been developed by intellectuals representing the middle class and the working class, within the relative isolation of Black social institutions as well as mainstream institutions of higher education and culture.
- The primary audience for Black Studies knowledge production and cultural affirmation is the Black community, and yet its importance is universal, enabling its particularity to serve as a pathway to the universal.
The importance of this work is not only that it establishes a framework for summing up the history of Black Studies, but that this very framework can be used to analyze and sum up subsequent future trends in Black Studies as well.
This history of Black Studies is a critical extension of many important studies. It is fitting to reconnect with this literature in summing up its main arguments and findings. The book is organized in three parts—intellectual history, social movement, academic profession—and so with this conclusion.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
Historical change should always be viewed against and linked with historical continuity. We are reminded of this with that old saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Black people have always dealt with key questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? What is our social experience and why are we exploited and oppressed? What are our cultural practices that constitute our unique experience? And, most of all, how can we get free? Black Studies is the diverse educational practice that has developed answers to these questions.
This book anchors the historical origin of Black Studies in the first two generations of Black PhD scholars and their struggles at HBCU institutions in which they were forced to work because of racist practices that segregated the mainstream elite institutions where they had obtained their degrees. Bond (1972) traces the social origin of these Black PhDs to high-achieving high schools in the Deep South. Harry Greene (1946) published a survey of Black PhD graduates that included information on field of study, institution, name of dissertation, and date degree conferred. This volume identifies key scholars who did the first major work in fifteen disciplines that anchor Black Studies scholarship in the present and will likely do so in the future.
Broad surveys of Black intellectual history validate this, for example, Bardolph (1959), Banks (1996), Meier and Rudwick (1986), and Norment (2007, 2019). The first three take a chronological approach, either to Black intellectuals in general (Bardolph and Banks) or the academic discipline of history (Meier and Rudwick). They argue that Black intellectuals in each generation responded to the social conditions facing Black people as a whole and the prevailing ideas of the mainstream. Norment provides an extensive encyclopedia of scholars who have historically contributed to African American Studies. Many of these scholars fall under the main argument of this book that Black Studies had its origin in Black intellectual history. The analysis of Black Studies in this book combines academic scholarship with the agency of Black people in working-class communities, even high schools and social movements.
Every social movement emerging out of the Black community has had an educational component that constitutes a development of Black Studies. The basic need has been to arm Black people with knowledge of their history and their intellectual and cultural traditions. Hale (2017) presents an analysis of the freedom schools in Mississippi during the 1960s. Payne and Strickland (2008) broaden the scope to cover other educational programs of the Freedom Movement. Rickford (2016) presents a masterful treatment of the schools that emerged as manifestations of the Black Power Movement.
This history of Black Studies lays out a comprehensive discussion of the educational programs in six movements that were manifestations of Black Studies: the Freedom Movement, the Black Power Movement, the Black Arts Movement, The New Communist Movement, The Black Women’s Movement, and the Black Student Movement. The general mission for the emergent institutions developed by these movements was to arm activists with the knowledge and ideological consciousness that would bolster their ability to fight against racist oppression. The Institute of the Black World was a major example of this, as discussed by Derrick White (2011). The Black Student Movement, fired up by Black Power, was the social force that entered mainstream institutions of higher education after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and demanded and won formal Black Studies Programs.
Two important scholars focus on the development of the Black Student Movement. Ibram Rogers (2011, 2012) provides a comprehensive survey of the Black campus movement (1965–1972), while Bradley (2003, 2012, 2018) goes deep into case studies of the struggles at Columbia University, Barnard College, and the Ivy League institutions in general. Again, these studies confirm that Black Studies in the 1960s emerged out of the impact of the Black Power Movement.
This origin story of Black Studies in the 1960s is about Black Power. The two most important studies of Black Studies at the moment when it became part of the mainstream of higher education have been thoroughly analyzed by Martha Biondi (2012) and Rojas (2007). Biondi builds a story by focusing on regional case studies: San Francisco State in the West, Brooklyn College in the East, Northwestern in the Midwest, and the HBCUs in the South. She reviews developments off campus in one chapter. Fabio Rojas combines similar case studies with national survey data he collected from Black Studies faculty. The basic argument of both authors is that Black Studies is a case of a social movement initiative forcing its way into a formal organization and negotiating a permanent place within it. The surveys of institutions of higher education reviewed in Chapter 11 present new data and confirm this basic argument.
This volume presents a conceptual model for the process of Black Studies becoming an academic profession and organizationally a formal administrative unit. This is laid out in six parts: social disruption, collectivization of a definition of a discipline, institutionalization, professionalization, the theorizing of a discipline, and the norming of research and evaluation. This analysis is based on case studies and national surveys.
Discourse that struggled to define and theorize Black Studies began in earnest in 1969 with conferences at Yale University and Haverford College. The Yale discussion brought together some of the initial academic leaders of Black Studies with mainstream scholars from elite institutions. The Haverford discussion brought together Black scholars who had entered the mainstream before the emergence of Black Studies. In both instances, the Black scholars were skeptical and cautious, arguing that their form of Black Studies-oriented scholarship, without the sharp cutting edge of Black Power thinking, was more practical and likely to survive in what was a hostile environment for Black scholarship in general (A.L. Robinson et al. 1969; Lackey 2014).
Funding has been and remains a major issue for sustaining Black Studies as an academic profession. The Ford Foundation was the key early source of funding, leading some to argue that it had a significant impact on how Black Studies developed. McGeorge Bundy, the Ford Foundation president, funded and participated in the Yale conference and indicated his intention to support proposals to advance Black Studies scholarship and teaching. Both Rojas (2007, 130–66) and Rooks (2006, 93–121) argue that the foundation’s funding was a decisive factor in determining the direction of Black Studies.
Marilyn Thomas-Houston, working with Irma McClaurin of the Ford Foundation, convened a gathering of academic leaders of Black Studies to discuss the topic “Sustaining Black Studies in the 21st Century.” The papers of this gathering were published in a special issue of the International Journal of Africana Studies (Thomas-Houston 2008). This volume demonstrates that within the broad consensus of Black Studies scholars a vigorous discussion continues, including discussions of gender and technology.
The academic experience of Black Studies is documented in a series of autobiographical reflections. Charles Henry (2017) Perry and Hall (1999), both veteran academics with a background of leadership in the National Council of Black Studies, have described their move from a traditional discipline to Black Studies. Houston Baker describes his initial struggles at Yale in navigating between white professorial arrogance and the submission of Black tenured faculty. There is much more that needs to be done in this manner. Gordon and Gordon (2006a) is a major collection in this regard.
In sum, the main thrust of this literature confirms this history of Black Studies in granular detail. The study and celebration of the Black experience, in opposition to Eurocentrism and racist scholarship, mainly by Black scholars and cultural activists, has been a mainstay of the Black experience for well over one hundred years. Though it entered the mainstream institutions of US higher education in the late 1960s and took on the name Black Studies, it had been in existence under other names long before then.
This history of Black Studies is but a prologue to the future of Black Studies. Much of the practice of Black Studies will be continued into the future, especially within the collective practice that has become normal for each generation. On the other hand, each generation is also part of the historical changes in society and will adapt to become part of the new future that is coming into being. In the case of Black Studies, different kinds of institutions will evolve new norms for teaching, research, and community service. This institutional context becomes a commanding influence on new directions for each Black Studies program.
There are at least five major global and societal changes to consider when thinking about the future of Black Studies. Each one is transforming institutions of higher learning at the college level.
- Technological revolution
- Gender equality and diversity
- State (police) violence versus social justice
- Historical periodization
Globalization consists of major worldwide changes that have restructured economic relations, political institutions, and cultural developments. This has led academic disciplines in the social sciences and humanities to theorize and conduct research on a global scale. This produces a conflict with the paradigmatic norm of American exceptionalism. Is the USA an almost magical exception in world history? Or is it merely another case of social development, with similarities and differences with other countries, with global influence that has a beginning and an end like every other empire? This is also a challenge for Black Studies: to end a US-centric focus.
Globalization pushes Black Studies in the direction of Africa and the African Diaspora for theorizing and research (Manning 2009; Gomez 2008). At the time of this work, the demographic influence of globalization is bringing people into the USA from all parts of Africa and the African Diaspora. Parents from the African Diaspora who relocate to the USA have children who grow up being African Americans. This also corresponds with a deeper understanding that racist systems of colonialism are not just in the history of other places in the African Diaspora but in the USA as well. This is particularly true with the racist colonial and neocolonial practices of England, France, and Spain as compared with the USA.
The African Diaspora is a framework for understanding the great global influence of Africa in all areas of social, cultural, and technological development. Black Studies will increasingly work with Caribbean Studies, African Studies, Brazilian Studies, and Afro-European Studies. New insights develop about the origin of cultural development when comparing different peoples before, within, and after being in different colonial systems. This includes music, language, religion, family practices, food culture, and aesthetics in general. This development also contributes to a political understanding of possible ways to change the international systems of racist oppression. Students of Black Studies can add a global dimension to their national identity. A well-known political maxim will then be realized: Think Global, Act Local.
This global identity builds on the technological tools of the information revolution. Black Studies is being transformed into eBlack Studies, an activity primarily based on using digital tools operating in cyberspace (Alkalimat 2000, 2003; Everett 2009). The first critical stage is moving information into a digital form. This involves three main digitization processes involving discourse, scholarship, and digital representation of experience in general. The main barriers to be overcome include time and space, the ability to act and archive simultaneously on a global level.
In this new technological age, there are new values that can be embraced in order to stabilize a new normal. This transformation of the new digital political culture should involve the following:
- Cyberdemocracy: this requires universal digital literacy
- Collective Intelligence: this requires inclusion of all voices as uploaders of information
- Information freedom: this requires universal access to information
Of course, this is an optimistic view of the future. The opposite view is that of George Orwell’s 1984, in which technology is a tool for surveillance and total control over the thoughts and behavior of a population dominated by autocratic rule. These two alternatives are present in the current struggle over the dominance of social media corporations like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter in the fight for privacy and social justice.
There is today a revolutionary transformation of sexuality and gender. All major narratives of our historical experience have the weakness of being patriarchal and gender binary. This requires a reconsideration of all history. This requires empowering people who represent communities that historically have been silenced. Black Studies is challenged to do this, as are all academic disciplines. The women’s movement, the queer movement, including transgender folks, are all becoming frontline activists to transform knowledge about the human experience, including the Black experience.
Another great challenge is the fight for social justice in the confrontation with state violence. The police in the USA began as a force to controlling slaves. Today, the police are still in the role of violent control over Black people. Public and private police forces kill Black people at the rate of one every twenty-eight hours (Eisen 2012). This has given rise to the Black Lives Matter Movement. In global terms, this has produced the greatest anti-racist social movements since the anti-colonial wars in Africa.
This state violence has both racist and class aspects. The main debate on the USA has focused on whether there is systemic racism pervading the entire country, with the violent expression of police violence and subsequent injustice in the courts. The symbols of racism and slavery, expressed in monuments that glorify the Confederacy, have been attacked and taken down, both legally, as in the case of the Mississippi state flag, or illegally by popular protest movements. This debate takes a focus on the US Constitution, the slave-owning founding fathers, the genocide against the native population by the settler colonialists from Europe, and the general history of segregation and racist discrimination in all areas of social life.
All four of these new developments lead to thinking about the general future development of history. Each of these factors disrupts our understanding of modern history and forces us to begin thinking about the future. In Black Studies, this has taken the form of an intellectual tendency called Afro-Futurism (Zamalin 2019).
Taking all of this together suggests that we continue to reflect on the development of Black Studies. This reflection will have to focus on at least five key questions as the historical development of Black Studies continues to be written.
- Who is in Black Studies—faculty and students?
- What curriculum is taught?
- What research is done?
- What community engagement is involved?
- What is the relation between academics and activism for Black Liberation?
The main development for the future of Black Studies will be anchored in the battle of ideas against racism. As in the past, the social movements will be important alongside academic activity on campuses.
Abdul Alkalimat. “Introduction” and “Conclusion.” The History of Black Studies, pp. 1-5, 303-309 © 2022 Pluto Press. Reprinted with permission.