Black Studies Fights for Respect
(BNW)--Black studies programs sprang up by the score on college campuses following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., but more than 30 years later professors say they still must defend their field.
When Harvard's new president recently questioned the work of his celebrated Afro-American studies faculty, the dustup sounded familiar to Penn State professor James Stewart.
``Everybody has a war story,'' said Stewart, president of the National Council for Black Studies.
The field still has ``a very tenuous relationship in many institutions,'' added Stewart, a labor economist at Penn State and former director of the black studies department there.
Black studies programs and degree-granting departments often called African and African American studies, or some variation are now offered at about 200 colleges and universities, Stewart said. Only about 10 of those are historically black institutions.
The field has produced a large body of work examining the black experience in America and beyond. Black studies have amplified knowledge about figures like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, unearthed the literature of slaves, and explored the impact of the slave economy, the role of black churches and the complexity of black society. It continues to consider the influence of the past on the black present.
``The subject matter is America,'' said Russell Adams, a social scientist and chairman of Afro-American studies at Howard University. ``A good Afro studies department is one that tries to have folks see there is a common core of interactive concerns that are not racially polarizing And that is hard work.''
Professor Christopher Lucas, a historian of higher education at the University of Arkansas, said that to a point black studies have gained academic acceptance.
But the field is also seen as too narrow and, at the same time, too broad. Skeptics view it as limited by focusing on only one group of people, yet also wonder about the rigor of a topic that draws on many academic subjects such as history, sociology, literature and music.
``I always think they're going to be out on the periphery,'' Lucas said. Many black studies programs ``survive because of the dedication on the part of a handful of faculty.''
Academic study of black life began in the early 1900s, Nathaniel Norment notes in his book, ``The African American Studies Reader.'' By the 1930s, it was the subject of courses at historically black as well as white colleges, says Norment, chairman of African-American studies at Temple University.
The field as it is known today was propelled by King's 1968 assassination, and by black students demanding to learn more about black history and culture. Many colleges adopted programs: some dwindled and disappeared over the next decade while others produced good work and flourished, educators say.
``Sometimes people suggest that somehow standards of scholarship (in black studies) are not as great,'' said linguist John Rickford, who directs African and Afro-American studies at Stanford University. ``That's garbage.''
Such attitudes come from ``prejudgment, if not prejudice,'' he said. ``And sometimes, ignorance.''
Harvard President Lawrence Summers caused a stir when he reportedly questioned the scholarship and activities of Cornel West, a prolific professor ranked among the country's leading black intellectuals.
Summers was said to have taken issue with the quantity of West's research as well as his rap CD and work with activist Al Sharpton. He also reportedly suggested West inflated student grades.
Summers apologized, saying there was miscommunication. West has threatened to seek a more respectful campus.
And plenty of campuses are welcoming, said Professor William Banks, a social scientist who, in 1972, became the first regular faculty member in African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he remains today.
No one should make too much out of the Harvard controversy, he said.
``If you take seriously the issue of race in American society, why wouldn't I expect a certain kind of tension on the part of my colleagues?'' he said. ``That goes with the territory.''
While the field is a big draw for black students, whites can make up a significant portion of the lecture hall audience. Some come out of interest, or because their school requires students to take courses exposing them to different cultures, as Penn State does.
Latonia Payne, 23, said whites sometimes made up as much as half the people in her black studies courses at the University of Michigan, where she graduated last year in Afro-American and African studies.
Her mother, a housekeeper, told Payne stories about the family's history as Arkansas sharecroppers. But otherwise, growing up black in Detroit, Payne learned little about her heritage.
``You learn Martin Luther King and black history month, little details,'' she said. College was a revelation. ``This got a lot more specific: the history of the blues, slave narratives and religion. I loved learning about it. I learned about myself.''
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