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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 discipline’s 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 Women’s 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) perspectives—such as St. Clair Drake’s PanAfricanist view, Maulana Karenga’s cultural nationalistic Kawaida theory, Abdul Alkalimat’s “paradigm of unity” and technologically focused eBlack studies, James B. Stewart’s concept of the field as a disciplinary matrix, Gloria T. Hull’s focus on black women’s studies, Manning Marable’s scholarly commitment to the assault of structural racism in the context of global capital, and Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West’s focus on cultural studies— make 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 eBlackstudies.org 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.
- Alkalimat, Abdul. 2007. Africana Studies in the U.S. http://www.eblackstudies.org/su/complete.pdf.
- Alkalimat, Abdul, et al.  1986. Introduction to AfroAmerican 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. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist.
- Karenga, Maulana.  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.
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