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Est. April 5, 2002
November 16, 2017 - Issue 718

Despite The Naysayers
African American Studies is Strong
Vibrant and Resilient

By Dr. Elwood Watson, PhD
"Simply being a member of a certain ethnic group
does not automatically embody a person with ample
knowledge about the experiences, struggles and history
of that particular group. While one could expect (or even tolerate)
a certain degree of ignorance from young, undergraduate
college students or even some non-Blacks for that matter,
it is much more disappointing to hear such bloviated
rhetoric espoused by fellow Black academics."

To the acute observer of higher education, these are no doubt heady times for academia. From rising tuition, intense student protests, debates over trigger warnings and speech codes. Professors of various political persuasions being attacked and continual eroding of support from state legislatures. The liberal arts coming under searing skepticism and in some cases, hostile siege, from various segments of the public. Anxious parents who are growing increasingly skeptical as they aggressively inquire and raise sharply pointed questions about shelling out, thousands and in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars for their kids to earn a humanities degree whose value seems to have eroded both, in the minds of the public and of employers. It has been anything but dull.

To be sure, the humanities (and to a lesser degree, social sciences ) have always com under periodic attack from various quarters. The reasons have varied from being seen as too overly theoretical. Supposedly being infested with radical, left wing ideologues at the expense of conservative thought. Having no practical, real world value outside of the classroom. Lacking any concrete answers and other nonsensical blather. The list goes on and on and that is another entire column.

While no academic discipline (including those in the hard sciences) has been totally immune from criticism, and is the occasional victims of slings and arrows, there are very few, if any disciplines (with the possible exception of Women's Studies), that has come under the level of vehement criticism as African American Studies. It is field of study that has bucked, scorned, vilified, demonized and some cases, ostracized form people from various walks of life. Including some Black folk! Indeed, the level of animosity and contempt toward the discipline by some people was so intense, that some scholars in the field would occasionally joke (sarcastically, yet with a grain of truth ) that African American Studies was the Rodney Dangerfield of academia. The reasons for such disdain very. Racism, elitism, xenophobia, naivete, misinformation and so on.

African American Studies programs and departments emerged in the late 1960s as groups of progressive Black students on college campuses protested and agitated that the colleges and universities they attended develop academic curricula that reflected their lives and experiences. After were what , in some cases, intense standoffs, many institutions relented and adhered to such demands. San Francisco State University (at the time college) was the first institution in the nation to establish a department of African American Studies in 1968. This was significant milestone in the history of higher education

Now, almost half a century later, such departments and programs are commonplace at hundreds of institutions in every region of the nation. From small liberals arts colleges to high powered, research 1 institutions. From coast to coast the discipline has firmly etched itself in the fabric of the academy. In fact, many programs and departments offer graduate degrees and a few Ph.D.'s. The discipline is home to some of the world's most renowned and high profile scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr, William Julius Wilson, Cornel West, Molefi Asante, Hazel Carby, Elizabeth Alexander, Michael Dyson, Michael Dawson, Robin Kelly and many, many others. African American Studies has arrived.

Such good news does not mean that all is well. The cold, hard truth is that many programs and departments face, reluctant and tepid institutional commitment. Chronic lack of funding from its institutions. Apprehensive students and fluctuating enrollments. Negative perceptions from its detractors are routinely commonplace as well. The aforementioned statement is a major obstacle.

Such perennial beliefs are:

  • The discipline is lightweight devoid of any sufficient rigor

Such denunciations tend to emanate from the political and cultural right. Naomi Schaefer Riley, currently a conservative columnist for the New York Post wrote a scathingly ignorant, ill informed and racist column several years ago when she was a contributing writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education denouncing African American Studies as a legitimate discipline due to the titles of a few dissertations she had glanced at! Yes! You read that correctly Ms Schaefer Riley decided to make herself judge, jury and executioner, discard an entire field of study and subsequently call for its extinction from the academy! Reaction was swift and Riley was dismissed from the Chronicle. for her foolhardy and simple minded comments Moreover, as someone who is a scholar in the discipline, I can personally attest to the fact that such a retrograde is nonsensical and misguided.. African American Studies a discipline that encompasses history, religion, philosophy, literature, fine arts, economics, medicine, technology, psychology, geography, politics, gender, health, ...the list goes one is the epitome of cross disciplinary scholarship. The discipline personified interdisciplinary before such integration of fields of study became trendy or popular.

  • Scholars who teach African-American studies are radical, angry and wish to impose and Anti -White agenda.

While such charges could apply to a few (very few) professors, the fact is that such a mindset does not represent the vast majority of Black Studies scholars. In fact, many Black studies scholars are often very inclusionary in the classroom and their scholarship. Much more so than scholars in similar fields of study. In fact, one could argue that some other disciplines are far less diverse in embracing a plethora of diverse viewpoints in the curriculum. The fact is that you can find myopic scholars and intellectually mental midgets in any discipline.

  • What are you going to do with a degree in African American Studies?

I am certain that many of us who are Black have heard someone (frequently another Black person) question the practicality of earning a degree in Black studies. I even heard this argument among some of my relatives when I was an undergraduate student. Guess what? A number of years later, they have seen the results. Elementary or secondary education, urban planning, diversity training, consulting, politics, higher education, journalism, public relations, law, administration, international relations, entertainment, government work etc... are a few of the employment possibilities available to students who major in the discipline. In many cases, African American Studies majors are just as, if not, more qualified for a variety of jobs than many of their co-horts from other disciplines. Ask Bill Whitaker, (prominent broadcast journalist,) Mae Jemsion, (astronaut) Angela Bassett (acclaimed Oscar nominated actress) Jill Nelson (prolific author, journalist and public commentator) Sanaa Latham (actress), Michelle Obama (former first lady and public spokesperson).

  • I am Black. There is no need for me to major in African American studies

Many Black students assume that because they are Black, there is no need for them to waste their time in taking such courses or majoring in a field that they believe they are an expert in. Such rhetoric is occasionally espoused by some Black academics in other disciplines. They are wrong on a multitude of levels. Simply being a member of a certain ethnic group does not automatically embody a person with ample knowledge about the experiences, struggles and history of that particular group. While one could expect (or even tolerate) a certain degree of ignorance from young, undergraduate college students or even some non-Blacks for that matter, it is much more disappointing to hear such bloviated rhetoric espoused by fellow Black academics.

For example, a little over decade ago, I was at an academic conference in a Midwestern city. I was part of a conversation with several other 30ish/early 40ish Black academics discussing our respective institutions, families, scholarship, career goals, etc. The conversation eventually moved to African-American studies. Two of the individuals in question attempted to make the same antiquated argument that the field was, in essence, subpar. OKAY! Now as you can imagine, this set off a spirited, yet civil, debate among most of us in attendance. The vast majority of us were proponents. However, there were some fellow colleagues who were dismissive, or at the very least, ambivalent about the discipline. The fact that these were educated Black academics made such an experience even more disheartening. It was if the slave mentality or right wing rhetoric had seized a part of their brain and taken over common sense and better judgment.

Just as gender Irish studies, gender studies, Jewish studies, Latino Studies, Asian Studies and other areas of ethnic and cultural studies have played a vital role in transforming cultural attitudes and public policy toward their respective groups, African American Studies has been similarly effective in providing more information and clarity fellow African Americans and the larger society as a whole. It is a vital area of academic study that has proved its legitimacy.

Ever-shrinking economic budgets, ongoing dissent and derision in certain quarters, pernicious myths and stereotypes aside, African American Studies still survives as an important area of academic inquiry. Like the people of African descent, it is strong, resilient, impervious. A survivor in the truest sense of the word. Guest Commentator, Dr. Elwood Watson, PhD is Professor of History, African American Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the co-author of Violence Against Black Bodies: An Intersectional Analysis of How Black Lives Continue to Matter (New Critical Viewpoints on Society Series). Contact Dr.Watson.




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