Thirty years after
African-American Studies: An intellectual undertaking
with "a gigantic literature"
By Marilyn Marks
It has been three decades since Princeton created a
program in African-American Studies, and history professor
Nell Painter is reflecting on what has been accomplished.
She gets up from her desk and walks toward a row of books --
required reading for a course called Recent Scholarship in
the African-American Intellectual Tradition. The row
stretches for several feet.
Students involved in the newly
established Afro-American Studies Program (and one
administrator, Roberto Barragan of the Office of Student
Aid), c. 1970
The books -- and the course -- span a wide range of
disciplines and topics. How have issues related to slavery
affected other American institutions, such as the law and
the family? How diverse is religious expression among black
Americans? How do issues of gender and sexuality interact
with issues of race? Much of the course material on
Painter's shelf was published in the 1990s, attesting to the
wealth of scholarship being conducted in a field that was
once controversial and that Painter still sometimes finds
necessary to explain.
"Some people just don't realize that this field is 30
years old and that it has grown tremendously in that time,"
says Painter, who is Edwards Professor of American History
and has been director of the program for the last three
years. "African-American studies is an intellectual
undertaking. We have a field that has a gigantic literature.
This is not just something that you do in your spare
Julian Bond to lecture
To mark its anniversary, Princeton's African-American
Studies Program will present a lecture by Julian Bond, civil
rights activist and chair of the NAACP. Titled "2000: A Race
Odyssey," the lecture will begin at 8:00 pm on March 22 in
Helm Auditorium, McCosh 50. Open to the public, it is
cosponsored by African-American Studies, the President's
Fund, the Public Lecture Series and the Woodrow Wilson
Bond's lecture comes at a crucial time for the program,
which has had to deal with the loss of high-profile faculty
members such as Cornel West *80 to Harvard University and
Arnold Rampersad to Stanford. The program awarded 17
undergraduate certificates last year and draws about 100
students each semester -- far less than when West taught at
Princeton -- but faculty members say the quality of students
and the vitality of scholarship are undiminished. US News
and World Report ranks Princeton third among the
nation's graduate programs for African-American history and
fourth for African-American literature.
Faculty members and administrators say they are committed
to making the program even stronger, and they have begun a
series of initiatives to accomplish that. Within the last
year, the program has expanded its offering of conferences,
drawn new scholars and worked to expand its presence on
campus. Meanwhile, the University is in the midst of an
intensive faculty recruitment process for both junior and
senior faculty members.
"I think there is no University initiative underway now
that is more important than recruiting efforts for the
Program in African-American Studies," said Provost Jeremiah
Ostriker. The trustees, he added, are extremely supportive
of the effort.
Said Toni Morrison, Goheen Professor in the Humanities,
"I feel very optimistic and very excited about
reinvigorating the faculty at large with scholars who can
contribute to various fields in which African-American
scholarship is so vital."
Morrison serves on the interdisciplinary committee that
governs African-American Studies and is involved in the
recruitment effort. The program now has four faculty
members, and other professors teach related courses and
support the program's initiatives.
Morrison noted that the recruitment process has garnered
a list of top candidates in the "widest possible range" of
disciplines, finding people of "unimpeachable scholarship
While faculty recruiting is the focus of the effort,
Ostriker's office also is providing a two-year grant for a
series of new initiatives, including conferences on Everyday
Challenges: A Symposium on Race and Beauty, which was held
this past December, and Perspectives and Approaches: A
Symposium on Race, Health and Citizenship, scheduled for May
The grant has also paid for a new film series on
Rethinking Black Sexuality and for graduate and
undergraduate student research, as well as support for one
dissertation fellow and eight scholars known as PAAS
Fellows, who receive full access to University
Princeton is also a center of discussion for other
scholars. Throughout the year, the program brings scholars
from across the country to speak on their research. The
Mid-Atlantic African-American Studies Group, an organization
of faculty members and graduate students at universities
throughout the region, meets twice a year on campus.
Among recent initiatives in
African-American Studies was a conference on the
topic of Race and Beauty, held on campus in
"It's true that we have lost some gifted faculty in the
last four years, but we have added others and kept some very
strong people such as Nell Painter herself," said Sociology
Professor Howard Taylor, a faculty member in the
African-American Studies Program.
Princeton's African-American Studies Program was one of
dozens of black studies programs created in 1969, most of
them under pressure from black students enrolling on
predominantly white campuses in small but growing numbers. A
faculty-student steering committee at Princeton hoped to
create a program that would be relevant to the lives and
real-world issues of some 170 black students on campus.
"Though the program will be open to all students, one of
its advantages will be to make this campus more hospitable
for the black students who are arriving in increasing
numbers," the committee's report noted.
The committee designed an interdisciplinary program that
built upon courses already offered by existing academic
departments and created new courses and seminars. With the
interdepartmental approach, the committee hoped to avoid the
academic and social segregation that had become an issue in
programs on other campuses.
Three decades later, the question of whether
African-American studies should be an interdisciplinary
program or a department itself remains open. As a program,
African-American Studies grants undergraduate certificates
but does not grant degrees. Its faculty members are jointly
hired by departments and split their time with
Seeking departmental status
Painter, among others, believes the program could achieve
more with departmental status. In her view, departmental
status would make it easier to recruit top faculty members
and graduate students who specialize in African-American or
interdisciplinary studies. She also feels that departmental
status would provide a more stable core of faculty members,
which would fill gaps among course offerings.
But others feel that the issue is not clearcut. Some
candidates for faculty positions view themselves primarily
as scholars of history, religion or English and might be
reluctant to accept a post solely in an African-American
studies department, Ostriker said.
At most universities African-American studies have
program status, as at Princeton. However, according to a
report to be published this spring in the Journal of
Blacks in Higher Education, seven of the 28 universities
ranked highest by US News and World Report now have
African-American Studies departments. That includes Harvard
and Yale universities (Yale announced the switch from
program to department this past February).
While the question of departmental status remains under
discussion, the University will continue to build the
program with financial support and new faculty members,
Princeton's commitment to African-American studies is
"relentless," said Morrison. "It will go on until we've done
what we've started out to do."