April 9, 2003: Features

Photo: Gerald Horne ’70

Cornel West *80

African-American Studies: Beyond black and white

After the hoopla
From Du Bois to today: research in a high-profile field

By Gerald Horne ’70

Gerald Horne is professor of African and Afro-American studies at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill and author of, among other books, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois (2000).

It is a rare event to pick up the New York Times and find headline news about faculty hirings at Princeton. But such was the case when Cornel West *80 and K. Anthony Appiah moved from Harvard to Princeton last year.

Was this just another example of a skewed news agenda, akin to the ceaseless speculating about the guilt or innocence of Congressman Gary Condit in the Chandra Levy disappearance that had dominated the airwaves before the terrorist attacks of September 11? Or did it reflect the fact that, for justifiable reasons, what happens in the field of black studies is of moment to the nation as a whole — particularly when it involves the simultaneous decline of what had been the premier program in this field and the rise of a competitor a few hundred miles to the south?

African-American studies — or black studies or Africana studies, to use the latest term for this field — is nothing new. In the 1930s, W. E. B. Du Bois was pioneering this field at Atlanta University. It was then that he wrote his magisterial Black Reconstruction (1935), which set the template for the discipline in that it was both deeply researched and overturned conventional interpretations. Before Du Bois, the period following the U.S. Civil War — Reconstruction – was viewed popularly as a dissolute era of Negro decadence, a notion captured pungently in D. W. Griffith’s toxic cinematic classic, Birth of a Nation (1915). Du Bois recast this era as a time of democratic promise — cruelly crushed by the 1876 presidential election and the end of Reconstruction — and it is this view that dominates today, as reflected in the leading text on this period, Reconstruction (1988) by Eric Foner of Columbia University.

Still, notwithstanding the massive intellectual contributions by scholars at historically black colleges and universities — Benjamin Quarles at Morgan State and Ralph Bunche at Howard come quickly to mind — the field of black studies reached a new level at the time of the activist upsurge of the 1960s. Analytically, the creation of black studies departments was no fundamental departure from the strictures of the academy. Multidisciplinary initiatives are de rigueur in higher education, and have been at least since the 19th century. Just as black studies has brought together specialists in the humanities and social sciences driven by the idea that a unique synergy could be created by their presence under one roof, religious studies and film studies departments – which bring together the study of profoundly different geographical, philosophical, and cultural traditions – historically have done something similar.

It was not just that the admission of African-American students in sizeable numbers at schools like Princeton and Harvard led to their impassioned calls for a revamping of the curriculum and the creation of black studies programs and departments. The new epoch that their presence signaled also cried out for new interpretations, as evidenced by the monumental American Slavery/American Freedom (1975) by Yale’s Edmund Morgan, which posited, contrary to then-prevalent notions, that these two bookends of the nation’s experience were not necessarily contradictory but symbiotically conjoined. Greatly simplified, Morgan’s densely argued work suggested that seizing Native Americans’ land and compelling enslaved Africans to toil on that land at once provided opportunities – or “freedom” – for numerous European immigrants while curbing class conflict in the “white” community. Though not stated explicitly by Morgan, the implication of his provocative thesis was not necessarily optimistic – for if from the nation’s beginning white advance came at the expense of black degradation, what did this say about the future?

Black studies also has been a midwife to the birth of yet another exciting intellectual development: “whiteness studies,” an area of research that escalated in the late 1980s. Though often lampooned in the media, books and articles now gushing forth in this field address a fundamental matter that grows inexorably out of Morgan’s insight: How was it that those who warred on the shores of Europe – English vs. Irish, Russian vs. Pole, German vs. French, Serb vs. Croat, et. al. – somehow were transmuted into “white” upon arriving on these shores, resulting in the curbing of their often violent antagonism? Their effort to avoid the perceived taint of “blackness” is one answer to this conundrum put forth by scholars such as George Lipsitz of U.C.—San Diego and David Roediger of Illinois. (Scholars are awaiting eagerly a book by Princeton’s Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People, on this complicated subject.) Certainly the existence of black studies preceded the discussion of “whiteness,” for it was apparent that the notion of “race” was far from being a one-way street, relevant to those of African descent alone. (An unaddressed question in Martin Scorsese’s otherwise arresting blockbuster, Gangs of New York, is a serious engagement with “whiteness studies,” particularly in his examination of the fate of Irish Americans.)

Morgan was not a member of a black studies department when his groundbreaking book was published, but this only illustrated the fact that the academy as a whole was coming to recognize that issues involving African-Americans had broad relevance, and rested at the heart of this nation. These issues illuminate the creation of the cumbersome Electoral College that continues to complicate presidential elections; the Civil War, which continues to hold the gruesome distinction of being the bloodiest conflict in the nation’s history; and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which radically refurbished the relation between states and the federal government, as they altered the very nature of citizenship. Indeed, scrutinizing the “black experience” sheds profound light on the “American experience.” And it helps to explain why the press paid rapt attention when the baton in this important field passed from Harvard to Princeton.

Setting aside the hoopla and front-page headlines, black studies as a discipline – in the tradition of Du Bois – continues to be on the cutting edge. Well before “globalization” became the buzzword du jour, scholars in this field were exploring the international connections of African-Americans. Scholars like Brenda Gayle Plummer of the University of Wisconsin, Mary Dudziak of the University of Southern California, and Penny von Eschen of Michigan—Ann Arbor in recent years have pointed to the ways in which the international situation influenced domestic struggles. For example, during the Cold War competition against the U.S.S.R. for the “hearts and minds” in the Third World, the atrocious treatment of peoples of color at home made it difficult for the U.S. to present itself as a paragon of human rights. The contrast between myth and reality made it clear: Jim Crow had to go – and it did.

Simultaneously, beginning in the 1950s, the routing of the black Left – which by that time included an octogenarian Du Bois, who was indicted for allegedly being an agent of an unnamed power (that is, the former U.S.S.R.) because of his campaign to ban nuclear weapons — circumscribed the range and nature of political debate among African Americans. This set the stage for the rise of the Nation of Islam, which, though it came into being in the 1930s, did not begin its vertiginous climb until this routing occurred. For some, scholarship examining these issues has raised weighty questions about the “patriotism” of African Americans – after all, the celebrated Du Bois did join the pro-Moscow Communist Party. For others, the experience of the nation’s largest racial minority presents a template for similar developments worldwide during the Cold War, in that a decline of the Left set the stage for the flowering of an even more flawed nationalism, with the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamic Jihad in the Middle East being Exhibit A.

The “globalization” of black studies has created possibilities for transnational cooperation as scholars research the ties that have existed between, for example, African Americans and France, Japan, China, India, Sweden, Brazil, and the Arab world, among other regions. This is part of a new turn toward “African diaspora” studies, a subject in which Princeton’s Colin Palmer pioneered with a 1976 study of the African presence in Mexico. Palmer’s research has become even more important as the Latino population surpasses the black population of the U.S., and he helps to illuminate the commonalities between these two groups. Similarly, like its close cousin American studies, African-American studies is a field that is pursued worldwide, increasing global understanding.

Scholars like Gwen Midlo Hall of Rutgers and Michael Gomez of New York University are exploring the African roots of black Americans and extending the work of the late Melville Herskovits of Northwestern, who, from an anthropological perspective, investigated what musical, linguistic, and other traditions survived the harrowing “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic to the New World. Like Hall, David Eltis of Emory has been among a group of scholars who developed a useful computerized database that has brought to a global audience a treasure trove of detail about the slave trade and the ethnic origins of African Americans.

Trailblazing work in the field is not simply concerned with various aspects of history. The influence of black studies also has influenced the law, helping to spawn “critical race theory,” one of whose advocates, Lani Guinier of Harvard Law School, captured headlines of her own when President Clinton nominated her to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and then withdrew her name in the face of conservative criticism.

For a taste of the diversity and reach of black studies in all its permutations, no better guide can be found than the massive and deliciously erudite Encyclopedia Africana (1998), edited by the philosopher Appiah and the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard. As its name suggests, this bulky book, which also is available on a CD-ROM, encompasses a range of artistic, economic, and sociological topics, reaching from the African continent to the Western Hemisphere and from the past to the present. The Dictionary of Global Culture (1999), also edited by Gates and Appiah, is another fundamental tool for cultural and intellectual literacy.

Some of this scholarship is being conducted under the aegis of black studies departments; some is not. But all of it is inspired by the momentum given to the field by the post-1960s push for a more inclusive curriculum. Inevitably this push has given impetus, if not inspiration, to related disciplines beyond “whiteness studies,” such as women’s studies, Asian-American studies, Native-American studies, Latino studies, Queer studies, labor studies, and others. In other words, a deeper understanding of reality is emerging as the academy opens wider the doors of the classroom and library. Humanity itself, as a result, is the ultimate victor.

The names you may not know

Young scholars, veterans launch Princeton program’s renaissance

By Kathryn Beaumont ’96

Photo: Faculty members involved in Princeton’s African-American Studies program include, from left, program director Valerie Smith, K. Anthony Appiah, Nell Painter, Colin Palmer, and Noliwe Rooks.

Cornel West *80 and K. Anthony Appiah got the national headlines, but they weren’t the only faculty members to join Princeton’s Program in African-American Studies last year. On the same spring day it approved West’s appointment, the Board of Trustees hired a young, fast-rising scholar who was once West’s student, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. *97.

Glaude’s arrival got barely a mention in the news coverage, but it illustrated the shape of Princeton’s efforts to strengthen its black studies program. In addition to recruiting the big names – such as West, a scholar of religion; Appiah, a philosopher; and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who announced in December that he was remaining at Harvard – Princeton has set about bringing young, promising scholars to the university.

“Every time I was asked about recruitment last year, I mentioned Eddie in the same breath as Anthony and Cornel. But because Eddie is not a household word yet, it was downplayed,” recalls Provost Amy Gutmann. “Eddie’s not as well known now as some of the other professors here – but he will be.”

Well-known professors bring the program high visibility and high course enrollment. But Valerie Smith, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature and the program’s director, says that the addition of Glaude, along with the recent arrival of Noliwe Rooks and Daphne Brooks, has helped launch the program into a period of rebirth. “Younger scholars introduce students to cutting-edge research as well as established methodology,” Smith says. “You need all of this in a program.”

Princeton’s Program in African-American Studies was created in the tumult of 1969; like similar programs around the U.S., it was the product of both an increasingly diverse student body and a growing awareness of the role of race across the academic disciplines. Enrollment in the program peaked in the early ’80s, but dropped in the wake of West’s departure for Harvard in 1994 and English professor Arnold Rampersad’s for Stanford in 1998.

Last year, 23 students concentrated in the African-American studies program, about the same number expected to do so this year. West’s class, Philosophic, Religious, and Literary Dimensions of Du Bois, Baldwin, and Morrison, has the highest enrollment of any class being offered at Princeton this spring, with 334 students and 30 precepts.

Though interest in the program continues to grow, most professors in African-American studies would like to see the program converted to a full-fledged department, which would allow it to have its own faculty, rather than share faculty members appointed to traditional departments. The question has been an issue for years, and Smith says she is in continual discussions with the administration over the logistics of creating a department, as Yale and Harvard have done. Despite Princeton’s recent hires, she says, “it’s a challenge to find scholars who are at the cutting edge of interdisciplinary studies – which is so important to the program – and whom traditional disciplines would welcome.” Princeton is at a disadvantage recruiting scholars whose work doesn’t fit neatly into another department, says Smith.

“We spend an enormous amount of time just trying to get courses taught on a regular basis,” says historian Nell Irvin Painter, who directed the program from 1997 to 2000, and who also supports departmental status. It’s difficult to have a coherent curriculum, she says, when professors’ commitments are split between African-American studies and their traditional departments.

Still, the program’s faculty members – both veterans and newcomers – are among the nation’s top scholars in what have become the most urgent, high-profile areas of scholarship in African-American studies. Painter, the Edwards Professor of American History, who has been at Princeton since 1988, is leading the way in the area of “whiteness studies,” which considers how the development of black racial identity can be applied to other races. A classic example is the question of how once-disdained Irish immigrants became simply “white.”

Several professors in the program are leading scholars in the flourishing field of diaspora studies, the study of the influence of people of African descent throughout the world, and how African and American history are intertwined. As American demographics change – notably, with the increase of U.S. residents who identify themselves as Hispanic – research is moving from a post-Civil Rights era consideration of black and white to include African Americans who also consider themselves Hispanic, Caribbean, or Asian. Historian Colin Palmer, for example, studies Caribbean and Mexican history and its relation to the African diaspora, while assistant professor Sarah-Jane Mathieu examines African-American migration to Canada, Central America, and Europe.

The program’s interdisciplinary approach is paramount, participants say. Though Eddie Glaude is a professor in the Department of Religion, he sees the program in African-American studies as an entrée into history, politics, and literature, all of which have been a part of his scholarship. After graduating from Morehouse College in 1989 with a degree in politics, Glaude headed to Temple University, from which he received his master’s degree in African-American studies in 1992. He knew he wanted to become a teacher, and when he met Cornel West at a conference at the University of Wisconsin in 1991, Glaude was inspired to pursue a Ph.D. in religion at Princeton. After obtaining his doctorate with a dissertation on “Exodus Politics and the National Negro Convention Movement, 1830—1843,” Glaude went to Maine to teach at Bowdoin College, where he could “go off and mature as a scholar; go back and read some old dusty books.”

In doing so, he came up with his own approach to the study of African-American religious history and its place in American public life. Instead of taking a theological approach considering racial and political questions in the context of a particular Christian faith, he uses the specific religious experiences of African Americans as a starting point for the study of larger social, historical, and political issues.

“I’m obsessed with the relationship between religion and politics,” he says. So his course, Black Power and Its Theology of Liberation, for example, considers U.S. history from an African-American standpoint, showing how the 1947 Truman Doctrine of aid to foreign governments changed the tone of African-American politics because it held out a standard for the rest of the world that wasn’t being met in the segregated U.S. Glaude’s course ends with a study of black-liberation theologians who attempt to translate the prophetic black church tradition into a representation of black power. “It’s a course that is about the black power era,” says Glaude, “but it has everything to do with my religious studies.”

Assistant professor Daphne Brooks brings a similar interdisciplinary approach to her literature classes in the English department. In last fall’s class on Black Bohemia: Literature, Popular Music, and Racial Authenticity Politics in the Post-Civil Rights Era, her students explored the relationship between alternative black popular music – artists such as Jimi Hendrix and the rap duo Outkast, for example – and contemporary fiction and theater; and how the politics of class, gender, and sexual orientation define black identity and influence African-American literary expression. “What does it mean to be black in America?” Brooks asks. “We should be thinking about the place of cultural studies in the study of contemporary literature so that students understand the dialectic between popular culture and various literary forms,” she says.

Students find that such an approach broadens the way they look at racial issues in the world. Painter’s Introduction to African-American Culture class – a requirement for students pursuing a certificate in the program – considers history, photography, music, sociology, literature, and art in its analysis of African-American culture. History major Kelly Sosa ’03 explains how the class juxtaposed Billie Holiday’s popular 1940s song, “Strange Fruit,” with the 2000 Spike Lee film Bamboozled. “Each sent a powerful message about race relations in the U.S.,” she says. “‘Strange Fruit’ protested the tragedy of lynching. Bamboozled made a frightening prediction that a television show, where the premise was ridiculing two dancing buffoons modeled after minstrel characters, becomes the most-watched show on T.V. I saw how existing racial stereotypes in society are consistently reinforced at the cost of African-American progress.”

For many students, the program covers new terrain that is not only intellectual, but intensely personal. Hasina Outtz ’04 says she has been most affected by a class taught by Rooks, the program’s associate director, Introduction to Black Women’s Studies. All the students were women – about 60 percent of whom were African-American. “It was interesting to have that contrast,” says Outtz, who is African-American. “I don’t want to go into a precept and have everyone agree with me.” Outtz grew up in a family that made sure she was aware of her African-American heritage, but she says her experience in the program “gave me a language and vocabulary to express in an academic way what I already knew.”

But while students’ personal relationships to the subject are important, faculty members stress that the goal is to be, above all, critical. To that end, Rooks often asks students at the beginning of the semester to write down why they’re taking her class; at semester’s end, she reads their comments back. “In the beginning, the emotional sometimes outweighs the intellectual,” she says, “but that gets inverted by the end.”

As Painter puts it, “It’s not, ‘I want you to feel good’ or ‘I want you to feel guilty.’ It’s ‘I want you to know something.’”

Kathryn Beaumont ’96 is a PAW staff writer.

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