Center for African American Studies poised to lead at critical time
Setting the path for the study of race
Princeton's Center for African American Studies is launching an aggressive effort to become the leading resource for the public's understanding of race in America, coming at a time when the center's scholars say they are seeing an upward trend in racial issues igniting the country in a series of "brush fires."
Working with a new chair, scholars will build on growth and strategies developed in the center's first three years to take advantage of fresh avenues to broaden discussions of race with the public, to engage in research that could be of use to policymakers, and to harness a unique interdisciplinary approach to reach the next generation of leaders.
"When we begin to think about the direction of the field, we believe that what we're doing here at Princeton, right here in this moment, will set the path for the field of African American studies in the next century," said new center chair Eddie Glaude, Princeton's William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies. "We have an enormous task ahead of us, so we're very excited about it."
Scholars at the center noted that, when black children were banned from a pool at a Philadelphia swim club in June, there was a clamor for voices to dissect the social and political meaning of the incident. There was a similar call when a black Harvard University professor was arrested outside his home by white officers in July; when a debate between leading academics in this country and abroad devolved into a discussion of whether the Felix the Cat cartoon character is black; and also when debates erupted about the racial overtones of the "birther" movement questioning President Barack Obama's citizenship, "tea parties" to protest so-called government intrusion, and a congressman's now infamous "You lie" outburst during the president's health care address to Congress.
What was missing for most people, according to Glaude, were the tools to help people think through these moments that reflect a "transition in discussion about race in the United States."
"I see the center's role as a place to generate languages to help us talk about race in light of the moment in which we find ourselves, when we have these occasions for brush fire," Glaude said. "We can help to put them out, but that does nothing to sustain a needed dialogue; so we want to do more than that.
"When the conditions are arid enough that one spark can lead to a wholesale fire," he added, "we want to have some folks around who have read about our work -- who have paid attention to what we do -- who can say, 'Well, wait a minute; there's another way in which we can think about these issues,' to get us out of this kind of simplistic and somewhat melodramatic framework."
A new era of leading scholars in the center have joined pioneers in the field to help the country have results-oriented discussions about race at what the scholars say is a critical time that is testing the nation's commitment to democratic ideals.
"We can have the symbolism of the Obama presidency, but we need to understand it beyond the level of being post-racial," said Noliwe Rooks, the center's associate director. She explained that some people think that the election of Obama has moved America to a "post-racial era" that comes after the conclusion of an era of considerations of race.
"There are still too few places where someone is taking responsibility for sharing accurate information about America and race," Rooks said. "Someone needs to tell people about the America that has gotten us to this point, so that we know enough to move forward. That's what we're doing here (at the center)."
Growth and initiatives
The center was established in September 2006, after existing as an academic certificate program at Princeton for 37 years. A task force appointed by Princeton's President Shirley M. Tilghman recommended an expanded curriculum after determining that reflections on race and the experiences of black people should be diffused throughout a liberal arts education as an "indispensable element in a preparation for life in this country."
Under the leadership of its first director, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature Valerie Smith, the center moved to its home at Stanhope Hall in 2007, and built the number of core faculty positions allocated to the center from two members to today's 17. Associated and affiliated faculty members in other departments now contribute an additional 18 faculty.
The center has increased courses by more than 40 percent, offering 36 courses this year, compared to the estimated 25 courses typically offered a few years ago. And while some other institutions providing African American studies focus either on the specific experiences of black people in America or research of the African diaspora, Princeton encourages students of varying backgrounds to encounter and reflect on the history of race in the nation through a unique interdisciplinary approach.
Students in the course "Chinatown USA," for example, explore issues of American integration and nationalism through the construction of Chinatown. The course "Growing Up Global: Novels and Memoirs of Transnational Childhoods" asks students to question conventional understandings of identity by reading authors who spent their childhood crossing national boundaries; a course titled "The Nation of Islam in America" addresses how the group's ideological structure has allowed the NOI to function both as a "black nationalist" and religious body; and the anthropology course "The Post Colonial Subject" teaches students how contemporary cultural studies challenge conventional understandings of social and political power.
"There is no other field that has a bibliography that has explored all the issues in the totality of what the country is facing," Rooks said. "Some of the initiatives we're putting into place are to give people who need to talk about race the tools to do it."
The center is in the final stages of developing two internship programs that will support research and data collection to confront issues of disparity in urban education, Rooks said. Readings of works by such well-known scholars as faculty member Cornel West will allow the public to share in intimate experiences of race, and a series of conferences hosting political leaders, scholars and artists will provide opportunities for local and national audiences to focus on issues of race and democracy. These include the James Baldwin Lecture, named after the author and cultural critic, which will be delivered this year by Tilghman and broadcast to larger audiences through a radio partnership with WNYC.
West's new book celebration is Oct. 19, and the Baldwin Lecture will be March 9, while a "Race & American Politics" conference will be held April 13, and a panel discussion called "Raggaeton: Critical Perspectives" will be Nov. 12, among other events scheduled throughout the year. They not only provide a sustained forum for scholars and policymakers, but also raise awareness on campus among students who will become the next generation of national leaders.
According to the center's leaders, the proof that it's working is the growth in numbers of students deciding to pursue a certificate in African American studies. Last year, the center had its largest number of certificate students in the history of the program -- 41 compared to the average of 20 per year in the era before the center was established -- and has become one of the top five of 42 established certificate programs chosen by Princeton undergraduates.
One draw, according to the center, is that the faculty members teach and conduct research in a wide range of fields that include psychology, sociology, economics, history, English, religion, philosophy, art and archaeology, and engineering. They focus on three subfields in the center's curriculum: African American culture and life; comparative race and ethnicity; and race and public policy.
Professors who call the center home say they find it unique in envisioning the field of African American studies as a universe of theoretical approaches, rather than as a minor subdiscipline on the margins.
"Committed to fighting racial discrimination, the center does so partly by leading into a future where the content of African diasporic traditions dominates scholarly and popular discussions, not narrow ideas of color," said Wendy Belcher, assistant professor of comparative literature and African American studies.
"In such a space, someone like me, a white American who became fascinated with the richness of African intellectual traditions while growing up in Ethiopia and Ghana, is welcomed, and I can work to expand Americans' notions of the contributions of people of color to global history and culture," she added.
Building the faculty infrastructure is one part of a multifaceted approach to bring together leading minds to help solve evolving race issues, Glaude said.
The faculty members range from Professor Anne Cheng, who uses Freudian analysis to explore how racial identity is perceived and promulgated in American culture, to Assistant Professor Alexandra Vazquez, who explores through Latina/o American musical cultures the voices of lost migratory and other peoples that may not appear in written texts, and also the work of Assistant Professor Angel Harris, who is seeking to debunk theories that attribute the achievement gap to a supposed resistance of black students to schooling and intentionally sabotaging their educations in fear of "acting white," which Harris has found to be implausible.
"What we're seeing here is a cohort of faculty whose work in some significant way is trailblazing in their own unique fields," Glaude said. "Part of our mission is to build the kinds of platforms for research that can impact the nation, not only in terms of the specific fields of our faculty, but also impact public policy."
New approach for a new era
The center's leadership asserted that a key element in the realization of their goals is a recognition that public thought and policies throughout the country are being shaped by the ever-expanding framework of cable news and new media.
"If you look at the public context of the quality of discussion about race, the quality has declined," said West, the Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies. "When it comes to television, radio and the Internet, the quality of discussion is pretty poor, so you get this juxtaposition between the academy making breakthroughs and the larger public not only not cognizant of the breakthroughs, but retreating into vulgar discussions about race."
West, one of the nation's most widely known and quoted public intellectuals on the topics of American society, race, politics and class issues, said the increasingly dominant role of news media -- and the proliferation of news outlets -- requires race studies to take advantage of new vehicles to reach broader audiences.
Traditionally, exploration of strategies to tackle homelessness, disparities in education, lack of health care and other conditions that disproportionately affect minority communities has not crossed the bridge from academic journals to mainstream consumption.
Among the new ways that faculty in the center are reaching audiences are: blogs and social media websites; partnerships with broadcast channels to distribute public debates and events to wider audiences; agreements for regular appearances on TV and radio news shows; and scheduled appearances on talk shows to speak directly to the public and people of influence.
"The media are concerned about sensationalizing polarization in order to keep up their profits, and it's devastating, I think, for the public life of the nation," West said. "I think you've got to target citizens who are themselves critical of the media like Stephen Colbert, Tavis Smiley and Amy Goodman."
In referring to Colbert, the satirist of TV's "Comedy Central," and Smiley, the television and radio talk show host, as well as Goodman, co-host of the "DemocracyNow!" daily radio news program, West said that there has been among scholars in the past a mindset against using such media vehicles to spread a specific message to reach mass audiences. This is despite the effectiveness of the same mechanisms to squelch public discussion.
"That's why I like Eddie Glaude," West said. "He has these connections with Tavis Smiley, Gwen Ifill (of public television) and others. The movement of quality discourse in the academy into the general public is very important for the vitality of our future and our nation."
The work being done by the Center for African American Studies reflects that the current generation is experiencing race in a different way than in the era of civil rights, leaders said. Some of the center's faculty are part of a new generation of black intellectuals talking about race in the "era of Obama."
"In 2008 the United States elected our first African American president, a landmark historical event, and yet in 2009, African Americans are hugely overrepresented in the criminal justice system, among the homeless, among those on public assistance, and are the American ethnic group hardest hit by the current economic crisis," said Imani Perry, a professor in the center appointed this past June.
Labor statistics in September reflected a 9.7 percent national unemployment rate, but 15.5 percent unemployment among blacks, the center's leaders noted. Also, a disproportionate number of the 45 million uninsured who are at the center of the current national health care reform debate are African Americans and Latinos.
Perry's focus of research is to identify how individuals sustain racial inequality in their daily practices. Along with West, she represents the center's first members solely appointed to African American studies, whereas the program previously relied exclusively on half-time faculty assigned through joint appointments from other departments.
Perry noted that there are marked gaps between blacks and whites, even as the country approaches 150 years since the abolition of slavery, and 50 years since the Jim Crow laws sanctioning racist and segregationist practices were dismantled.
"African American faces, voices and cultures are constantly on our airwaves and in our digital media, and yet African Americans are underrepresented in decision-making positions and ownership in corporate and new media," Perry said. "What explains all of these counterintuitive pairings of the realization of the 'American dream' and exclusions from 'America's promise?' Why is it that we aspire to a post-racial or color-blind America, and yet continue to see that race has a significant impact on our lives and experiences?
"The field of African American studies allows us to investigate and provide potential answers to these and other important questions," Perry explained. "More than that, African American studies is a lens through which to understand how societies categorize themselves, how we make meaning, how we produce culture."
Glaude echoed that the election of President Obama "doesn't erase the structural legacies of white supremacy and how they continue to over-determine the life chances of many of our fellow citizens."
"Part of what African American studies brings to the table is a kind of skill set to help us talk about the realities of race," Glaude said. "Not simply just black and white, but the realities of race in relation to this American experiment that aren’t predicated upon making people feel guilty about some racist past, but rather helping us understand how racism and race oftentimes impede the actualization of our ideals as a nation."
The center's work plays a pivotal role in delivering the message that while people champion the progress in race relations, some of those same people today are struggling with health care, unemployment, underemployment, education and other life issues, the scholars said.
"If we don’t have a quality of discussion, it's going to spill over into violence," West said, "and if that happens, then American democracy is in grave danger, to say the least. So in that regard I would say that the discussion of race in America is critical -- and yes, I use that word critical."
African American studies is more important than ever because Obama's election has led some people to think that continued talk of anything racial is racist, the scholars said.
Debates are proliferating over the notion that America has "overcome," in terms of fulfilling the goals of the civil rights era.
"At this moment more than anything, the accomplishment of President Obama as president cannot represent a job well done; there is too much work left to do," Glaude said. "African American studies can help us understand the subtleties of race and racism, even in this moment. In fact, because of this moment, we need African American studies even more."