A few weeks ago I listened to a WDET interview with Errol Henderson on the 45th anniversary of the development of black studies. Check it out.
In the wake of the rise of black student protests over the past few years, more than a few of us have been thinking about what could be called Black Studies 3.0.
So Black Studies 1.0 extends from the first Black Studies projects of the late sixties/early seventies until about 1991 or so. These projects took on a variety of different institutional forms (centers, institutes, programs) and included faculty trained in traditional departments (political science, sociology, etc.) alongside faculty who had no formal training. (To note but one example of this latter tendency Harold Cruse—author of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Rebellion or Revolution, and Plural But Equal—was one of the most important figures of the University of Michigan’s Center for Afro-American and African Studies but not only did Cruse not have a PhD, he didn’t even have a college degree (having dropped out of the City College of New York.) This first period was a period of experimentation and institutionalization, with the first Black Studies journal (the Journal of Black Studies) and organizational entity (National Council of Black Studies) being formed during this time.
Black Studies 2.0 extends from two specific developments. (Bear with me. It’s possible that I’m fudging the dates a little bit.) One development is the creation of the first PhD granting department at Temple University under the leadership of Molefi Asante. A second development is Harvard’s decision to hire Henry Louis Gates jr. as the Chair of their own Department of African American Studies. Within a very short period of time Gates had successfully hired three of the nation’s best black social scientists (Larry Bobo, Michael Dawson, and William Julius Wilson) and two of the nation’s best philosophers (Kwame Anthony Appiah and Cornel West). Both developments came at a moment of rising black student enrollment and rising interest in black cultural production (popular and intellectual). The two departments were often pitted against each other in the popular press for ideological reasons, as Temple’s department under Asante was decidedly nationalist\ while Gates’s project was integrationist.
With Black Studies 2.0 comes two changes.
For the first time we see the modern development of a class of what could be called “superstar” black studies faculty. People like Gates and West were as well known outside of the academy as they were within it…in fact by the late nineties West had not only appeared in the sequels to The Matrix but Gates had become more known for his multi-media curation than for his scholarship. And as Black Student Unions at schools across the country began to receive large budgets Molefi Asante, Maulana Karenga, bell hooks and other scholars began to give well-paid lectures. As a result of the increased demand for black intellectual production, these figures and others likely made at least as much money outside of their universities as they did within it. Further, for the first time some black faculty members had the type of mobility their more well known white peers had. Henry Louis Gates for example moved from Yale to Cornell to Duke University before settling down at Harvard. Similarly West moved from Union to Yale back to Union to Princeton to Harvard…before then going back to Princeton and finally to Union.
We also see a significant rise in scholarship on and about black life. And this scholarship spills over its seventies era borders. Journals like the Journal of Black Studies and the Journal of African American History still exist, but it’s now possible to publish black studies scholarship in prominent academic presses and journals heretofore closed to black faculty and black studies. Several centers become departments (the University of Michigan’s CAAS becomes DAAS by the late nineties/early oughts (editor’s note–2007)), and other departments join Temple in the ability to award doctorates. And during this period it also becomes possible for black students and faculty trained in traditional disciplines to publish work on black populations (as well as on racial dynamics in general).
So perhaps for the first time in American history it’s possible for graduate students and faculty interested in black life to follow their interests in black subjects as a matter of course. I could, for instance, tell Hanes Walton (my dissertation advisor at the University of Michigan) that I wanted to study gender and political participation in Detroit without having to worry about whether it would be considered legitimate within the discipline. Similarly though I never ever thought about the job market as such until I really needed a job, I was able to get interviews at two of the best political science departments in the country studying the participation of black men and women.
These changes are pretty important. They change the landscape of black studies itself, making it more akin to other more traditional disciplines. And they indirectly change the traditional disciplines themselves.
But here’s the rub.
As Black Studies increasingly mimics its traditional counterparts the university itself is undergoing a process of neoliberalisation. Universities public and private are increasingly forced to rely on their endowment, with wealthy donors becoming more and more influential in shaping university agendas. What types of students universities recruit, what types of intellectual projects universities decide to take on, what type faculty the university decides to hire, becomes increasingly connected to donor desires. University faculty are expected to be more and more productive, and are expected to consistently go on the market in order to raise their profile and their salaries. The tenure track itself becomes more and more of a pipe dream, as the number of tenure track jobs decrease while the number of low paying adjunct faculty jobs increase.
The end result is that a small number of black faculty are now given the opportunity to make as much money as lawyers and wall street bankers, but are under pressure to move from place to place to place (and to consistently produce produce produce) in order to do so.
We’re now seeing a wave of black student protest that we haven’t seen since the years right before Black Studies 2.0 took hold. What might Black Studies 3.0 look like? What should it look like?
I’m coming up against my word count so i can’t go long. But instead of definitively answering this question I’ll pose a series of questions I think people interested and invested in this should ask.
First. Do we want to mirror the arms race that sees a small number of faculty members gain the lion’s share of resources or do we want to share resources equitably?
Second. Do we want to enhance our ability as individual faculty members to pursue our research and job opportunities where-ever they may take us, or do we want to enhance the likelihood of generating deep and enduring institutional changes where we are?
Third. Do we want to increase the potential black students have of constructing a rich concept of blackness that has room for queer and straight students from Detroit, Kingston, Johannesburg, Tamale…or do we want to prepare black students for the job market?
Fourth. In black studies centers in or near major urban centers, do we have a responsibility to bring scholarship to bear on the issues facing those centers, or do we primarily have a responsibility to our own individual research agendas?
Fifth. Should questions of political economy be “backgrounded” or “foregrounded”?
These and other questions all boil down to a very simple proposition. Are we to be part of a black radical abolitionist project?