Challenges Facing Black Studies Departments

Black StudiesBlack Studies is my first and most significant scholarly/activist love. From childhood when my dad told me stories of ancient African ingenuity, rebellious enslaved Africans and courageous African-American freedom fighters to my college protests to protect and advance the Black Studies Department at Syracuse University, to my scholarly studies of the discipline and community organizing, I’ve been fascinated with researching, understanding, analyzing, teaching and advancing Black people and our collective experience in America and throughout the Diaspora.

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Black Studies Departments emerged via the Black Power Movement) in the mid 1960s, first at San Francisco State University, then spreading across white college campuses throughout the nation.

Various factors led Black students, intellectuals, and activists to issue the demand for Black Studies including;

•Increasing numbers of Black students on white college campuses
•The issues and consciousness raised by the Civil Rights, Black Power and College Free Speech Movements
• The wave of violent Black rebellions In American cities (espe ially between 1964-1968).
• Black students’ desire to acquire the skills and information to liberate their people and their recognition that university education prepared them to be workers/thinkers/leaders for white America.

Black Studies met with controversy as students, activists, radical intellectuals and Black integrationist leaders/intellectuals debated the validity, form, content aim, and organizational structure of the new discipline:

Should whites be allowed to teach or take Black Studies classes? Should they be college departments or independent colleges and universities? Should the discipline be based strictly in history or should it be interdisciplinary? Was it necessary for a Black Studies professor to have a doctorate degree or to have published essays in scholarly journals? Could experience substitute for traditional academic credentials?  Would these institutions be accountable to the white universities which housed/financially supported them, or to the larger Black community?

Given these questions and the divergent ideological visions of Black Studies pioneers, the discipline grew to embody a range of manifestations. At places like Cornell University, Black Studies became a research center that reported directly to the university provost and had the power to hire its own professors. On other campuses, Black Studies became a standard academic department, and there were also attempts to create actual colleges and universities. Some focused primarily on Africa and the United States experience, while others employed a Diasporan focus. 

With many Black Studies Departments now four decades-old, we can reflect on what has worked, what has not, and our future vision for the discipline.

In my opinion, Vincent Harding’s landmark article IBW and The Vocation of The Black Scholar remains the most relevant and visionary thinking regarding the objectives of Black Studies and its founders. I humbly recommend you read it if you haven’t. What follows are my own non-empirical observations/critiques of Black Studies Programs.

Challenges facing BSDs

• BSDs maintain a constant struggle over adequate funding, space and autonomy
• BSDs struggle to secure and provide adequate funding (assistantships/fellowships) to cover geaduate students’ living and school expenses.
• BSD classes are often seen as non-essential and non-challenging by undergrads. Furthermore, a significant number of Black undergraduates view Black Studies courses as redundant or irrelevant to their careers or lives generally. This leads such students to avoid taking Black Studies classes altogether. As one former classmate who is now a Black Studies professor once told me, “White students comprise the majority o my classes!”
• BSDs are often lumped together with other non traditional departments like Women’s Studies, and Latino Studies.
• Black Studies professors often face unfair difficulties earning tenure, and often do not receive the same money or prestige as their colleagues in other departments.
• Because Black Studies professors often have joint assignments (work for two or more departments at the same time), such professors often cannot teach the range of courses they’d like to. Often this causes BSDs to offer very limited course offerings each semester.

•Some BSDs are led by careerist professors with little appreciation for the community politics and scholar/activist roots of the discipline. Such leaders limit the scope and breadth of Black Studies by insisting the discipline be narrowly academic, disconnected from community concerns and disengaged from challenging institutional hegemony on campus.
• The relative job security, increased pay and other perks that come with being tenured, pressures faculty to meet the criteria for doing so. Requirements include writing books, and having essays published in prestigious scolarly journals. This requires great time and effort, which means non-tenured professors are often unavailable to teach more courses, mentor undergrad students or groom future scholars among their grad students.
• Often there is little or no protocol to guard against incompetent or ineffective leadership, unprofessional behavior, or unilateral and ill-advised decisions on the part of faculty. Consequently, Black Studies Departments more than others, are vulnerable to poor administrative choices/actions.
•The pressure to maintain traditional academic standards often creates a competitive, impersonal, and uncooperative environment among faculty and grad students.
•Because BSDs are sometimes viewed as less academically rigorous than others, they tend to attract careerist grad students with no background or interest in actual black community development or empowerment. Such folk will make conference presentations, write some books and essays or edit a scholarly journal, but not join or work with Black community organizations that engage and work to resolve sociopolitical issues affecting Black people. This type of isolated and apolitical posture stands in direct opposition to purpose and objectives of Black Studies itself.

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Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” 

Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment. He is founder/coordinator of the Harlem Liberation School.

Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

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