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Monday, June 27, 2011


With this post, I begin what will be a rather lengthy tutorial on Afro-American Studies. Despite having spent the last sixteen years of my career as a Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I am no sort of scholar of the subject at all. My only publication that is even arguably in the field is Autobiography of an Ex-White Man [University of Rochester Press, 2005], which tells the story of my experiences in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. I have chosen to launch this tutorial because I believe both that the subject is intellectually interesting and that it has something very important to teach all of us about contemporary America.

There are three questions that a tutorial of this sort should seek to answer: First, what, in its broad outlines and in some illustrative detail, is the story of the Africans brought to North America as slaves, both during and after their period of enslavement, and of their descendants? Second, What is the history of the scholarship of Afro-American Studies? How has that scholarship, evolved over time, who are some of the principal contributors to this collective scholarly effort, and what are some of the significant books that readers of this tutorial might wish to consult? and Third, What is the institutional story of Afro-American Studies as an academic discipline? When was the discipline launched, how did it develop, and what is the state of the discipline now? In what follows, I shall make an effort to address all of these questions, but I remind you that I am a novice in the field. You must turn to others for a more authoritative account.

First some terminological matters and a clearer delineation of the academic territory I shall be surveying. As often happens, the words used to refer to the people whose story we shall be telling are themselves a focus for contention. [We saw an analogous example in our discussion of the Zhu in the tutorial on Ideological Critique.] Leaving aside the derogatory terms that were, and still are, used by Whites to refer to the descendants of slaves [a subject that is itself a sub-field in the discipline of Afro-American Studies, sometimes referred to as "Coonery"], at one time or another the subjects of this discourse have referred to themselves as "Negro," "Black, "Colored," "African American," and "Afro-American." Absolutely nothing about this choice of words is simple or ideologically neutral, and every one of these terms has been fought over and used as a celebration or a reproach. I am going to use the term "Afro-American Studies," principally because that is the choice that was made by my colleagues at the University of Massachusetts when they established a new department in the 1960's. I shall refer to the subjects of the discipline as "African-Americans." These choices are not at all arbitrary. They actually encode one particular conception of the discipline, but there are at least three other conceptions that have informed scholarly work and the institutionalization of that work in academic departments. A few words of explanation are called for.

West Africans were brought to the New World as slaves starting in the early 16th century [which is to say almost immediately after the first voyages of discovery], the first slaves arriving in the North American colonies a century later in 1619 [in the colony of Virginia.] Far and away the greatest number of West African slaves were brought to South America and the Caribbean. Over the past half century, at least four distinctly different schools of scholarly research have grown up to document and interpret this history, and though they have many points of contact and intersection, it is best to keep them conceptually distinct.

The first school of research, which I shall refer to as Afro-American Studies, examines the lives, struggles, culture, and politics of the Africans brought as slaves to the North American colonies, and their actions first as slaves in the Colonies, then as slaves in the United States of America, and then as American citizens after their liberation at the end of the Civil War. Under this rubric I include the descendants of those slaves and ex-slaves, up to the present day. This is the school of research on which I shall be concentrating in this tutorial.

The second school of research, frequently referred to as Diasporic Studies, examines the lives and doings of all of the West Africans seized, enslaved, and brought to the New World, regardless of where they ended up on this side of the Atlantic. This approach takes the entire slave trade and its consequences as a unified object of study, crossing national borders and languages in an effort to formulate an integrated picture of the lives of all of those who formed a part of the African Diaspora.

The third school of research, often referred to as Cultural Studies, explores the literature, music, drama, visual arts, folk arts, and oral culture of African-Americans, using the tools of Literary Criticism, Cultural Anthropology, Comparative Literature, and associated disciplines, frequently with extensive comparative forays into the literature and culture of other groups of Americans.

Finally, at Temple University, pretty much as the brainchild of one man, Molefi Asante, a school of research has developed that its practitioners refer to as Africana Studies or Africology. In this school, a heavy emphasis is placed on the African cultural, philosophical, and historical roots of the African-American experience, with special attention to the Egyptian contribution to world culture.

All four of these schools or tendencies have found homes in doctoral programs at American Universities. Afro-American Studies flourishes at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Diasporic Studies has taken root at Berkeley, at Michigan State, and at Yale [with an emphasis on what is referred to as "Black Atlantic."] Cultural Studies are the principal focus of the program at Harvard. And Africology still has a home at Temple.

Finally, I should mention an international movement that has played a role in world politics, but has no significant home currently in the American academy, namely the Pan-African Movement that was launched in reaction to European colonial domination of Africa and gave rise to a series of important international conferences. Along the way, I shall have occasion to make reference to several major American scholar/activists who were instrumental in the Pan-African movement.

Each of these schools of research has an ideological component, and each has its share of texts, artifacts, historical traditions, and research techniques. My choice of Afro-American studies as the focus of this tutorial is motivated partly by the constraints of my inadequate knowledge and partly by my very great interest in what Afro-American Studies can tell us about America. The only one of these schools of research that is in any way intellectually suspect is Asante's Africology, and I shall try later on to do as much justice to it as I can.

Tomorrow, we shall begin. I should say at the outset that I shall probably not be able to maintain the rather blistering pace of my previous tutorials, with well over as thousand words a day being posted. Recognizing that we are now in a lazy Summer tempo, I may skip a day or more between parts of this tutorial.


Amato said...

Professor, I am very excited about this tutorial. Let me say, though, that you're right about Molefi Asante--he is little more than a polemicist--however, scholars like John Henrik Clarke and Cheikh Anta Diop did worthy and serious work which focused on African cultural roots and the Egyptian contribution. What I'm basically saying is it is a subject worth taking seriously.

Also, would you consider Diasporic studies the same as Africana studies?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

For the most part,l these are terminological disputes, but Africana Studies typically has a heavy concentration on African, especially Southern African, studies, whereas Diasporic Studies tends to focus on the New World -- especially Brazil, the Caribbean, etc.

I hope to be able to say something respectful and interesting about Asante's project later in this tutorial. These are early days, and there is a whole summer to fill!

Michael said...

I'm excited that you are doing this tutorial, Professor Wolff. You may already have my request planned down the line. In any case, I'd love to hear your take on the relationship between the Black Civil Rights Movement and Afro-American Studies as an academic discipline. I remember that, in your memoirs, you mentioned that a number of your AA Studies colleagues had been significant players in the Civil Rights Movement, and I'm curious about what else you might have to say about that.

Amato said...

Michael there is a great book called, From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline, if you're really interested in the subject.

Michael said...

Thanks for the tip, Amato. I'll give it a look.