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Sunday, July 17, 2011


Why a Department of Afro-American Studies?

Only a department devoted to the study of the African-American experience can serve as the home for the new American Griot, if I may invoke an old African tradition. Because of the centrality in the American story of the role of African‑Americans, a consideration of the Afro‑American experience is nothing less than a reconsideration of America. Through the prism of Afro‑American Studies, the light shining from the City upon a Hill is fractured into the rainbow of the composite American experience. When that light is resynthesized, we are presented with a new image of America, an image critical as well as celebratory. Afro‑American Studies is not the Negro Quarter in the ghetto of Multiculturalism -- a vibrant place of strange sounds and smells that the uptown folks can visit on a night out. Afro‑American Studies is the necessary corrective to a four‑centuries‑long misappropriation of the American experience.

But why an academic department of Afro-American Studies? Why not rely on the new American Story to be told by scholars, poets, novelists, and public figures wherever they are situated? The story I have told in this tutorial was taught to me by many people, some in my own department, some in other Afro-American Studies departments, but most of them not in such departments at all. Leon Litwack, Lawrence Levine, Jacqueline Jones, and Charles Joyner are all historians. Leon Higgenbotham taught law when he was not serving as a Federal Appeals Court Judge. Vincent Harding taught at a school of theology. The great W. E. B. Du Bois did not live quite long enough to see the creation of a department of Afro-American Studies.

Nell Painter is a distinguished historian who has served two terms as head of the Princeton University Black Studies program. In an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, she spoke of some of the reasons why we need strong Black Studies programs. "To attract and keep black faculty members, an institution needs to have a critical mass of black students and faculty members. Black students and faculty members and black studies flourish in good company and wither in isolation." No matter how many victories are won, the attacks on the legitimacy of Black Studies continue. "So where are we 30 years later?" she asks. "Utterly exhausted! ... It seems like every single change has required struggle, and no improvement becomes permanent. I wonder whether that will always be true."

In order to see why it is so important that there be strong, well-established academic departments of Afro-American Studies, we need to look for a bit at the inner workings of universities. Now this is not a subject that brings delight to the soul, even for members of the academy. But it is in the bureaucratic structure of the university that power is secreted, not in its flowery mission statements or Commencement Day ceremonies.

Once again, let me begin with a story. When I entered Harvard College as a young freshman fifty-four years ago, the College was just phasing in a new undergraduate curriculum called General Education. There was nothing fancy about Gen Ed, as it very quickly came to be known. It consisted of a number of large lecture courses in the Humanities, the Social Sciences, and the Natural Sciences, taught in many cases by the most senior and distinguished members of the faculty. Each undergraduate, as part of his year-long courses [Harvard was all-male in those days], was required to take one course in each category. My freshman year, I took a marvelous course with a fiery red-haired historian named Sam Beer. We studied everything from the Anglo-Saxon wergeld to the fall of the Weimar Republic.

Because these courses were required of all students, and also because they were among the best courses in the catalogue, Gen Ed very quickly became a fixture at Harvard. By the time it was my turn to teach in the program eight years later, it seemed to undergraduates as though Gen Ed had existed forever, and would go on existing forever. But there was no department of General Education. There was a committee of senior faculty who administered the program, recruiting professors to teach the courses, choosing which courses to offer, and approving a small number of Aupper level Gen Ed@ courses which were simply exciting interdisciplinary offerings that someone wanted to teach. Nor was there a faculty of General Education. To be sure, a great many young men [and a few young women] were appointed to Instructorships or Assistant Professorships in General Education and something or other -- my official title during my three year stay in the program was Instructor in General Education and Philosophy. But we all understood that it was impossible to get tenure in Gen Ed. For us, it was a very pleasant professional dead end.

Years passed -- indeed, decades passed -- and finally the Harvard faculty grew weary of General Education. At first, it had been marvelous for senior professors to create broad-scale courses drawing on the widest possible range of materials, which they could lay before three or four hundred adoring undergraduates. But as Max Weber pointed out so long ago, even charisma becomes routinized, and eventually the task of teaching Gen Ed courses was handed off to junior faculty.

So one day -- so to speak -- the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to end General Education, and replace it with something new. There is nothing surprising about this turn of events. Faculties are constantly reshuffling their teaching materials, reconfiguring what they require of undergraduates, creating new courses, new mixes. It keeps all of us young and limber, mentally speaking. But there is a lesson to be learned from it. Programs and requirements that seem eternal to undergraduates may be passing fancies from the perspective of the faculty. Undergraduates, after all, are like May flies. Their entire life span is only four years, which is not even one sabbatical cycle for a professor. In the glacial world of the academy, four years is merely a Spring. Even though General Education lasted at Harvard for thirty years or more, no one ever got tenure in it, no one ever earned a degree in it, and today it is remembered only by people like myself, old enough to tell stories of their youth.

And General Education was not especially controversial. There were no alumni revolts against it. Officials of the Federal Government did not inveigh against it. It did not even generate much opposition from old guard faculty, as educational innovations so often do. Harvard just tired of it, and decided to replace it with something new.

Think now of Black Studies. It was born in turmoil out of struggle and rage. It provoked from the very first moment of its existence the most violent and intemperate opposition. Virtually every college or university administration that agreed to the establishment of a Black Studies program did so for nakedly political reasons -- to avoid campus revolts, to end a building seizure, as a response to the threat of violence. Black Studies did not emerge from faculty committees calmly reflecting on the life of the mind and concluding that the curriculum needed to be enriched by the Black experience. Even the most publicly progressive of academic administrations wanted no more than a token Black presence on their campuses, until forced by the larger events of the nation to open their doors a bit wider. So it is that when Black Studies programs came into existence, the White campuses on which they were housed used every device to make sure that they could be terminated, when things calmed down, without breaking tenure or disrupting the bureaucratic administration of the institution.

The simplest device was the faculty committee -- the arrangement that served Harvard so well during the life of General Education. To an undergraduate who finds a Committee on Black Studies in operation when he or she arrives on the campus, and sees it still functioning four years later, Black Studies looks like a permanent fixture. But to senior faculty and administrators, it is transparently a temporary arrangement. A Committee can be disbanded simply by a memorandum.

The appointment of junior faculty gives a somewhat more settled appearance to Black Studies, even though the positions may not be, as we say in the trade, tenure track. Outsiders may have a hard time distinguishing between graduate student teaching assistants and professors, let alone between tenure track, non-tenure track, and tenured professors, but to the faculty, whose bread and butter depends on these distinctions, there is no confusion. A university can quite easily hire a whole raft of junior non-tenure track Black Studies assistant professors without making the slightest permanent commitment either to them or to their field.

Equally meretricious, though considerably more impressive looking, is the practice of joint appointments. At the non-tenured level, these appointments are a snare and a delusion. The junior professor in, let us say, History and Afro-American Studies, must somehow ingratiate herself both with the senior members of the History department, who care only about her performance as an historian and give her no credit for her contributions to Black Studies, and with the members of the committee administering the Afro-American Studies degree, who come from many departments and neither see nor credit her services to History. What is more, almost certainly a majority of the senior members of the History department will be unsympathetic with Black Studies in general, and unwilling to commit one of their scarce tenure slots to someone who is, in their eyes, not really an historian. Even when politically charged issues are not involved, junior faculty find it forbiddingly difficult to negotiate these rapids. When one adds race to the mix, it becomes nearly impossible.

Finally, there is the device of joint tenured appointments. In a university with a strong tradition of faculty tenure, this arrangement has the very great virtue of protecting Black Studies professors from losing their jobs. But although it protects the professors, it does not protect the field of Black Studies. When the turmoil quiets down, when intellectual currents change direction, when a star professor leaves for a gig somewhere else, or when America goes into a period of reactionary retreat on matters of race -- which it does with great regularity -- Black Studies as an academic field can be terminated at the university, and the faculty distributed to their home departments. After all, the senior professors who taught General Education had tenure. That did not protect General Education from being ended when fashions changed.

Think for a moment about the Harvard Department of African-American Studies, which, for a time there in the late nineties and early years of this millennium, was the hottest thing in Academe. The Harvard department, led by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., so much media coverage that the educated White world was quite aware of the "Dream Team" of distinguished and well-known professors who were gathered there by Gates. Cornell West, William Julius Wilson, Anthony Appiah, Evelyn Higgenbotham -- that is a line-up to make a Dean's heart swell with pride. To the undergraduates at Harvard, it must seem that Afro-American Studies is as permanent as the marble of Widener Library. Nothing, surely, can threaten its continued existence.

And yet -- every single senior and junior professor in the department was hired on a joint appointment – Gates as a member of the English Department, West in the theology faculty, Wilson on the faculty of the Kennedy School of Government, Appiah as a member of the Philosophy Department. Speaking strictly from a purely bureaucratic point of view, there is no Harvard department of Afro-American Studies. Harvard could terminate it tomorrow, and simply redistribute the faculty to their real academic homes.

But surely that will not happen! Gates has raised a vast sum of money, and has made himself far and away the best known Black intellectual in the White community. Harvard gives every evidence of being deeply committed to Afro-American Studies. No doubt. As it was to General Education. But what would happen if Gates were to move on to head up a great foundation or run a major university or even a position in the Federal Government? Cornell West and Anthony Appiah have already been wooed away by Princeton, and during Lawrence Summers' brief and disastrous presidency of Harvard, he made it clear that he did not share his predecessor’s enthusiasm for Black Studies. What will be the future of Afro-American Studies at Harvard? It almost died once, after all.

No, in the Byzantine world of the academy, there is only one solid foundation on which to build a discipline: A stand-alone regular academic department with a regular budget lodged in a faculty overseen by a Dean and staffed by a full complement of senior professors who have tenure solely and entirely in that department. Physics would not accept less. Neither would History, Mathematics, or Sociology. Why should Black Studies?

University departments have been around for such a long time that even senior tenured faculty tend to consider them as eternal, but in the life of the academy, which, after all, traces itself back two and a half millennia to Plato's Groves of Academe, they too are a very recent phenomenon. Recall T. H. White's lovely conceit in The Sword in the Stone, in which he has Merlin change the young Arthur into all manner of animals, vegetables, and minerals so that he will have a deep understanding of the natural world before assuming his kingship. At one point, Wart becomes a mountain, and discovers how slowly the world changes from its perspective. We need something like Merlin's trick to see the university department in its true light.

In the Middle Ages, universities were itinerant communities of scholars. Later on, they organized themselves into faculties B of law, of medicine, of theology. When the nineteenth century German institution of the research university was transplanted in America, the faculty at first consisted of a constellation of professors, surrounded by clouds of lesser beings who handled some of the teaching chores. That then changed. As Alain Touraine tells us in his valuable study of the American academic system, "the great American innovation was the creation of departments. They made their appearance at Cornell and Johns Hopkins as early as 1880, at Harvard and Chicago around 1881-2, and at Columbia in the late nineties."

The department was not at first a locus of tenure, for nothing like tenure existed in the eighteen-nineties. The idea of job security as a protection of academic freedom arose during the political assaults on professors triggered by the hysteria of the First World War, and it was not until after the Second World War that the modern protection of tenure became widespread in the academy. By the time Black Studies was launched, however, it had become the settled practice of virtually all American colleges and universities to grant tenure to faculty after a lengthy probationary period and a searching professional review. The practice was adopted throughout the academy of awarding tenure only to regular members of academic departments. Teaching positions were regularly advertised as Atenure track@ or Anon-tenure track,@ and only those on tenure track appointments were even eligible to be considered for promotion with tenure.

There is no way of knowing how long the present system of departments and tenure will last. Tenure was bitterly resisted by administrators and trustees when it was first proposed, and has been fought ever since. University administrations are constantly searching for ways to overcome the stubborn independence of professors. Breaking up departments in the name of innovation, or interdisciplinarity, or pedagogical improvement will always appeal to provosts, presidents, and trustees who are prone to the occupational delusion that they are the university. But for so long as departments are the vehicle for the reproduction of disciplines and the protection of the intellectual freedom of professors, Black Studies must demand full independent departmental status in the college or university.

Here, then, is my answer to the question, Who shall guard and tell the true story of America? The story must have a home in university Black Studies departments that take as their focus the African-American experience -- departments that seek to understand America as a whole through the lens of the African-American experience.

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