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Thursday, July 14, 2011


From the enlightened perspective of the Third Millennium, we might imagine that it would be impossible even to consider turning down a simple request for the inclusion of the African-American experience in university curricula. The academy, after all, conceives itself as embodying the exalted vision of classical Greece and Rome. Was it not the Roman playwright Terence who said "Homo sum. Humani nil a me alienum.." [I am a man. Nothing human is alien to me.] But alas, even so modest and respectful a request had to submit to full-scale scholarly review by the guardians of Western Civilization, and the outcome was by no means certain.

In 1967, the Black Student Alliance at Yale, led by Armstead Robinson, began to argue for some sort of incorporation of Black Studies into the undergraduate curriculum. As Robinson tells it, "after several months of determined effort, we discovered that little progress was being made in the struggle to convince the faculty at large of the validity and importance of our concerns." At the symposium organized by the students, the Provost began by making a few suitably sensitive remarks about racism and the like, and then with quite unconscious condescension, posed the question to which the speakers would address themselves: "What is the intellectual significance of focusing a part of our curriculum consciously and directly on the black experience?" Or, as Yale's President Kingman Brewster put it in one early discussion, "Is race a proper organizing principle for the curriculum?"

But more than forty years have passed, and it looks as though this is one battle we may actually have won. Black authors are regularly included on the required reading lists of college and university courses. Not merely the doings of prominent Black men and women, but the lives and activities of the millions of less prominent African-Americans crop up in history courses outside of Afro-American Studies departments. While writing these lines [which appeared originally in my book Autobiography of an Ex-White Man], I paused to access the on-line descriptions of the undergraduate and graduate course offerings at a number of the elite Eastern universities, which in years past paid little or no attention to Black Americans. The change that has been wrought in two generations is quite astonishing.

At Harvard, for example, I found no fewer than a dozen English Department courses in which the writings of Black authors are prominently featured. Two of these, to be sure, are taught by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who chairs the Afro-American Studies Department while holding a position in the English Department. But the presence of Black authors in exclusively English Department courses is striking, nonetheless. A course on American Autobiography lists among the authors to be read Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Jacobs, Malcolm X, and Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston shows up as well in a course on Language and Culture in American Modernism, and is the especial focus of a course on Southern Folklore and Southern Literature. Jacobs and Douglass turn up again, and so do Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison. An undergraduate course on Fiction Writing is taught by Jamaica Kincaid, a prominent Black author.

Even the Harvard History Department, famous in the past as a redoubt of self-congratulatory, inward-looking, old-fashioned panjundrums of the historical profession, sports eighteen courses in which explicit attention is paid to the experiences of African-Americans. There is, of course, no telling from course titles how the materials are actually taught -- two of the eighteen are taught by Stephen Thern­strom, who with his wife Abigail has made a name for himself as a foe of affirmative action, multi-culturalism, and other suchlike heresies. But Thernstrom is a good social historian, despite the direction of his sentiments, and it seems clear from the array of course offerings that a student wanting to learn about the place of African-Americans in American history can pretty well fill up his or her program with the History Department courses.

I found the same Black presence in the course offerings at Princeton and Yale. I don't think we need to carry out an extensive survey of college and university catalogues to be confident that for the present, the major authors of the Afro-American literary tradition will be accorded their place on the reading lists distributed to students at the beginning of each college semester, and a pretty good sprinkling of minor authors will receive some notice as well.

To be sure, there will always be fads and fashions in the life of the mind, and this author or that will at one time be widely read, at another time ignored. When I was a young philosophy student, no one paid any attention to Emerson and Thoreau, who were thought to be lightweight essayists. Now, it seems, they are all the rage, and deep thinkers take them seriously. It is hard for us to remember that in the eighteenth century, Plato and Aristotle were in eclipse, and Cicero, who has always seemed to me to be a third-rate imitator at best, was held in the highest esteem. Difficult as it may be for young literature students to believe, Melville was paid very little attention by the aca­demic community until the Harvard critic F. O. Matthiessen succeeded in rehabilitating him. Even Shake­speare has had his good and bad centuries. So the fortunes of Hurston, Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison will undoubtedly wax and wane.

In the field of history, the situation is, if anything, even better. Thomas Bailey's expression of anxiety for the historical reputations of "significant white men" is simply unimaginable at a meeting of the Organization of American Historians today. Many of the most brilliant and most widely read American historians these days, White and Black, are students of the history of slavery and its aftermath. The scholarly journals are filled with investigations of every conceivable aspect of the lives and experiences of Black Americans. Things have been tough in the Academy lately for those with doctorates in the Humanities, but making some aspect of Black Studies your specialty these days actually improves rather than hurts your chances of getting a teaching job.

For the moment the battle of inclusion has been won. But the struggle for racial justice and for the simplest acknowledgment of the humanity of African-Americans is by no means a story of steady progress. We have seen other times in the history of America when it looked as though genuine racial victories were being won, and gains made permanent, only to have a reaction set in that snatched all or most of those gains away. Indeed, we are in such a period of retreat at this moment. It remains to be seen [by others, not by me, alas] whether the victories of inclusion in college curricula are sustained or reversed in the next half century.

A second component of the original program for a recognition of the Black experience was the call for scholarly studies of the history, literature, and culture of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. European and American anthropologists had, of course, for some time been producing ethnographic accounts of supposedly primitive peoples in Africa and elsewhere -- "primitive" in this context usually meaning lacking in atomic weapons and tending to wear fewer clothes than is required by northern climates. But despite the efforts of a number of distinguished students of Africa, White and Black, the demand for scholarly recognition of sub-Saharan Africa ran into extraordinary opposition.

You would have thought this one was a no-brainer. After all, in the 1960's, thanks to the Cold War, the federal government was funding all manner of area studies programs as well as the study of potentially strategic languages. Russian Research Institutes, Eastern European Area Programs, Asian Studies Centers, Latin American Studies Certificate Programs -- all were the recipients of government money. Who could possibly object to a study of the history, languages, literatures, and cultures of African peoples?

The problem was that for almost two centuries it has been a tenet of faith among Western intellectuals that sub-Saharan Africa does not have a history, a literature, or a culture worthy of study by anyone other than an anthropologist. The locus classicus for this bizarre and demeaning view is Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History, delivered for the first time in 1822. Hegel's dismissive discussion of Africa has been quoted many times, but it is worth quoting again. I urge the reader who is not Black to try to imagine how it feels to hear, from the man widely thought to be the greatest thinker of the past two centuries, that one has no history and hence counts for nothing in the larger scheme of things. In the Introduction to the Lectures, Hegel turns his attention momentarily to Africa [excluding Egypt.] The following passages give the flavor of his remarks:

"Africa proper, as far as History goes back, has remained – for all purposes of connection with the rest of the world – shut up; it is the Gold-land compressed within itself – the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night. … The peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas – the category of Universality. In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence – as for example, God, or Law – in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being [and so on, for several pages].

At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is in no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit. … What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History."

It is astonishing how influential these words have been, both in creating and in validating the Euro-American fantasy of "the Dark Continent." The central theme of Hegel's remarks is the ahistoricity of Africa. Hegel claims that unlike Europe, Asia, the Indian subcontinent, or even the New World, sub-Saharan Africa lives in a timeless present. Nothing ever happens there, save the endless succession of seasons and generations. This is the underlying myth that for generations sustained ethnographers in their quixotic search for "primitive peoples" -- peoples, that is to say, who, though alive today, are nevertheless living pre-historic lives. Quite sophisticated social scientists, capable of the most nuanced methodo­logical meditations, have built their entire research programs on this curious fantasy.

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