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Minding the Campus


What African-American Studies Could Be

September 30, 2009

By John H. McWhorter

While this year has become best known as the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock, it was also forty years ago that the first African-American Studies department was established, at San Francisco State University.

Forty-one fall semesters later, there are hundreds of such departments. Has what they teach evolved with the march of time? What should the mission of a truly modern African-American Studies department be?

The answer common in such departments is that the principal mission is to teach students about the eternal power of racism past and present. Certainly it should be part of a liberal arts education to learn that racism is more than face-to-face abuse, and that social inequality is endemic to American society. However, too often the curriculum of African-American Studies departments gives the impression that racism and disadvantage are the most important things to note and study about being black.

The question is whether this, for all of its moral urgency in the local sense, qualifies as education under any serious definition.

Typical is the curriculum of one African-American Studies department in a solid, selective state school west of the Mississippi. In this department, racism is, essentially, everything.

One course teaches that “Housing discrimination systematically skews opportunities and life chances,” another that “racism, sexism, and heterosexism shape black life chances in a 21st century context,” while yet another zeroes in on “the effects of institutional racism on social policy, desegregation, integration, and affirmative action programs.”

Then there is “Blacks in the Media” - or, rather, one slice of that subject: “Studying literature, comic books, comic strips, cartoons, music, theater, cinema, broadcasting, and television, students will analyze the mythical imageries which have created stereotypes.” This is a common trope in writings on black performance, in which any performer can be jammed into a category such as “Mammy” or “Tragic Mulatto,” sidestepping the nevertheless brilliant performances of people like Ethel Waters and Fredi Washington in the old days, or Queen Latifah and Halle Berry today.

Following from this glum desperation is a fetishization of radical politics as blacks’ only constructive allegiance. One would never know the marginal import of radicalism to most black lives from its centrality to so many African-American Studies department syllabi. One course analyzes “the tradition of radical thought and the relevance of this thought to the needs and interests of the black community” - but what does the “relevance” consist of except intellectually? Yet the same department also offers a course on, more specifically, black Marxism.

According to this curriculum, being black has been so horrific that we are even challenged by the mere physicality of existence. One courses teaches that black women’s bodies have to be “important spaces of resistance,” while another is based on the idea that black people have been done in by various permutations of “urban spatial relations.”

Because racism and inequality will always exist in some forms, this all qualifies as a bone-deep, almost willful pessimism about black potential. One would expect the thinking class of a troubled race to at least pay more lip service to looking forward. The set-jawed obsession with tabulating obstacles becomes almost peculiar, as if based on an assumption that in some way, black Americans are uniquely exempt from treating challenges as surmountable. There is even a course on black psychology whose description would get a white-run department picketed out of existence in a week, examining “manifestations of various psychological characteristics of people of African decent [sic], their cultual [sic] and behavioral norms, including the way that issues of race, class, gender and sexuality affect their cognitive, social, and emotional development.”

One senses that the people teaching in African-American Studies departments feel that blackness is indeed something very different, likely because African slaves were unwilling immigrants. However, Ralph Ellison once asked “Can a people live and develop for over three hundred years simply by reacting?”

To those who would consider themselves representing black people by answering in the affirmative, there are legions of black people of all walks who would heartily disagree. There is no self-standing metric of unassailable truth that justifies intellectuals treating that disagreement - that is, the life-spirit of a people millions strong making the best of the worst for four hundred years -- as unworthy of serious address.

As to the possible objection that course descriptions do not engage these departments closely enough, a look at a few actual course syllabi is useful.

At the University of Pennsylvania, the syllabus for “Racial and Sexual Conflict” openly states that “The term paper for this course should be concerned with the structure, causes, and policies that attempt to alleviate or perpetuate racial and/or sexual discrimination in the United States.” Technically, this stipulation could allow an exploration of what people have done to get past obstacles rather than merely describe them. However, the material covered in this course gives precious little support to such an endeavor.

One week, the discussion concerns the questions as to “What role does educational opportunity play in economic opportunity? How has government policy affected educational opportunity by race?” However, the readings include none of the academic literature by scholars such as Joleen Kirschenman, Kathryn Neckerman, Jomills Braddock, James McPartland and Alford Young on how attitudinal factors affect the hireability of many uneducated black men, none of the literature on solid job opportunities for people without college degrees, and nothing on organizations nationwide assisting people in taking advantage of such opportunities. In a course purporting to teach America’s brightest and most ambitious students about urgent realities, how are sources such as these irrelevant?

At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, one course exemplifies the focus on radicalism. “Race, Radicalism and African American Culture” seeks to “track the genealogy of the movement that came to be called ’Black Power,’ and to situate black radical artists and intellectuals in the broader history of twentieth-century American thought, culture, and politics.”

And the course covers a noble procession of figures: Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, the Black Panthers, Amiri Baraka, Cornel West, Bell Hooks. Not to mention James Baldwin. And Malcolm X. And Stokely Carmichael. Upon which the simple question is: despite their resonance, what effect did any of these people have upon the fact that there are today more middle-class black people than poor ones? Which was more central to making whites comfortable enough with blackness to elect a black President, the legacy of Malcolm X or the legacy of Dr. King?

As to King, the course does address Bayard Rustin, who was central to organizing the March on Washington. But he was at loggerheads with black radicals as the sixties wore on. The main legacy of black radicalism has been mood and fashion. Is its centrality to so many African-American Studies departments’ curricula a matter of comprehensive engagement with black political development? Or is it what happens to be a common political orientation among modern academics in the humanities, including black ones?

To the extent that the answer is the latter, students are being underserved. At Columbia, in one African-American Studies course Manning Marable assigns an article by Robin Kelley called “Beyond the ’Real’ World, or Why Black Radicals Need to Wake Up and Start Dreaming.” But which black radical dreams have borne fruit in a way that would elicit a salute from ordinary black people in 2009? Dr. King had a dream indeed -- but he didn’t mean us to stop there.

The issue is not the quality of these courses in themselves. I will gladly assume that these professors are all excellent lecturers, assiduous researchers and dedicated mentors. Yet attention must be paid to their ideological bias nevertheless. An African-American Studies curriculum whose main message is that black Americans’ most interesting experience has always been racism, still is, and that this requires radicalism as a politics of choice is not education. It is indoctrination. It proposes a single minority view as sense incarnate. This is not what education is supposed to be.

To the extent that these courses and syllabi are typical, then, there is a problem. And anyone familiar with African-American Studies departments knows that these courses and syllabi are, indeed, typical.

African-American Studies departments have a place in a liberal arts education. However, to deserve that inclusion in anything beyond a symbolic sense, they should revise their curricula in exactly two ways, simple but crucial.

First, there should be full acknowledgment in all courses that the role of racism in black people’s lives and fates is receding, and to such a degree that the race’s challenges today are vastly different than they were forty years ago.

The aim should not be to downplay the reality of racism, but to present precisely what education consists of: the ambiguities and challenges of real life and how one thinks about it.

Defeatism should be discouraged. Any sense that defeatism is the empirically proper position on black American history in the same way as it would have been for Pompeiians in the face of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius fails -- for the simple reason that progress for black Americans continues on so many fronts.

Most of the people in question would resist being characterized as defeatist, or as not acknowledging change. However, there is acknowledgment and there is genuflection. Plus, a claim that black radicalism is our only real future is, in itself, defeatism. Four centuries of black history give no indication that these politics will significantly affect how most black people thrive.

For example, a course like Yale’s on “African-American Politics” should include not only mention of the Bradley Effect (under which whites voters have claimed in polls that they would vote for black candidates but do not at the voting booth) but also that it has been proven to be on the wane repeatedly for twenty years, including in the election of Barack Obama. Otherwise, Yale’s teachings will lag behind what even Wikipedia tells us about the reality on the Bradley Effect, as opposed to its recruitment as a strategy of indoctrination.

The course I mentioned on blacks’ problems with urban space flags environmental racism - but would ideally mention the important work of Christopher Foreman of the Brookings Institution (black, for the record) showing that claims along these lines have been overblown.

It must also fall out of this that there will be no such thing as a course shoehorning the careers of hundreds of hard-working and excellent black artists and performers as lessons in stereotyping, or as most interesting for how they were hemmed in by racism than for what they accomplished regardless. Just as it is impossible to imagine Jewish Americans submitting themselves to so dispiriting and reductive a historiography of performance as this one, black scholars should step away from this kind of thinking as giving in to, rather than coping with, the ills of our history.

In the same vein, black popular music (including hip hop) should not be treated as most interesting in how it happened to intersect with (leftist and radical) political ideology - anymore than klezmer music, Chinese opera, or Tchaikovsky is. What about how our music is just good?

Second, an African-American Studies department should be considered larval without a course on black conservative thought - upon which courses on black radicalism would then be acceptable as alternative arguments.

Crucially, token assignment of writings of ancient three-named figures like Booker T. Washington, who wrote amidst post-Civil War conditions now ancient history, are a mere beginning. Most departments already slip in Washington, for example - although they should now regularly engage Robert Norrell’s new biography that rescues the man from a century of calumny.

However, equally central to honest engagement with “black thought” are modern figures often considered controversial by the campus set, such as Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Debra Dickerson, and Stanley Crouch. (I will refrain from putting myself on this list, but will mention that my work is not uncommonly assigned to college students and seems not to leave them deaf to America’s sociological imperfections.) Also useful, given that African-American Studies syllabi typically include some white writers, would be Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, Lawrence Mead, Dan Subotnik and Peter Wood.

There is an argument hardly unfamiliar in the halls of ivy that black writers of this ilk are irrelevant to serious discussion because they are traitors to the race. Those charges must be permitted as free speech - but have no place in any brand of academic inquiry. All of the writers I have listed are careful thinkers deeply concerned with the fate of black America. It will not do to tar them as “not scholarly” because they do not all write in academic format or publish in obscure scholarly journals. Writings typically assigned by James Baldwin, Cornel West or even most of the others in this school are not written in this format either.

Thomas Sowell is read by millions in a nationally syndicated column, and this is in part because he is an economics and history scholar of long standing, whose books are often festooned with footnotes and references to academic work. Shelby Steele won the National Book Award, because of rhetorical skill surely the equal of writers like Patricia Williams and Michael Eric Dyson. Stanley Crouch is a polymath whose salty, “down” essence challenges anyone’s claim that not being with the black radical program means not being “culturally black.”

To be sure, many professors in African-American Studies departments think of themselves as doing their jobs in what they term “contesting” assorted topics. An example is Marable’s “Critical Approaches to African-American Studies” at Columbia in which the contesting is the likes of “Remapping the black experience,” “Redefining whiteness,” and “Race-ing justice.” However, this is a rearranging of furniture, very en famille. The confrontational, leftwardly politicized assumptions remain steadfast - while millions of blacks have overcome having never heard of politics of this kind.

These views, nevertheless, have value and should be heard. Yet they are not, on their own, truth. They verge into excess and anti-empiricism as readily as views from the right. There exist as many intelligent “contestings” of these leftist views as there exist “contestings” of the writings of Shelby Steele or myself. In a university department worth the status, contesting from all sides must be heard.

Upon which I offer a sketch of a truly modern and truly educational African-American Studies curriculum.

In some aspects it would not differ significantly from typical ones today: I have no quibble with typical courses on Black Literature and Black Feminism. Also, my focus is how the black American experience is covered: courses on the Caribbean and Africa fall outside of that bailiwick.

Otherwise, however:

Black Conservative Thought. Between antique figures like Booker T. Washington and modern ones like Thomas Sowell, a course should also include the political writings of Zora Neale Hurston (Exhibit A: “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”). Equally key would be George Schuyler, who wrote unabashedly conservative columns for the Pittsburgh Courier in the middle decades of the twentieth century (there are now two biographies that can guide teachers to relevant materials). Schuyler could even challenge goodly sense, in opinions such as that there is no such thing as black American art. This aspect of his work would allow students to engage conservatism as imperfect just as they should liberalism. This is what education is. Leaving African-American Studies majors unaware that Schuyler existed, when in his time he was as well-known to bookish blacks as Bob Herbert is today, is not.

Black Urban History. The usual chronicles by scholars such as William Julius Wilson, Elijah Anderson, Douglas Massey and Thomas Sugrue must be included. However, students should also be taught that in the first half of the twentieth century there were thriving black business districts in large American cities - an ironic benefit from segregation. Why should students not be aware of such philosophically challenging realities?

Also, welfare reform since 1996 should not be restricted to wary questions about sexism, racism, and whether erstwhile welfare recipients are today making six-figure incomes (as it is in the University of Pennsylvania course I described). Its benefits must also be covered: a central text should be Jason De Parle’s American Dream, skeptical but honest and eminently readable.

Finally, in addition to covering the downsides of slum clearance and housing project architecture, students should learn - as part of a truly current and relevant curriculum -- that efforts under the HOPE VI program to disperse housing project residents to suburbs have not borne fruit as supposed (George Galster’s work should be assigned), leading to further questions - i.e. what education is -- as to where to go from here.

Black Education. Here, the work of figures like Carter G. Woodson (The Miseducation of the Negro) and Jonathan Kozol (Savage Inequalities) is important, but only when countered by works such as Thomas Sowell’s (2005’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals would be useful) and John Ogbu’s on black parents’ unwitting cultural obstacles to helping their children achieve in school. That anyone majoring in African-American Studies would graduate unaware of Ogbu’s Black American Students in an American Suburb is, frankly, alarming.

Also, in a course like this students should hear both sides on Affirmative Action. Derek Bowen and William Bok’s The Shape of the River is fine on the pro side (I would also recommend the lesser-known but well-argued Affirmative Action is Dead, Long Live Affirmative Action by Faye Crosby). However, equally germane is Larry Purdy’s Getting Under the Skin of Diversity, Peter Wood’s Diversity, Thomas Sowell’s grievously underacknowledged Affirmative Action Around the World, and perhaps the eighth chapter of my own Winning the Race. None of these “con” sources are know-nothing screeds. Let students decide for themselves, either way. That is, let them be educated.

Racism and Segregation. A course like this should include all of the usual suspects, but also a generous sample of writing by Shelby Steele (preferably from his The Content of Our Character, the equal to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in suasive power) and also Thomas Sowell (the Rednecks book would again be key). The usual watchcry in African-American Studies departments is that racism is everything. More than a few people, of clearly adequate intellectual ability, have argued otherwise. Students being educated should hear them out.

Black Music. This course should not take as an imperative to situate black music in, as the state school I cover does, its “social and cultural context,” which is code for showing how the music is a coping mechanism against racism and injustice. This commitment leaves out too much of what the music is, or is for, or ever was - black Americans have not made music only to thumb their noses at white people.

This course should include black classical music by early figures like William Grant Still (who was hardly culturally “co-opted” in writing works such as his Afro-American Symphony). It should also cover the classical/ragtime fusion of Will Marion Cook, now covered in a biography as well as recordings. Jazz should be covered in all of its endless majesty, whites and racism be damned: Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” solo was not confrontational in the least, and yet students are poorer lifelong if never hearing it -- because it was achingly vibrant art subject to endless disquisition for that alone. Because jazz developed in an America in which whites were not exactly quiet, the white contribution to its birth should also be covered: an excerpt from Richard Sudhalter’s Lost Chords would be useful.

The emergence of jolly Rhythm & Blues in the late forties should be covered despite that Louis Jourdan wasn’t thinking much about Jim Crow while he was forging the foundations for rock and roll. And: hip hop should be covered in all of its messy essence as just the new thing, not as a historically crucial “political” program. Its “politics” are eternally gestural, having nothing to do with something as politically central as getting a black President elected. It is music and only that, and a university-level curriculum does not educate students by pretending otherwise.

Black Theatre and Black Film should similarly be surveyed on the basis of coverage rather than advocacy. The goal should be to show how black artists achieved, with how they did so in opposition to racism as a side dish. Ethel Waters, Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, Roscoe Lee Browne, Diana Sands, Cicely Tyson, and Diahann Carroll, and today Tisha Campbell, Wesley Snipes, Taraji Henson, Halle Berry, Tyler Perry, and Jennifer Lewis - all unassailably “black” performers - are reduced to plastic figurines if treated as most interesting in “speaking truth to power.” To educate students is to show them these people for what they did and why it bears recollection - which is much more than as lessons about who has their foots on the necks of whom.

Likely my argument will meet objections that my characterization of African-American Studies departments is too broad-brushed.

That objection is incomplete without the identification of an African-American Studies department characterized by the commitments I have presented above, in which students come away with no impression that leftist positions are the most interesting and urgent brand of black thought.

Of course, some will feel that I am mistaken in my identification of those commitments as crucial to serious inquiry into the black condition.

If I am, however, it means that education, in the sense that the Western tradition has long upheld, is irrelevant to students in African-American Studies departments. It means that African-American Studies is an otherworldly set of teachings that exists outside of what liberal arts enlightenment is considered to consist of in all other departments on a university campus.

If there is a case for these assumptions, then a great many people black and white would be interested to hear it.

Original Source:



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