Black Studies in the Next Millennium
In the spring of 1998, African and African American studies at Duke University garnered the approval from the Board of Trustees to establish itself as a fully tenured, interdisciplinary unit in the College of Arts and Sciences. One could claim that this unanimously endorsed proposal had met a major challenge to Black studies in the 1990s — the discipline was accepted as recognizable and providing a certain form of institutional vitality. It was, without question, a watershed local event. However, whether its replication at other academic institutions is desirable or even necessary is a reasonable inquiry.Our intelligent participation in the next millennium demands a vital presence of Black studies within our institutions. It is absolutely important that we protect the flexibility with which that vitality is achieved.As we forecast the next centuries of Black studies, it seems particularly important that our programs rather than our personalities form the constellations of the discipline. There has been enough of the personal in academic politics to, at some point, distress and disappoint each of us. The balances and imbalances achieved in the cult of personality take its toll on what seems inarguable here: there is complexity and breadth within, and because of, Black studies. And yet, the powerfully seductive public privilege of some individuals — whether earned, endowed, or self-selected — risks absenting the forceful presence of the complex congregation of readers, writers, and scholars whose historic and contemporary work forms the actual substance of our intellectual projects.Consider the meager scholarly acumen of those who decry the presence of Black studies in the academy. Their strident claims, however poorly informed about the discipline and its scholarship, ironically gain attention — at least in part — through the same mechanisms that thrust our complex scholarly projects into a simplistic cult of personality. Neither of these is an intellectually defensible situation; and neither is worthy of our sustained or critical interest. When measured against the universe of intellectual work and workers whose projects we pursue, the transience of individual presence, and its comparatively slight — though nonetheless luminous — mass, must not challenge the weighty and critical inquiries that center our work.There is, I would argue, some comfort in the multitudinous contradictions within Black studies — how it should be accomplished, within what institutional structures, and with what operative paradigms. In a forthcoming essay on the state of affairs in English departments, I argue that without passionate and vigorous ongoing debate about matters similar to these, we would be a moribund and passive profession, undeserving of the stature and presence we have achieved in our academic institutions. Intellectual vigor demands civility, but should not be without challenge.Although some might point to the considerable differences in Black studies’ institutional presence — programs, departments, centers; majors, minors, certificates — as a forecast of our vulnerability, the design differences of our institutional presence can be understood as indications of a valuable and necessary complexity, and our intellectual breadth. That we have appeared in many and various forms within our institutions, that these shapes shift as our institutions and academic inquiry themselves change, and especially that the scholarship is exceedingly prolific and often quite fine, are largely satisfying indicators of the positive state of Black Studies.There are, however, areas where rigorous and — frankly — more sensible scholarship needs to emerge. I hope that we can look forward to the deconstruction of centrist ideologies that claim an uncomplicated populist center for entire continents — as is done with Africa and Europe — despite deeply differential cultural, political, and linguistic continental histories.U.S. Black studies is, in its strongest iteration and despite its nomenclature, a necessarily global forum. Consider, for example, urban studies. Even as we celebrate this year’s centennial of DuBois’ The Philadelphia Negro, urban studies of the past century must now consider the intricate designs of our urban terrain — where immigrant Latino and Asian populations reside with Blacks in unfamiliar and increasingly contested spaces. Yet, in urban studies — as in literary, historical, and political science studies — it is only with specific attention to African Americans that our contemporary national encounters gain coherence.The measure of our success, is finally, the quality of work that we do, and, in consequence, the diverse and stable institutional presence that the discipline achieves. The transience of individual presence, certain as it is, must not challenge the permanence of this critical inquiry. The critical measure of our success is, finally, the quality of the work that we do, and, in consequence, the diverse and stable institutional presence that the discipline achieves.
— dR. Karla F.C. HollowayDirector African and African American Studies ProgramWilliam R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and African American LiteratureDuke University
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