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Why Pursue Black Studies? Introduction:
In this episode, why pursue Black Studies? What is the significance of Black Studies in higher education? Also, we look at the contributions that Black Studies as a discipline has made in academia. How has the Black Studies pioneered and developed theories and approaches to problems in ways that have added to academia and society as a whole? Is Black Studies solely for the consumption of African American students? Should it be? Why should Asian, Latino, or White students have an interest in pursuing Black Studies?TRANSCRIPT
Hello and welcome again to African Elements. In this episode, why pursue Black Studies? What is the significance of Black Studies in higher education? Is it just a “feel good” topic for students of African descent to pursue? Also, we look at the contributions that Black Studies as a discipline has made in academia. How has the Black Studies pioneered and developed theories and approaches to problems in ways that have added to academia and society as a whole? Is Black Studies solely for the consumption of Black students? Should it be? Why should Asian, Latino, or White students have an interest in pursuing Black Studies? All that coming up next.
As we saw in episode 1 on the origin of black studies, Black Studies came about as a result of centuries of struggle to overcome systematic institutionalized oppression. To this day black studies remains closely aligned with social protest, student activism, and social justice. In this program, when I use the term social justice, I’m defining it as the equal distribution of advantages and disadvantages within a society. That does not necessarily mean that everybody has to have the same material stuff. What it does mean is that if one does happen to be poor that should not mean being left behind during a natural disaster such as the one that took place in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina in 2005. It means that if one does happen to be poor, that shouldn’t mean having one’s life cut short by preventable diseases. Social justice means applying the same standard of justice to the rich and to the poor, as opposed to a justice system in which wealthy people who happen to be caught abusing illegal drugs are sent to drug rehab, while poor people are sent to prison for the same offense. Social justice means that being poor, being vulnerable, being a racial, ethnic, or sexual minority will not have bearing on your fundamental right to exist. As Cornel West, Professor of African American, and Religious Studies at Princeton University explains, social justice means putting poor and vulnerable people at the center of how we view the world.
AG: Do you share Carl Dix’s criticism of President Obama’s Father’s Day speeches?
CW: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I think that it’s quite telling that he would give personal responsibility speeches to black people, but not a lot of personal responsibility speeches to Wall Street in terms of execution. And when you actually look at the degree to which issues of accountability for poor people—but where’s the accountability when you’re bailing out these Wall Street elites, $700 billion? That’s socialism for the rich. That’s your policy. Don’t then go to these folk who are locked into dilapidated housing, decrepit school systems, many on their way to a prison- industrial complex, and talk about their fathers didn’t come through. And we know the fathers got problems. We understand that. But there are structural institutional challenges that he’s not hitting, hitting head on. And I should say this, too, I think, in terms of style, that the Obama administration is obsessed with the wrong Lincoln. They are obsessed with the Lincoln who they think moved to the right and was trying to create bipartisan consensus with conservatives, whereas we know there’s no Lincoln without Frederick Douglass. There’s no Lincoln without Harriet Beecher Stowe. There’s no Lincoln without Wendell Phillips or Charles Sumner. That was a social movement.
. . . And if he doesn’t understand the greatness of Lincoln was responding to the social movements of working people and poor people, he’s going to end up with a failed presidency, with a lot of symbolic gestures, but, on the ground, everyday people, those Sly Stone called “everyday people,” suffering still
. . .Most importantly, at this moment, we come together and say, put poor and working people at the center of the way you look at the world, not just in the terms of the United States, but in terms of the American empire’s impact on those Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.”
AG: So, how are you going to be the Frederick Douglass?
CW: Well, by working with a variety of others—revolutionary communists to socialists, to progressive liberals, to prophetic Judaic, prophetic Christian, prophetic Hindus and others—to constitute some motion, raising voices, lifting the voices, which is the anthem of black people, and then to create ways of organizing and mobilizing so that the Obama administration does not remain mesmerized by the Wall Street elites and seduced by neoliberal policy.
AG: Have you been talking to President Obama?
CW: No, not at all. No, no.
AG: Have you met him?
CW: Oh, I met him initially, in order to join the campaign. Oh, absolutely, indeed. We met for four hours.
AG: And now, since he’s become president?
CW: Oh, no, no. I think he holds me at arm’s length. And for good reason, and for good reason. Because he knows that there’s a sense in which I would rather be in a crack house than a White House that promotes neo-imperial policies abroad and neoliberal policies at home.
AG: Why a crack house?
CW: Because a crack house, at least I’m in solidarity with folk who are sensitive to a pain. It’s just that they have the wrong response to their pain. Instead of being in a crack house, they ought to be organizing. But they’re dealing with their suffering. They’re just dealing with it in the wrong way. The White House, escaping from the suffering, and that’s why I keep my distance. I’m not against people who work inside of the White House; it’s just not my calling. That’s not what I’m here for. … You could say, “Waterboarding is torture.” Wow, that’s a breakthrough. What are you going to do about it? It’s a crime against humanity are you going to enforce it? “Well, we’re not thinking about that.” Well, that’s the challenge. Don’t tell me something obvious like, waterboarding is torture. We could say the same thing about wiretapping. Is wiretapping criminal? Yes! Then how come you’re not going to prosecute? “No, we’re moving forward.” Oh really? You don’t do that for Jamaal on the corner when he gets caught with crack. You send him to jail. The rule of laws are going to be equal for the well-to-do and the poor? Aww, that’s where the challenge is. That’s where we need to mobilize — multi- party, multi-tendencies, multi-organizational alliance — and it’s going to take a while because the euphoria around the Obama administration is just beginning to wane, and the euphoria is understandable as we noted before, you know. A black man in the White House is still a breakthrough, but it’s a small, small “b.” We’re looking for the breakthrough for working people and poor people.
Since social justice is so integral to the very core of black studies as a discipline, one of the ways in which black studies has contributed to academia as a whole has been in forwarding a pioneering social theory that social justice is not simply something that those in power may choose bestow on the most poor, oppressed, and vulnerable in society because it makes them feel good. Black studies teaches us that social justice is actually critical in holding together the very fabric society, and that those in power would do well to promote social justice not simply out of benevolence, but out of a sense of self preservation. The very formation of black studies as a discipline is a very testament to how this theory of social justice works in the real world. At the height of the Civil Rights and Black Power movement, the systematic oppression and subjugation of black people threatened to tear the country apart. In response, National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, more commonly known as the Kerner Commission, was convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 28, 1967 in the wake of a series of urban rebellions that took place in the Los Angeles community of Watts, and in Chicago in 1965, as well as in Newark and Detroit in 1967. Framed as a National Security issue, President Johnson commissioned the body to seek answers as to what exactly to place in these uprisings, why they took place, and what can be done to prevent future uprisings. In what is probably the most frequently quoted line of the report, the Kerner Commission warned that, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
The report identified white racism a main cause of urban violence and urged the creation of new jobs, new housing, and a stop to de-facto segregation as well as government programs to provide needed services, in addition to more diverse and sensitive law enforcement agencies.While the Johnson administration largely ignored the report’s findings and recommendations, as we saw in the previous episode, a climate of civil unrest was a major factor in the creation and development of Black Studies on colleges and universities nationwide. Amidst a climate desegregation, although – albeit necessarily not with “all deliberate speed” – African American students slowly made their way onto institutions of higher education. As they did so, however, they often found themselves subject to the same racism and marginalization as they experienced in their communities. They found that their histories and experiences were largely not reflected in the curriculum, their food could be found in the cafeteria, and their presence could not be found in school governance and leadership. The outcome was predictable. As black people were rebelling against racism and social injustice in cities throughout the nation, the presence of those same factors gave rise to a series of student protests on college and university campuses. On November 5, 1968, under the threat of building takeovers and a campus strike at San Francisco State University, a coalition of Black and Asian, Latino, and Native American students, from the Black Students Union and the Third World Liberation Front, presented the San Francisco State College president with a list of fifteen nonnegotiable demands for institutional change. Among them the school was to immediately establish departments of Ethnic Studies and Black Studies. They demanded no fewer than seventy full-time faculty members, fifty for the departments of Ethnic Studies and twenty for Black Studies. Further, they demanded self determination and autonomy in that the new departments would be controlled solely by the faculty, students, and community groups were to be “free from interference by college administrators, or the statewide Board of Trustees.” They demanded that the college accept all Black and nonwhite students who applied for admission in the fall of 1969, regardless of their academic qualifications. They demanded that new departments should be degree-granting, and finally, that no disciplinary action could be taken against any students, teachers, or administrators should they take part in the campus strike, that would follow if any of their demands were rejected. As tensions mounted between the coalition of students demanding institutional change, and conservative elements within student government, acts of civil disobedience became interspersed with spats of more radical means of resistance. Hundreds of small fires were set, and eight bombs were detonated over the course of the student strike. Over the course of the next several months, San Francisco State University became the first campus in the nation to become continuously occupied by police presence. Although there were no deaths attributed to the strike, the threat of violence was real, and San Francisco State University ultimately chose to take the recommendations of the Kerner Commission to heart and implement some institutional change as a countermeasure against social uprising. Thus, San Francisco State University approved the nation’s first four year curriculum in Black Studies in the 1967-1968 academic year.
The student revolts that gave rise to black studies happened alongside similar uprisings in the Asian and Chicano/latino student communities, and oftentimes they took place as part of the united front. Thus, Asian studies, Chicano latino studies, and Gender studies come from a similar efforts from marginalized communities in their struggles toward social justice. For that reason, Black Studies theories and methodologies have much to offer to their sister disciplines. WEB Dubois writings on the color line and dual consciousness, that is, the dilemma African Americans face in constantly having to negotiate the boundaries of living simultaneously living in two worlds (black and white) are works that Asians, Latinos, women, and sexual minorities may find value in. The African-American experience in terms of citizenship in the United States – granted by the 14th amendment to the constitution -is an experience that the immigrant community may find value in especially in light of the current backlash on the immigrant community in Arizona in which citizens and noncitizens alike who come from immigrant backgrounds are faced with a whittling away of their civil rights. Some have even considered a partial repeal of the 14th amendment such that the children of undocumented immigrants born in the United States would not be given citizenship rights. As far as the African-American experience -we’ve been there and done that, and the country would do well to look two that experience as well as the experience of Jim Crow before we go any further down this very dangerous road. By the same token, black studies, and black students, have much to gain in engaging Asian Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, and Gender Studies. The brilliant contributions of the late Gloria Anzaldua have in many ways succeeded those of WEB Dubois. She writes as a Latina, a woman, a second generation Mexican immigrant, and a lesbian and the notion of border crossing along multiple borders (that is the cultural boundaries between the various aspects of her identity). Is it possible to exist as a Latina in a United States society that devalues that aspect of who she is? How does one negotiate being a woman in a US and Latino society with strong notions of male supremacy? How is it possible to exist as a lesbian within a context that looks upon homosexuality with disdain? These are questions that Gloria Anzaldua deals with that bring dual consciousness to a whole new level – a level of multiple consciousness. I believe black studies would do well to add some of those theories and perspectives into a discipline that encompasses people of multiple identities especially when black people of diverse backgrounds are often in such close contact. Why is it that when you visit the cafeteria on your campus you often see African Americans and Africans (immigrants from Africa) sitting at different tables? What about Blacks from the Caribbean? Are they just as black as black folks from Mississippi? What about black folks who happen to be gay or lesbian? Are the just as black as heterosexual black folk? The social critique of Gloria Anzaldua may be helpful in helping students of Black Studies wrestle with those questions.
Finally, what about white students? What do they have to gain from black studies? What is it like to experience the United States as a person of African descent, and what insights can a person gain by looking at that experience? Again, Cornel West shares his insights at an event that I hosted at Sonoma State University. A warning to viewers, this excerpt does contain language that some consider to be offensive, but Dr. West uses the language to make it very eloquent point:
. . . And we need is so very badly today, especially after 9-11 . . .
Especially after 9-11. Never in the history of the nation have all Americans felt unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hated for who they are. It’s a new experience any Americans. Many white brothers and sisters, to me, “You know, brother West, I just can’t get over this sense of being hated like this.” I say, “You don’t say! Really?! Oh! That’s a novel thing, huh?” “Yeah, I just don’t like it.” I say, my dear brother, to be a nigger in America for 400 years is to be unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hated for who you are. So, we’ve got some experience that might be useful. We’ve got some experience that might provide some insight for the nation itself to access the best of its past and its present, now that the whole nation in that particular sense has become “niggerized.” What kind of resources are available for that nation? Will they remain socratic? Self critical? Or will it become self righteous? Will they remain prophetic or will it become revengefull? Let’s look it certain moments in black history when black folk had to respond to vicious forms of degradation called terrorism. What did Emmet Till’s mother say when she stepped to the lectern when her baby, Emmet, shot down by American … murdered by American terrorists in Mississippi August 1955. You all know who Emmet Till was? She brought his body back to Chicago. They said under no circumstances will we allow the coffin to be open. She said, “This is my only baby. I’m 32 years old, and my husband fought in the Jim Crow army against a vicious xenophobe named Hitler, carrying the U.S. flag, and now his baby is now the victim of American terrorism. We go’n keep that coffin open. And they did keep that coffin open in Chicago, didn’t they? And 50,000 citizens of all colors – the first major civil rights demonstration, three months before a black sister named, Rosa Parks sat down in order to stand up for justice in December, 1955. And what did she say when she stepped to the lectern – tears flowing, socratic juices still at work – looks over the lectern, her baby’s head is five times the size of his ordinary head, and the coffin is open? And she says, “I don’t have a minute to hate, I’m gonna pursue justice for the rest of my life! What level of spiritual maturity and moral wisdom and courage to still both critique, but also the care and to love went into that statement. She’s not isolated. This is a tradition that produced her. That took very seriously the interrogation of dogma like white supremacy, but yet at the same time she refused to get in the gutter with cowardly gangsters who killed her baby because she didn’t have to read Shakespeare’s, The Merchant of Venice, to know that the law can be bent one way or the other. Against Shylock or for him or, against Portia or for him. She didn’t have to listen to the quality of mercy speech of Portia, then Portia herself was unable to enact. She had already been molded by something else that said, “I’m still not gonna hate! I’m not gonna hunt them down like cockroaches. I’m not gonna exercise of vengeance and revenge. I’m not gonna be manichaean, thinking that somehow, I’m purely good and they are purely evil. No! I’m deeper than that! Martin had the same challenge when four young sisters in Birmingham were victims of American terrorism. 16th St. Baptist Church, you will know what I’m talking about, September 1963. The only time Brother Martin cried in public. Did you know what to say. Wondering whether this non violence was a hoax and anyway. People gonna be killing babies like that in church, in Sunday school. He looks of the parents. Tears flowing again. What does he say? “Somehow we’ve got to muster the armors of love and justice.” This is a great people at their best! At their best! And it’s a human potential for any people at their best!
As Cornel West is fond of saying, there’s much that society at large can gain from the experience of a “blues” people, a people whose unique experience provides fresh new perspectives and insights. That does it for this episode. Join me next time for a look into the African past. We explore rise and fall of powerful and wealthy African kingdoms as well as the fateful path they took that ultimately led to the Atlantic slave trade -the trafficking of millions of human beings from West Africa to the Americas.