Dr. Johnnetta Cole of the Smithsonian Institution took one look at the program for the “State of African-American and African Diaspora Studies: Methodology, Pedagogy, and Research” and was astounded. “What a sense of diversity, an amazing coming together,” she told the audience assembled at the Schomburg Center last week.
The 30-page program, with a coterie of emerging scholars filling the panels, touched on relevant and esoteric topics as they met to discuss the past, present and future of Black Studies, which is a way of compressing the conference’s title.
Among the precepts of Black Studies stressed by Dr. Cole, who was joined on the opening plenary session by such notables as Dr. Vincent Harding, Dr. Maulana Karenga, Dr. Cathy Cohen, and Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the director designate of the Schomburg Center, was a welding of campus to community, an engaged student faculty and student body, an interdisciplinary perspective, and an unfailing need to speak truth to power.
“Social justice,” Cole insisted, “was a key element of Black Studies with a mission to change,” not only the curriculum but the world.
Dr. Harding, without circumvention, cleanly stated “Black students created Black Studies.” He said the movement grew out of the furor in the Black community, particularly following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. These activist students, he continued, took over the campuses and demanded that more Black students be enrolled and Black faculty hired.
“At this time, in the late sixties, Blacks represented only one percent of the student population of white campuses,” said Dr. Harding, who teaches at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. “And there were even fewer Black faculty members.”
He drew a distinction between the more militant students of sixties and their predecessor whom he characterized as “grateful suppliants.” Not so, the sixties students “who began to organize, even taking over admission offices,” he added.
Discussing the current political situation, Dr. Cohen of the University of Chicago, observed that there would be no “President Obama without Black Studies.” She expressed umbrage that there was no substantive Black Studies program at her university. “It’s a virtually gated institution,” she said. The program, in effect, had “no community relevance.” To have an effective Black Studies program, she asserted, “requires fighting class exploitation, white supremacy and heterosexuality.” She charged that “we must be about forging a radical imagination.”
“The original mission of Black Studies was a Pan-African project,” explained Dr. Maulana Karenga, who was among the thousands of Black students at the very creation of the discipline. As Dr. Cole had cited, “there must be a link between the campus and the community,” he began. “What has happened is that the programs have moved away from social activism and into navel gazing.”
He said that we must renew a “critical dialogue with African culture,” and that self-questioning, shared responsibility and academic excellence must be at the core of Black Studies and Black life.
In a more subdued manner, Dr. Muhammad offered his impressions, at first noting his willingness to meet with community groups and activists as he assumes the mantle of leadership with the retirement of Dr. Howard Dodson as chief curator at the Schomburg.
“We are at war,” Dr. Muhammad said, referring to the fight against racism and white supremacy. He said it wasn’t the same as in the past, but “more covert, subtle but no less effective.” There was an expressed concern about what lay ahead for the young scholars gathered at the conference. “Each generation faces the reinvention of racism.”
That racism was a narrative thread that wove its way through many of the workshops, which resumed last weekend at the Graduate Center with such promising voices as Dr. Robyn Spencer, Dr. Richard Benson, Dr. Amilcar Shabazz, Dr. Emerald Crawford, Dr. Jeffery Menzise, and Dr. Imani Kai Johnson.
The opening plenary, with such elected officials and community leaders, as State Senator Bill Perkins, Assemblyman Keith Wright, the Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts, III, and video comments from Rep. Charles Rangel, was a harbinger of the discussions that stretched all the way from “radical scholarly praxis” to “race, aesthetics and contemporary art.”
It would have been nice to have included a few more of the stalwarts who helped establish Black Studies, particularly Dr. Bill Sales, Seneca Turner, Playthell Benjamin, S.E. Anderson, et al, many of whom were in attendance.
Nevertheless, it was a fruitful gathering, facilitated by the combined resources of IRADAC (the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean), the Graduate Center of CUNY, and the Black Studies Department at City College, and the real harvest will come when these newly ensconced scholars assume their rightful place, secure Black Studies and elevate it to yet another plain of relevancy and legacy.
A fitting coda to the proceedings was provided by Inez E. Dickens, Assistant Deputy Majority Leader of the City Council, and one of the conference’s hosts.
“This conference was critical because we need a national call to action to preserve Black Studies and research of the all inclusive African Diaspora. I feel it a tragedy that Arizona would move to erase Latino Studies and I am gravely concerned over the apparent dismantling of Afrocentric programs on campuses such as Medgar Evers College and Cornell University.
“In this time of lingering discontent and senseless violence,” Dickens continued, “it is from our enduring African heritage and a common ground of humanity shared with other cultures that we will find our way back to sanity, justice and peace.”