Do Black Studies Depts. Contribute To “Diversity” (Or Anything Else)?

In an essay that was posted today on Minding The Campus, “Are Black Studies A Great Failure?,” I discuss a recent flurry of discussion and controversy over the field that has recently appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. I hope you will read it.

In researching and preparing that essay some of my own ancient academic history with history involuntarily came to mind, and although that experience pre-dated the emergence of black studies departments and is not directly relevant to it I decided to share it with you anyway. (What’s the point of having your own blog, after all, if you have to limit your comments to things that are directly relevant to something?)

As an undergraduate history major going into my senior year back in the mid-1960s, I sought advice from my advisor about whether I should apply to graduate school in American History or American Studies. Since he was one of the founders of the American Studies movement after World War II, I was surprised by his first comment: “Well” (pronounced ‘way-al’), he said in his deep Southern accent, “the thing you should know about American Studies departments is that they’re like mules — they can’t reproduce themselves.”

What he meant was that the only enthusiastic employers of newly minted American Studies PhDs were other American Studies departments, of which there were precious few. Traditional History and English departments (and back then most History and English departments were traditional) tended to cast a highly skeptical eye on those mulish products, typically the result of not altogether compatible unions of professors in American history and American literature. (Indeed, the director of graduate studies in one highly regarded American Studies department where I interviewed commented as soon as I entered his office, “Hmm, Rosenberg, Rosenberg,” he mumbled as he searched for my name on the interview list, “History or English?”)

My ultimate destination (in American History, you will have guessed) was quite strong in African history, Southern history, slavery, and other areas in which blacks were prominent subjects, but at that time it had no black professor of black history, much less anything resembling today’s Black Studies, a deficiency (if it was a deficiency) to which the Black Student Union objected with increasing vociferousness.

Predictably, with sensitivity or cravenness (if there is a difference) the department set about attempting to fill this newly discovered void, quickly inviting two promising young black scholars to campus one right after the other. The first, a three-piece-suited assistant professor at an Ivy League institution, gave a most impressive lecture on some traditional topic, speaking directly to his peers on the faculty but over the heads (both literally and figuratively) of the Black Student Union attendees dozing off in the front rows. The second, noted for his radical writings that stood out even in the famously radical department where he then taught, was dressed like the BSU students who had turned out in droves to hear him. In his lecture on the roots and flowering of Black Power he spoke only to them, ignoring the faculty and others in the audience.

Again predictably, an offer was made to the first visitor, who turned it down (reputedly using his visit to secure a better offer from his current department, where he went on to a moderately distinguished career). No offer was made to the second, although he was the enthusiastic favorite of those responsible for creating the vacancy in the first place. (He went on to a successful career as a professor in several black studies departments.) With time running out and no new hire to pacify the natives and their allies, an offer for a one year interim appointment was quickly given to a long-serving full professor at a historically black university with a sufficiently acceptable record of scholarship, albeit in an area with which our faculty was largely unfamiliar. Imagine everyone’s surprise when he showed up for classes the following term and turned out to be white — a reaction, I suspect, that was much like the surprise of anyone who hired Elizabeth Warren thinking she was a Cherokee.

Say What? (1)

  1. Aleph One May 7, 2012 at 3:16 pm | | Reply

    Not only are Black Studies a great failure, in some cases they are outright frauds. The only purpose of the Black Studies department at UNC, it appears, was to provide passing grades for black athletes.

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