What Black Studies Can Do

“If I couldn’t study something that’s about myself then I wouldn’t want to be here,” the black sophomore once told me, explaining how crucial to him it was to be able to major in African-American Studies.
It always stuck with me.
The African-American Studies department he was a major in was one of about 300 nationwide; this year is, in fact, the fortieth anniversary of the foundation of the first one at San Fracisco State University in 1969. I have never had a problem with such departments in themselves. After all, despite that we hear this so often it has become a cliche, the story of black people is, to a considerable extent, the story of America.
Slavery helped drive the colonial economy and sparked the Civil War. The Civil Rights revolution was a moral advance unprecedented in the history of the species. Today American popular culture is deeply stamped brown and, in that form, has taken over the world, from hiphop through the worldwide superstar status of actors like Will Smith. The swelling numbers of African immigrants are giving the African diaspora to the New World a whole new meaning. The campaign and election of Barack Obama distilled all of this so profoundly that courses could be taught on it alone – and surely will be, nationwide, starting in the fall.

Thus a concentration on the story of black people on our shores could very well be a journey of intellectual substance, teaching students how to think about the world around them using a particular subject as a springboard. But that student I spoke to seemed to have something different in mind.
Wary of whites and highly attuned to a mission to “reclaim” a black history assumed to be “hidden” or disregarded by whites, he seemed interested less in expanding his mind, in the sense traditionally assumed of a liberal arts education, than in advocacy. Or healing – this African-American Studies department was, for him, about score-settling. Therapy, as it were. Ironically, I hope that department did not give him what he wanted.
If an African-American Studies department’s main goal is to teach majors how oppressed they are, even if they weren’t previously aware of it, and that this oppression is so deeply coded into how America functions that only a revolution can change it, then it fails in imparting a liberal arts education.
Specifically, an African-American Studies program stuck in the original mission of the first oneat San Francisco State, opposed to the “liberal-fascist” ideology purportedly rampant on campus as well as capitalism and “white supremacy,” ought be shut down. Times have changed; black America has moved ahead.
It is common to hear “Black Studies departments” dismissed collectively as deaf to that reality. However, no one to date has provided an actual survey of all, or even some, of them to find out what is really going on in them from year to year.
What I do know is when an individual African-American Studies department is a place of learning and when it is a 12-step-program masquerading as one. There are three ways you know an African-American Studies department is a good one.
One: A good African-American Studies department does not allow majors to graduate without reading several black authors considered un-P.C.
Many suppose that “conservative” black writing is inherently antithetical to what education is, out of an impression that learning to be a leftist is, in itself, learning how to think. As various syllabi and course descriptions collected in David Horowitz’s new One-Party Classroom show, there are professors in African-American Studies courses who claim that they stress “critical thinking” – but with the assumption that critical thinking comes from the left alone, entailing an awakening to the gospel of antiestablishment animus.
A university, however, teaches a student to form arguments and opinions based on a full range of evidence, and race issues are not, somehow, an exception to that mission. One might, for example, try on for size a claim that in “conservative” black thought, coherence, morality and feasibility are so utterly implausible that they do not merit consideration as meaningful information to impart to young minds.
This would mean, however, that it is meaningless for young black people to know that welfare reform in 1996, widely thought to herald black people sleeping on sidewalk grates, sharply reduced black poverty rates and left those who it affected agreeing with its implementation. Or that before racial preferences were banned in admissions at the University of California, at UC San Diego 1 in 3268 black students made freshman honors while the year after the ban, 1 in 5 did (just like the white students).
What principled reason could there be that information like this is less important for young black people to know than that Malcolm X learned in prison that the word “black” has negative associations?
And it’s not enough to merely assign a reading by Booker T. Washington – dead for nearly a hundred years, addressing an America vastly different from ours. One expects living writers addressing America as we know it in its controversial details, such as Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Stanley Crouch, and Debra Dickerson. Nor, of course, would I consider my own work inappropriate alongside these if someone were inclined – and it bears mentioning that contra the depiction of African-American Studies departments as uniformly politicized, my Losing the Race and some of my articles are indeed assigned in more than a few black courses.
Overall, a liberal arts education involves learning that arguments stand on their merits. As many of Thomas Sowell’s do as William Julius Wilson’s.
Two: A good African-American Studies department does not teach its students origin myths.
At one I passed through, there was a special event at which a documentary was shown on the idea that the Greeks stole their intellectual heritage from a “black” Egypt. The upshot of the event was that this idea was promising, something to talk up.
No professor there, however, was aware that this idea had been soundly criticized long before by well-publicized work such as Mary Lefkowitz’s Not Out of Africa. None of them were hotheaded “radicals,” but the discussion was as if claims by people like Martin Bernal and Molefi Kete Asante were seventies-fresh and as yet undisputed.
A student leaving a session like this under the impression that the Greeks stole her ancestors’ heritage – not to mention that the residents of Ancient Egypt were her ancestors in any meaningful sense — was miseducated. Black Americans’ history is in West Africa, among people who did not speak Swahili (the learning of which as an ancestral tongue is like Irish-Americans picking up some Czech as a “European” language). Those uncomfortable that seventeenth-century Ghanaians did not have writing and guns should be referred to the explanations for this in books like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, not fables about Ancient Egypt.
One graduate student at that session, seeing that even in the documentary the idea was presented as controversial, broke in to say “If we’re not sure yet, then let’s just find out.” He was unaware that history is written not merely by referring to old documents and reporting what they contain, but to a large extent by wrangling possible interpretations from fragmentary data. He thought the “Black Athena” debate was a mere matter of scholars not having done their homework yet, rather than an example of a standard situation in academic inquiry, debate over evidence interpretable in many ways.
Even as a graduate student, then, he was not being taught what academic inquiry actually consists of, but that his job was to reclaim a “hidden” history from those who would have it concealed – upon which it should be noted that in our era it is almost discomfittingly standard for whites to write signature works of black history, such as Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice, Allan Keiler’s Marian Anderson, Jeffrey Perry’s Hubert Harrison, and Thomas Sugrue’s new Sweet Land of Liberty.
Three: A good African-American Studies department is devoted to teaching its students not “Watch out!” but “Here’s how.”
I have seen such departments where students were aware of the horrors of the past and the obstacles today, but with an eye towards moving forward. My impression is that this kind of message is more likely from professors at the best schools, the reasons for which could form the subject of an essay in itself.
However, I have also seen departments where what students were carrying away was an indignant sense of oppression, founded in an insistence that the very fabric of American society made meaningful black advancement impossible. In the end, this is a narrowing, not broadening, of the mind. The revolutionary upending a student like this is taught to wait for will never happen, and as such, they have been taught a politics that will never bear concrete fruit, and will instead form the basis for endless, unfocused cynicism and frustration.
This is a message understandable from talk radio and blogs, but gravely undercooked and irresponsible from an institution of higher learning.
The experience of a typical African-American Studies student, then, should be that he starts from himself, but in order to be ushered outside of himself into new ways of thinking and possibly new ways of being. The measure of an African-American Studies department is the extent to which its members understand that creating new Stokely Carmichaels is the antithesis of that mission.


One thought on “What Black Studies Can Do”

  1. Dr. McWhorter, I enjoyed your piece on the CNN website this morning and wanted to briefly share my experience with you. When our son was a toddler, we were sure he was headed for MIT…forever taking things apart, a natural and fearless explorer of computers (on line, in pieces, in programming). Time passed and we found he was not a scholar, even a 4th tier state school was not to his taste and his GPA was a testament to wasted money. He enrolled in a local trade school, the Nashville Auto Diesel College, graduated with honors and was accepted into the “STEP” program at BMW. He is now a master service tech at BMW and is excited about his work and life each and every day. I appreciate your article and have come to know, and accept, that our children cannot all be Rhodes scholars but each of them can and should aspire to work every day at something rewarding for the person and the pocket. Your CNN piece was so important and hopefully President Obama’s efforts will recognize this need.

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