Episode 1 (Segment 2): The Establishment of Black Studies

Episode 1 (Segment 2): The Establishment of Black Studies


As we can see, the critical issue here is
the power to define. Since historically the black experience has been defined through
the European lens (at least over the past four hundred years or so) Black Studies is
largely an effort to reclaim and redefine the experience of persons of African descent.
That’s exactly the reason why naming is so important. The different departments that
have of sprung up throughout the country do vary in the terms they use to describe themselves.
Whether they go by the name Black Studies, Africana Studies, or African-American Studies,
the process of naming is very deliberate and carries a particular meaning for the individuals
who undertook to establish the various academic departments. The different focus that each
of these departments may have makes naming a matter of political control, which is a
critical principle of self-determination and self-definition. “African American Studies”
focuses on persons of African descent throughout the Americas, including North, Central, and
South America, the Caribbean, as well as northern countries like New Foundland and Greenland.
So, the term, “African American” makes “African American Studies” a more historically specific
branch of the discipline that describes the experience of Africans in the western hemisphere
with a relatively narrow lens. While there tends to be some focus on the continent of
Africa there is no specific focus on persons of African descent in Europe or Asia. The
term, “Black Studies” represents a more politicized vision of the discipline. As we
will see, the institutionalization of Black Studies — that is, the formal establishment
of Black Studies within academic settings — came about largely as a result of what
was known in the 1960s as the “Black Power” movement. Malcolm X and The Nation of Islam,
in an attempt to reclaim their sense of self-definition urged the “so called Negro” to become “Black.”
Black became redefined as a popular, a positive affirmation of self. “Black Studies” reflects
the politicization of the discipline in that it is largely aimed at the discovery and dissemination
of information pertaining to what Black people have undergone and achieved, and the use of
education and knowledge to defend and vindicate the race against its detractors. This reframing
was a symbolic victory for the masses of Black people, but it also carries with it certain
problems and challenges as we will see later. Like Black Studies, Africana Studies is not
limited to the experience of persons of African descent on the continent of Africa or the
western hemisphere, but is much broader and focuses on the African Diaspora as a whole.
The African Diaspora of refers to the disbursement of persons of African descent throughout the
globe. It is well known that persons of African descent had a presence in ancient Greece and
Rome as well as widespread contact between Africans and Asians via the Indian Ocean.
There is some evidence to suggest that there was a pre-Columbian disbursement of Africans
across the Atlantic well before 1492. Systematic and widespread dispersal of Africans throughout
the globe, however, took place on a far more massive scale in the past 400 years as a result
of the Atlantic slave trade and the subsequent colonization of the continent of Africa. Africana
studies focuses on the Pan-African links and experiences of persons of African descent
not only on the continent of Africa and in the Americas, but in places like England,
France, Germany, Spain, Italy, as well as Russia and various other parts of Europe and
Asia. It does so, however, without the political context that you find in the “Black Power”
movement. Aside from the terminology, Black Studies, African American Studies, and Africana
Studies are similar in that they came about largely in response to a systematic misrepresentation
of the experience of persons of African descent in such a way as to popularize the notion
that they are inferior. It is in response to miseducation, which, as Malcolm X explained,
has redirected the world view of black people in such a way as to prevent them from identifying
with their true history , culture self-awareness, and well-being; and diseducation, by which
black people have been deprived of access to education altogether. As such, a core value
is an underlying social mission that requires the application of theory to methodology and
the combination of knowledge to activism toward the practical resolution of issues in the
Black community. That is the reason why Black Studies always has historically been so closely
aligned with activism and social justice. Key developments in the establishment of black
studies include a period of renewed hope between 1945 and 1955. During that time, legal victories
such as the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954 which struck
down segregation, gave blacks a sense of optimism in terms of the direction the country was
going. Additionally, the GI Bill allowed many African Americans who were returning from
World War II as veterans to have most, if not all, of their college tuition paid by
the federal government. Within the first few years of its passage, the reality of a college
education combined with growing desegregation of public institutions led to unprecedented
growth in the number of African American students. Along with the influx of African American
students and the gradual breakdown of legal barriers, however, a number of other factors
combined that encouraged the institutionalization of Black Studies in higher education. Why
would the power structure which had been so resistant to curricular and structural change
now all of a sudden seem so much more open to change? The gains of the civil rights movement
— that is the desegregation of the armed forces and the Brown vs. Board of Education
decision among many other efforts –combined with two other forces (civil unrest and the
Cold War) brought about a shift with regard to the stance that academia in general held
toward the establishment of Black Studies as a discipline. The period of civil rights
also overlapped a period of militancy, unrest, sit-ins, and demands for acknowledgment and
justice on college campuses, which increased between 1966 and 1968. In May 1967, students
at Jackson State College in Mississippi fought with police for two nights. The National Guard
was called, and one person was killed. On March 19, 1968, a sit-in at Howard University
became the first building takeover on a college campus. By this time, the philosophy of the
Black Power movement, and Black Nationalism were about as firmly entrenched in the black
community as the civil rights movement as a response to racism and systematic oppression.
Uprisings in the Los Angeles community of Watts in 1965 and in Newark New Jersey in
1967 as well as uprisings in cities nationwide in the wake of the assassinations of Malcolm
X and Martin Luther King and 1965 and 1968 respectively had the effect of reframing Black
Studies as a national security issue. Perhaps some systematic change would be necessary
in order prevent widespread unrest in what were formerly exclusively white institutions
that were increasingly becoming desegregated. Another national security threat also loomed
that forced or at least encouraged academic institutions to consider implementing Black
Studies into their curricula. The period immediately following World War II through the 1980s ushered
in the era of the Cold War. As most of Europe and much of Asia lay in shambles, the United
States and the Soviet Union emerged from the conflict as the world’s two emerging superpowers
… and as bitter rivals to one another. As the two superpowers competed on a global scale
for strategic and economic dominance, the United States became increasingly concerned
about supporting regimes friendly to its capitalistic interests in order to undercut its communist
rival. At home, the United States became increasingly concerned… some might say paranoid… over
the threat of communist infiltration within the country. As a result efforts of US Government
agencies to systematically root out the communist threat from within took the form of the infamous
McCarthy hearings of 1954 and FBI counterintelligence programs intended to disrupt and destroy organizations
it saw as subversive such as the Black Panther Party. At the same time, implementing programs
of Black Studies in higher education was seen as a necessary concession in order to keep
black students from “going communist.” It is within that context that Merritt Community
College in Oakland, California established the first organized Black Studies curriculum
in the 1965-1966 academic year. San Francisco State University approved the nation’s first
four year curriculum in Black Studies in the 1967-1968 academic year.

One thought on “Episode 1 (Segment 2): The Establishment of Black Studies

  1. I believe one of the challenges lays in the general population (of Black people) lack of knowing the definition of American-American. How you define the title African-American and what group of people are included under this term is quite intriguing. Many Caribbeans identify as Caribbeans not African-Americans. If they had to chose a title, it would be "Black". I think the term African-American is used by scholars and pop culture. Scholars because they are the ones who came up with the definition and studied/teach the term. They use the term as it is defined. Pop culture (specifically the average highly influence by media) Black people born in America (excluding Caribbeans 1st generation & before) haven't a clue of the definition and just go with the flow. My team of contributors are made up of various people of the African Diaspora. When working on a campaign, some did not want to identify as African-American because they are Caribbean for example. The term Black seem to work because it includes everyone of the African Diaspora.  I welcome constructive response.

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