Graduate Students

Black Studies: 'Swaggering Into the Future'

A new generation of Ph.D.'s advances the discipline

Simone Bonde for The Chronicle

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (left) and La TaSha Levy are students in Northwestern U.'s black-studies doctoral program. Their work includes examinations of sexuality, class, religion, and global views of blackness.
April 12, 2012

Northwestern University's first cohort of black-studies Ph.D.'s was not baptized in the fire of racial politics.

They are members of a younger generation of scholars who bring 21st-century perspectives to the study of race and new approaches to the field of black studies.

The struggle for civil rights and racial integration is not part of their lived experience. They grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, often attended the best colleges, and typically escaped at least some of the racial injustices their elders knew. Raised by parents who have provided more educational opportunities than the generation before, they are scholars who tend not to get hung up on victimization and alienation.

Young black-studies scholars, like the five who enrolled in Northwestern's inaugural Ph.D. class in 2006, are less consumed than their predecessors with the need to validate the field or explain why they are pursuing doctorates in their discipline. They have chosen dissertation topics with clear social relevance to this generation's ethos and are expanding upon previous studies of race with more nuanced examinations of sexuality, class, religion, performativity of race in day-to-day interactions, and global views about blackness.

Like their predecessors who worked to establish black studies as a respected academic discipline, today's Ph.D. students are also attracted to the social mission of the field. But younger black-studies scholars are willing to work with advisers and mentors of different races. With more openness and trust on both sides, young scholars don't necessarily feel that they are betraying their own people by working with someone outside of their race as a mentor. They are not concerned with the sort of racial and gender identity politics that often informed scholarly works and divided departments and campuses a generation ago.

And unlike the first two waves of black-studies scholars, who were trained in traditional disciplines, younger scholars of race tend to focus on work that is interdisciplinary.

"This generation is different in how we approach our work," says Zinga A. Fraser, a Northwestern graduate student who is working on a comparative study of the political lives of Barbara Jordan, the first black person to be elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress.

"The older generation created space for us, but our work is more nuanced," Ms. Fraser says. "Our mentors who didn't come out of African-American studies departments were constricted by traditional discourses where there was no interdisciplinary approach. This generation is setting the model for interdisciplinary approaches in the humanities in general, and black studies continues to force traditional disciplines to address silences and to look at how race is constructed."

Martha Biondi, director of graduate studies and an associate professor of African-American studies and history at Northwestern—which held this week a national meeting of faculty and graduate students in black-studies Ph.D. programs­—says contemporary graduate students "have forged a path of integrating top-notch scholarship with social and political relevance."

"Today, there seems to be greater acceptance of the idea that African-American studies is better understood as a multidiscipline," Ms. Biondi says, "and should embrace and include multiple methodologies and approaches to the study of black life, politics, and culture."

These young voices are rewriting the history of race. They express confidence in the intellectual value of their field, despite budget cuts that threaten some programs, attacks on the value of humanities departments more broadly, a brutal academic job market, and a reluctance by society as a whole to confront the residual effects of racial discrimination.

A Shifting Landscape

Graduate students and leading faculty members from the nation's 11 programs that produce Ph.D.'s in black studies gathered, for the first time here at Northwestern for the conference, titled "A Beautiful Struggle: Transformative Black Studies in Shifting Political Landscapes." The event, intended to reflect on the journey of the academic discipline over time, and for which close to 200 people registered, was taking place at an important historical moment, scholars say.

Charged conversations about race have escalated since the election of Barack Obama, recently heightened by such events as the shooting death in Florida of Trayvon Martin and the fatal random shootings this month of three blacks in Tulsa, Okla., troubling real-life incidents that the doctoral candidates say inform their scholarly work.

The name of the conference "represents perfectly what black studies is, a struggle in its relationship with the academy for legitimacy and to highlight the histories of people who've navigated a racialized society," says Celeste Watkins-Hayes, chair of Northwestern's department of African-American studies, which is turning 40. "It also highlights the dignity and strength of black scholars to do their work and fight the legitimacy fight."

Dwayne Nash, who enrolled at Northwestern after working as a prosecutor in New York for seven years, says the conference theme was the graduate students' idea. Mr. Nash, who earned his bachelor's degree in political science and Spanish from Middlebury College, says that he and his graduate peers wanted to use the meeting to help raise the national visibility of Northwestern's program and showcase how its young scholars are thinking.

"Black studies is a serious field that is underrated," he says. "The summit will be about our generation talking about where the older generation and fresh scholars should be looking. We understand that when it comes to race, nothing happens in isolation. All systems of oppression work and operate together."

The first Ph.D. program in black studies did not emerge until 1988, at Temple University, even though the field of black studies was born two decades earlier, with most programs beginning amid the campus confrontations that followed the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

King's murder was a dystopic moment for that generation of black college students, who had fought for curriculum changes, greater minority faculty representation, and financial aid for low-income students. For the first three decades of its existence, black studies remained the new kid on the block, fussing and fighting to prove its legitimacy against assaults from people who questioned the field's intellectual core and predicted its demise.

By the early 1980s, black studies had begun to mature, strengthening its standards and establishing full-fledged departments with control over their own budgets and faculty.

After Temple established its Ph.D. program, which drew attention because of its controversial director, Molefi Asanti, and because of its Afrocentric approach, the range of Ph.D. offerings expanded in the late 1990s with programs opening at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1996, at the University of California at Berkeley in 1997, and at Harvard University in 1999.

Black-studies scholars began to integrate themselves more into campus life and sometimes focused less on outside community engagement. Stronger emphasis started to be placed on gender and sexuality, examining the black diaspora, and on comparative studies of race and ethnicity.

Black-Studies Survival

Even though black studies has grown and solidified its place at a number of universities, the discipline continues to face threats.

Ms. Biondi says her field is no stranger to crisis; black studies was born in crisis.

"Every five or seven years there's a story about the imminent demise of the discipline, that it's a fad, or students are losing interest," she says. "There's always a crisis, and yet we hang on, survive, grow, and continue producing important research that cuts across disciplines."

But Ms. Biondi and others say they are concerned about the survival of undergraduate programs at state universities that rely on money from legislators who are questioning the value of the humanities in general. Black-studies programs continue to be consolidated into ethnic-studies programs, or cut altogether, at some public institutions.

Race scholars are also cognizant that they are operating in a climate where talking about race is often considered passé and where attacks on higher education continue to proliferate in the political discourse.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, who was scheduled to speak at the conference, says the discipline remains vulnerable because of conservative arguments that say college is a form of liberal indoctrination that is putting America on the path of cultural destruction.

"Black studies is one of many exhibits, and for some, the presence of black faculty and Ph.D. students is an example of all that has gone wrong with higher education," Mr. Muhammad says. "Race experts are now defined as racists. If you are a young scholar now, you have every right to be worried about making commitments to a career path that has significant opportunity costs."

The Northwestern summit planned to examine whether resources for Ph.D. programs have been scaled back, and how rigorous the programs remain.

Mr. Muhammad says that black-studies departments at wealthier private institutions like Northwestern have been able to maintain control over their budgets and hiring decisions and continue to enroll the same numbers of Ph.D. students as they have for the past several years.

At Northwestern, Ms. Watkins-Hayes says, the budget for the black-studies department as a whole was increased by nearly 22 percent this year. "And there was no scuffle over it," she says. "Rich schools have to decide where to put their money as well. It is a testament to the strength and promise of the field that Northwestern has dedicated significant resources to the department of African-American studies."

Challenging Stereotypes

Doctoral-program leaders are optimistic about black studies, despite persistent struggles elsewhere. The discipline continues to see itself as an important role model for the expansion of ethnic-studies programs. Ms. Biondi says that African-American-studies scholars want to increase cooperation with Latino- and Asian-studies scholars, because all represent groups that are propelling rapid demographic changes in the United States.

"As these new groups come to the U.S., we want to reduce rivalry, competition, and fear," says Ms. Biondi. "Black studies plays a key role in fostering education about this country's history, the significance of slavery in the creation of the nation, and black resistance and political tradition that created the opportunities that immigrants hold dear."

Mark Anthony Neal, an African and African-American-studies professor at Duke University, says that black-studies programs at elite institutions are "swaggering into the future."

"There's a level of confidence about the work that scholars of race do," he says. "They're not overconfident or unaware of the problems in the academy and the real world. But they recognize the power of performing a certain kind of confidence in this stage of their development."

Ms. Watkins-Hayes says she hopes the conference will show how productive and successful graduates are and erase some pernicious stereotypes about black-studies programs that remain. Some of the most common are that the programs are plagued by infighting and fiscal mismanagement, have dysfunctional relationships with their universities, are parochial and ideologically driven, and have lost their social mission and political edge.

"There are multiple departments across the country that challenge and defy that stereotype," Ms. Watkins-Hayes says, and are producing a new generation of Ph.D. students who have become increasingly sophisticated in their ability to add texture and specificity within the black experience by focusing on a number of categories of race, class, sexuality, gender, religion and nationality.

"They are not trying to capture the black experience but are accounting for black people's multiple identities in the work they do," she says. "Everyone has that complexity. But previous scholarship has suggested that blacks do not."

Just over 300 Ph.D.'s have been awarded across the six oldest black-studies programs since the mid-90s, according to a research assistant at Northwestern who collected data to be presented at the conference. The remaining five, including Northwestern's, are still too young have tracked their numbers.

Since there is now a critical mass of people who've earned Ph.D.'s in black studies since the 1990s, Ms. Biondi says "we felt that this was a good time to take stock of the field, to assess the kinds of research being produced, and assess what the job market has been like for recent Ph.D.'s."

The event was expected to feature lectures by Jonathan S. Holloway, a Yale historian whose talk was titled "The Trauma of Legitimacy: Black Scholars and Memory in the Age of Black Studies," and by Darlene Clark Hine, a feminist scholar from Northwestern who planned a talk called "First Lady Michelle Obama and the Dialectics of Black Women's Studies."

Other topics on the agenda included the criminalization of black children, predatory lending in homeownership, stop-and-frisk laws in New York, black soldiers in Okinawa, the rise of black conservatism in the post-civil-rights era, and representations of black sexuality in hip-hop.

"Now with the development of more Ph.D. programs, it is very clear that scholars in African-American studies are at the forefront of producing valuable research that's interdisciplinary and cuts across law, literature studies, social science, and other disciplines," Ms. Biondi says. "Black studies is not a social-service agency aiming to ameliorate racial discontent. It is an area of rigorous intellectual inquiry that is here to stay."