African American Studies and Racial Crisis in America
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Dr. Ashley Robertson Preston is an author, curator and currently a lecturer in African American Studies at the University of Florida. She is a proud graduate of Howard University. Dr. Preston is passionate about history and she believes that preserving it is just as important as sharing it.
Every week, the list of names of those whose lives have been taken at the hands of police is longer. The protests across the nation have grown in size, and cities and towns that have been previously unknown are making news as their citizens stand up for justice. The rage, the anger, the hurt, and the fear are all coming to a tipping point in American history.
One may ask, "where does African American Studies fit into the context of racial crisis?" I would argue that the interdisciplinary study of people of African descent is more needed than ever. The discipline was created for such a time as this.
Birthed Out of a Movement
The discipline of African American Studies was birthed out of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement of the 1960s. As integration was implemented at predominantly white schools across the nation, African American students began to demand that their education reflected their history. It was not enough to simply be in these institutions; they wanted their stories to be a part of their curriculum.
In the mid 1960s, students in various universities and colleges protested and demanded that administrators create Black Studies programs. In 1968, after a diverse, student-led protest, San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) founded the first Black Studies Department — now known as the Africana Studies Department.
According to SFSU Africana Studies Professor Emeritus Dr. Oba T'Shaka, "Black Studies courses were needed to create counter images to those white value-oriented courses, while providing a rigorous intellectual curriculum rooted in the Black cultural, political, economic, literary, social, psychological, and historical reality."
For the entire decade, African American student organizations — including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — pushed the envelope with their font-bold demands for equality. In 1960, four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (North Carolina A&T) sat down at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter, demanding service, and from there students continued to lead the way as change agents, boycotting and protesting for better treatment and for opportunities in every arena of life.
The fight for Black Studies was a continuation of the movement and an undoing of the ivory tower's status quo. It must also be noted that the communities in which these schools existed were also a vital part of the push for Black Studies, and the idea of the discipline being intimately involved in the community in which it is found is still important today.
Students continued to challenge universities to create programs focused on the Black experience, and according to scholar Noliwe Rooks, "By 1971 more than 500 programs, departments, and institutes had been founded on four-year college campuses."
The Current State of African American Studies
After the election of President Barack Obama, there were questions about whether or not America had become a post-racial society. For many, the election of the first African American president was a sign that the country had turned a new leaf.
However, with the election of Donald J. Trump and his vow to Make America Great Again, it reminded many of a past that was less than great and often horrific for African Americans, who had been lynched, beaten, and enslaved throughout the course of America's history.
With the current rise of racial unrest due to police brutality and COVID-related health disparities for African Americans, African American Studies scholar-activists are leading the charge for change by pushing institutions to recognize and change practices of systemic racism.
Recently, University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty of the African and African American Studies program have pushed their administration to reassess their relationship with local police. In their statement, UNL faculty stood firmly in support of Black Lives while "they demanded evaluation of police procedures around deadly force, a review of UNL's partnerships with police, protection for protests by students and faculty, and improved student access to legal and medical services."
In response to a letter from the university president, Penn State University's African American Studies Department is also demanding radical change to address issues of systemic racism. According to a recent article written by Hannah Pollock, in the letter (written June 16th) the department made the following demands:
- Sever ties with local police forces and disarm campus police
- Establish a new task force on policing and communities of color
- Center courses in African American studies and other appropriate units for a new general education requirement on anti-Black racism and challenges to it
- Establish a well-funded resources center for underrepresented faculty
- Increase student aid for Black students
- Increase mental health resources for Black students
In a joint letter titled "A Call to Action to Catholic University Communities," nine African American Studies chairs/directors from various universities, including Georgetown University, Villanova University, Boston College, and the University of Notre Dame, called for action on a number of issues which affected Black students, faculty, and staff. The items of action included:
- Reconsider relationships between campus police, local police, and universities, with an eye toward the particular vulnerabilities of Black university community members
- Support students' rights to openly protest when they are back on campus
- Support student athletes' right to protests without reprisals
- Support all efforts to excavate the university's involvement with slavery and how the university has directly or indirectly profited from Black oppression
Expressive and Pragmatic
The current discussions in African American Studies are centered on identifying, examining, and radically changing any practices or policies by colleges and universities that reveal institutional racism. Nathan Hare, the first coordinator of a Black Studies program, argued that the curriculum was both "expressive and pragmatic," teaching in a way that cultivated pride and appreciation for the history of African Americans while it "operates specifically to prepare black students to deal with their society."
In the article "Questions and Answers about Black Studies" Dr. Hare discusses the importance of the discipline's relevance to issues that are faced in the Black community, demonstrating that from the beginning African American Studies has always focused on educating with the purpose of creating positive change, and we see that more than ever today.
It is in African American Studies that you find courses taking on issues affecting Black people, such as gentrification, medical disparities, food deserts, historical erasure, and economic equality. With the disciplinary nature of the programs, it is the perfect place for scholarship that is reflective of various perspectives, including those of sociologists, historians, economists, and political scientists.
As racial tension grows, we are starting to see interest in African American Studies growing as students seek education that is relevant for the times in which they are living. University of Florida has almost 100 undergraduate degree programs, and African American Studies is one of their fastest growing majors — one example of how the demand is growing for courses and degrees in the discipline. Even outside of the university/college, setting there is starting to be more of a push for classes in high schools, with students leading the charge.
Students of all races should continue to demand these classes across the country and enroll in them to become change agents and to learn more about the plight of African Americans. The snapshot of the Black experience that is taught in most American classrooms is not enough for one to understand the depth of oppression, and this is why these courses are important for those who intend to be informed.
There are so many people who want to make a change right now but they do not know where to start, and a course in African American Studies is the perfect place to start.
Where Do We Go From Here?
African American Studies should be the crown jewel of any institution of learning, because in recognizing its significance and supporting its growth and development, you are ultimately reinforcing the importance of the struggle for liberation.
The discipline has taken on racism and inequality for almost fifty years with its emphasis on scholarly activism, community engagement, and research that is driven by issues that impact the Black community. It has never been a study just for the sake of studying; it is committed to positive change and challenging oppression and discrimination.
Colleges, universities, and schools should support African American Studies by providing the proper financial resources, hiring the best scholars in the field with competitive pay, understanding the unique ways in which the discipline operates, and respecting and valuing its faculty, staff, and students.
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