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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Black Studies Reconsidered



Although the text may well incorporate the social norms and values of its possible readers, its function is not merely to present such data, but, in fact, to use them in order to secure its uptake.  In other words, it offers guidance as to what is to be produced, and therefore cannot be the product.


Wolfgang Iser. The Act of Reading. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1973. 107.



Iser’s point about what the text cannot be is germane if you return to


Alkalimat, Abdul and Associates. Introduction to Afro-American Studies: A Peoples College Primer. Chicago: Twenty-first Century Book, 1973.


and then turn to


Alkilimat, Abdul et al. African American Studies 2013: A Nation Web-Based Survey. 29 pages. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of African American Studies, 2013. Available at


The survey poses the question “Is Black Studies a permanent project in higher education, or a passing fad?,” and the authors delay an answer.  They refer you to facts derived from surveying 213 public colleges and universities and 148 private one.


Fact #1: “Black Studies seems to have achieved more permanence  in public colleges and universities than in private ones.

Fact #2: “…the West has proportionately more departments  (46%) and the South proportionately more programs (64%) than other regions.”

Fact #3: “…programs are more typical across all sizes of colleges and universities. Large institutions are more likely to have departments (42%) than the other institutions.” The survey report was not designed to inform you about pedagogy and learning within Black Studies.  In a future, some study will indicate how instructors teach Black Studies as a discipline and what is the range of learning experiences students have.


The silence of the survey report about how Black Studies functions in the lives of Americans who are not even remotely associated with institutions of education higher and lower is a teaser.  It guides you to conjure ideas about navigation between the 1973 didactic Introduction …. and the 2013 objective reporting.  You find the conclusion of the 1973 text to be instructive, a charting for action. Pages 348-351 permit discovery or rediscovery that a 1973 reader was told that questions concerning a future (consider 2014 the future) could only be engaged “through how you lead your life and how you influenced others to lead their lives.”  There was no biting of the tongue about obligation, no hedging. The authors used the Langston Hughes poem, “Let America be America Again,” as the final verbal text and a fuzzy aerial photograph of “March on Washington, August 1963” as the closing visual text. The reproduction of the photograph was fuzzy because the book was printed on what Black South vernacular called “cornbread paper.”  The Hughes poem references three colors –black, red, and white, intensifying your wondering forcing you to wonder why Langston Hughes chose not to throw yellow and brown into his melting pot.


Putting the survey report aside for the moment, you scan the topics the book invites you to ponder:

·         Africa before and after the slave trade ---note that indigenous Africans and the Arabs had a continental slave trade prior to uninvited European penetration

·         Colonialism

·         Melting pot of African peoples ---Michael Gomez’s Exchanging Our Country Marks (1998) and Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora (2005) are excellent studies of melting

·         The rural experience

·         The urban experience

·         Black workers and the labor movement ---being locked out of non-Black trade unions in significant numbers

·         The black middle class

·         Black culture and the arts

·         Religion and the black church

·         Black women and the family ---it is o.k. if you panic because “Black men and the family” Isn’t a parallel category of analysis

·         Education and the school in the black community  ---it is not perverse in 2014 if you replace “education” with “miseducation,” “the black community” with “loosely confederated black communities of shared interests and their post-racial, post-black enclaves of dubious interests”

·         Black power and the U.S. political system----you feel a bite of inwit pertaining to the uses and abuses of your Kenyan-American President and sing a sorrow song

·         Civil rights and the struggle for democracy ---you supplement “civil rights “ with “United Nations-defined human rights” and “democracy” with “practices appropriate in a non-Platonic republic”

·         Nationalism and Pan Africanism ---how you sweat from thinking international cartels, Islamic and other varieties of terrorism, ancient African ethnic enmity, and Eurasian neo-colonial enterprises minimize or preclude the evolution of Pan Africanism on the African continent

·         Marxism and black liberation

·         The role everyone has to play


You are exhausted from pondering and speculating how a paradigm of unity in Afro-American Studies (1973) has slowly morphed into a digital paradigm of fragmentation in Black Studies (2014), especially in dealing with the logic and logistics of change and units of analysis in the study of African American literature and allied cultural expressions. You are exhausted from trying to make a text from a complex paradigm. Most exhausting is suspicion that higher education tends to defang Black Studies and limit its power to intervene effectively in the life and death issues in the United States.  Remember that higher education Isn’t immune to surveillance.



Nevertheless, your shuttling between the 1973 and the 2014 texts does yield a product: an idea.  It may be possible to use Black Studies digital tools to do meaningful work and assist other human beings, to live a valuable life in a “communiversity.” The practice of communiversity did thrive briefly in the 1970s; it still manifests itself in some reading groups and writing workshop that give scant attention to the performance of anxiety in academic circles. The anxieties you want to read from the epics of capitalist economies and the novels of the everyday which are always seeking a textual home are, in old school language, “as real as real can get.” Your rereading of Introduction to Afro-American Studies and reading of African American Studies 2013 persuade you to maintain a more than safe distance between yourself and hyperbole about reform and revolution.  Both reforms and revolutions often prove to be absurd, very cruel, and very deadly perversions of good intentions, especially in academic contexts. The best sites for manifesting Black Studies are the home, the neighborhood, the prayer house you attend weekly, organizations to which you pay dues or make charitable donations, the political circus wherever you live. In a global community damned to have an unknowable but adjustable future, Black Studies finds it permanence or sustainability in how you and others take matters into your own hands, transform acts of reading into acts of doing, and remember that Black Studies has life-affirming rather an death-bound universal imperatives.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

July 9, 2014   

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