Rethinking Black Studies as a project of freedom

Abdul Alkalimat talks about his new book, The history of black studies, exploring some of the complex and diverse historical origins that led to the emergence of Black Studies in the United States as an intellectual history, as a social movement, and as an academic profession.

October is Black History Mounth UK. LSE’s theme for 2021 is ‘BLACK 365’ and you can explore the events taking place at the LSE this month.

Rethinking Black Studies as a project of freedom

One of the most significant results of the black liberation movement of the 1960s was the creation of Black Studies as a formal education program. But Black Studies was more than that. My new book, The history of black studies (Pluto Press, 2021), offers a comprehensive discussion that clarifies its complex and diverse historical origins.

First, a definition: “This book defines Black Studies as those activities: (1) that study and teach African Americans and often Africans and others of African descent; (2) where Blacks themselves are the primary agents, or protagonists, of study and learning; (3) which fight against racism and contribute to human liberation; (4) which celebrate the experience of blacks; and (5) who see it as a precious case among many others in the universality of the human condition. ‘

Given this concept of Black Studies, there are three main historical ways of measuring and discussing its development: Black Studies as intellectual history; Black Studies as a social movement; and Black Studies as an academic profession. The main argument is that black people have been rational in their experience, thinking about what happened and developing serious literature and cultural practices. Additionally, black activists engaged their community to get involved and acted with an agency focused on the institutions of society for the social change necessary to achieve their political and moral goals.

Image Credit: ” Black Studies [poster], April 1969 ‘. 969.100.2 (106), olvwork719165. Harvard University Archives

Black intellectual history combines both academic disciplinary scholarship and community research and cultural activism. The first two generations of black doctors made their way through elite graduate programs, but institutional racism prevented them from being hired into the very institutions in which they had excelled. Many of their theses laid the foundation for all future research on the experience of blacks in their disciplines. They continued to teach and found their scholarship at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This included academics such as WEB Du Bois in history, E. Franklin Frazier in sociology, and Charles Thompson in education.

In the community, great work has been done in black high schools. In addition, community institutions have been developed such as museums, community centers, publications (newspapers, magazines and book publishers) and literary societies. The activists were African Americans, as were their audiences.

While still based in the community, black activism created social movements that led the struggle for self-determination on the path to freedom. In each case, and I document six of them, there were educational programs that continued the development of Black Studies. The six cases are: the Freedom movement for civil rights, the Black Power movement, the Black Arts movement, the New Communist movement, the black women’s movement and the black student movement.

Each of these movements created a program to raise awareness of the community and, as such, transformed ideas into a material force for change. All subsequent university scholarships are based on the agenda set by the knowledge production of these social movements.

The main paradigm shift in these social movements has been the emergence of Black Power as a slogan that changed everything. The shift has shifted from a focus on acceptance by traditional custodians to a process of assertiveness and community authenticity. It was also a shift from a more bourgeois orientation to the mass base of the black working class and the poor. The aesthetic statement that “Black is beautiful” became a mental explosion that transformed black people from the entrapment of their oppression into a national celebration of assertiveness.

The model for these social movements was the development of what I call “emerging institutions” that organized educational programs. Some were short lived and others survived the decades. The freedom movement started what would come to be known as “schools of freedom”. This was important during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, as well as in the northern school boycotts, especially in Chicago. Within the black arts movement, organizations have been formed in each art form by advocates of black power, including inclusive organizations such as the Black American Culture Organization (OBAC) in Chicago.

Image Credit: Crop ‘Black student in a black studies class in a West Side Chicago classroom reading a book about the great leaders of Africa’s past, 10/1973’. Licensed photograph by John H. White The National Archives of the United States under No known copyright restrictions.

The major challenge for traditional institutions grew after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. The number of black students in mainstream colleges more than quintupled. This brought about a confrontation between institutional racism and the Black Power consciousness that the students brought with them. Institutions were not ready for this challenge: the absence of black students, professors, and staff was normal, and white experts controlled what was considered legitimate knowledge about blacks, what little they did. there was. Black people turned this upside down by demanding more black people at all levels as well as knowledge that made sense to them. They demanded Black Studies. This included positive action in hiring, more inclusive student enrollment, and a new curriculum.

The conflict gave birth to a new innovation. Our conceptual framework for the historical development of Black Studies as an academic profession includes six aspects of development, sometimes chronological and sometimes not: conflict, struggles for consensus, institutionalization, professionalization, theoretical developments and standardization of research.

As an academic profession, Black Studies has developed key organizational strengths, including professional organizations that establish structures of self-governance. These include the National Council for Black Studies, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and the African American Intellectual History Society. Each of these organizations has a peer-reviewed publication process. In addition, more than a dozen institutions have developed doctoral programs, the professional degree that legitimizes research standards for an academic profession.

There have been latent and overt ways black studies have worked in higher education. On the manifest level, Black Studies have earned their place as the official ground for university scholarship. At the latent level, Black Studies remains a resource for black liberation, both within higher education as well as for all battle fronts utilizing the knowledge production of the student movement and other academic resources. Black Studies are both academic and political. It is important to remember that higher education has always served a social and political purpose, just in this case, it is a resource for the oppressed and not the oppressors.

The history of black studies is a general overview of historical experience which can usefully be explored in depth. The organization of the book is also a guide for research, especially for documenting the history of a specific institution. This historic project is an important part of the transformation of higher education. we provided a model for this at the University of Illinois.

There are other books that will be worth exploring:

For Black Studies as intellectual history: Nathaniel Norment, African-American studies: the discipline and its dimensions and William Banks, Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life.

For Black Studies as a Social Movement: Russell Rickford, We are an African people: independent education, black power and radical imagination and Ibram X. Kendi, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reenactment of Higher Education 1965-1972.

For Black Studies as an academic profession: Martha Biondi, The black revolution on campus and Fabio Rojas, From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline.


Note: This feature essay provides the author’s perspective, not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Thanks to Harvard University Archives for permission to use the image from ‘Black Studies [poster], April 1969 ‘. This image should not be reused with permission from Archives.

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Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, or the London School of Economics.

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About the Author

Abdul AlkalimatUniversity of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign)
Professor Abdul Alkalimat (PhD in Sociology, University of Chicago) is a seasoned academic activist in Black Studies. He wrote the first textbook of Black Studies, which is now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. He edits the website on Malcolm X (brothermalcolm.net) and the abdulslist listserv. He is currently Professor Emeritus of African American Studies and Information Science at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). Its website is alkalimat.org.

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