The 20th anniversary of the doctorate in African-American studies in the American academy is, undoubtedly, cause for jubilant celebration. W. E. B. Du Bois must surely be smiling down from his perch amongst the African ancestors. Yet, as we hail this monumental milestone, at the same time, we can no longer overlook the tragic and shameful absence of degree programs, doctoral or otherwise, in Africology — or Black studies, African-American studies, African Diaspora studies, Pan African studies, Africana studies or whatever name is favored at individual institutions — within the offerings of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU’s).
I say this because, while we focus on the African-American studies doctorate during this, its twentieth year at Temple University, my alma mater, let us not forget that few HBCU’s offer even a bachelor’s degree in Black studies. As a faculty member at an HBCU, I have a bird’s eye view of this problem. And while the reasons are numerous, I believe the primary one is a fundamental lack of cultural esteem, which, by extension, leads to a perceived limited career trajectory for the African-American studies major — both within the various HBCU cabinets, and the prospective student population (and the parents who fund them).
That is, from my experience, I believe there is the lingering notion in the minds of HBCU administrators that, while African-American studies is indeed important, it is not economically feasible to generate degree programs in this discipline. In other words, it will not “pay off,” they reason — for the institutions or for the students.
They wonder, as did my family and friends when I announced my intention to pursue the Ph.D. in African-American studies, “What does one do with such a degree?” “You won’t be able to find a job,” they warned. Of course, I explained to them my intention to teach and to write, but they still questioned my sanity, as I pivoted from my first area of specialization, mass communications.
In other words, they thought I had lost my mind! Indeed, many of them still believe this. It doesn’t matter how much I explain to them the vital importance of critical analysis of the African-American experience. This is the same mindset that I am confronted with each semester from many students in my African-American literature class, which is required for English and mass communication majors in my department. They are often openly hostile about having to take the course in the first place. So when we proceed to discussions of the African Oral Tradition or early African-American autobiographies, or “slave narratives” as they are commonly called in the literary world, they tell me that we just need to “move on” and stop “harping on the past.” I tell them, until I am blue in the face, that history informs literature, and the present; but far too many of them are just not interested. Of course, there are usually a few who are truly engaged, but not nearly enough.
I guess what I am trying to say is that it comes down to a question of values. But,of course, values are learned. The bottom line is that African-Americans, by and large, have not been taught to value our historical experience — or ourselves. This is directly attributable to the lack of African-American history taught in our public school systems, and the dearth of African history taught in world history classes, outside of Black History Month. Not to mention the negative portrayals of Blacks which permeate the television and radio airwaves, films and … well, everything.
Having said all this, I must also acknowledge the validity of the concerns regarding the professional limitations of the African-American studies discipline in a society — and an academy — that is historically hostile to all that is African-descended. To be sure, there are the exceptions, like my esteemed, iconic professor and dissertation director at Temple, Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, or Drs. Maulana Karenga of California State University, Long Beach; or Ama Mazama, also of Temple, or Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University, or Princeton University’s Cornel West, or Manning Marable of Columbia University, or Clenora Hudson-Weems of the University of Missouri-Columbia, and other high-profile scholars in the field. But they are the exceptions … and in the interest of complete accuracy, it must be noted that their doctorates are not in Black studies. Of course, I offer this not as a critique, but just to keep the record clear.
The dirty little secret is this: Even in African-American studies departments, programs and centers around the country, when searches are conducted for new hires, the search committees often tend to bypass African-American studies majors, and favor history majors when they want specialists in African or African-American history, or they look for English or comparative literature majors when they seek Africana literature experts, etc. Incredibly enough, the African-American studies Ph.D., as quiet as it’s kept, is often considered the second class citizen of academia.
So then, the core dilemma confronting scholars in the field is one of value. Mind you, this problem is not limited to the HBCU, but it is a societal one. This is, at least in this scholar’s mind, a bottom-up crisis, as opposed to a trickle-down one. That is to say, we have to do a better job of readying our people for the serious and sustained study of African-American culture, the glory and the gore. That way, when HBCU’s finally rise to the necessary task of routinely offering degree programs in African-American studies, they will have no trouble finding sufficient numbers of majors.
Moreover, and finally, we must work to ensure that the African-American studies undergraduate major will be just as attractive to potential employers, graduate schools, law schools, etc., as the history or American studies major (or others of the liberal arts). Until such time, African-American studies will remain absent from the HBCU menu. As it were, we have to make sure that “if we build them, they will come.”
Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.