Arturo Schomburg, Black Studies, and Social Change

Black Lives Matter Rally (Flickr)

Around 1930, a fifteen-year-old John Henrik Clarke travelled to New York City, New York, anxious to meet Arturo Schomburg at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. The library branch held the most extensive archive of the Black diaspora, most of it gathered by Schomburg himself. Clarke boldly said that he wanted to know the full history of Blacks around the world. Schomburg responded, “Son, go study the history of your oppressor. Once you know the history of your oppressor and why he had to oppress you, you will also learn why he had to remove you from the respectful commentary of human history.” Clarke later proclaimed Schomburg as a father of Africana Studies because Schomburg advocated the study of the Black experience as a tool of liberation, a tool that he intended to be used by the masses. Today Black Studies is under attack, for precisely this reason, as evidenced by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and backlash-minded education reformers. Black Studies, in its fullness, remains a tool not for rote memorization, but a tool for understanding racism, and therefore rectifying racial inequality.

The tagline for many right-wing education reactionaries in the current political climate is, “education not indoctrination.” DeSantis noted that Black History is already instituted within Florida. However, his conception of Black History is that it is “just cut and dried history. You learn all the basics you learn about the great figures.” It is important to note that to speak of a “cut and dried” history that teaches the “great figures” reinforces a narrow story arc. More questionable is the emphasis of “great heroes” which implies a subjective assessment of who best contribute to the contemporary moment and fundamentally do not threaten historical interpretations of the nation. For Schomburg (in the 1930s), the purpose of education was not merely the study of the “great figures,” nor was it cut and dried. Schomburg’s word of advice to the high school-aged Clarke was to “study the history of the oppressor,” many of whom were the “great figures” that DeSantis and other conservatives champion as heroes. Any future education could not simply be one that lifted up exemplary figures, but also examined the motivations and justifications for systems of oppression. He added that there needed to be a Chair of this new discipline that would “give us, our side view.”

A generation later, with the advent of Black Studies in academia during the 1960s and 1970s, student activists attempted to form Black Studies around similar goals. Scholar Johnetta Cole noted that Black Studies challenged ideas of “cut and dried history,” or conceptions that education is objective and value free. She wrote that Black Studies, “is the point of view that comes from a reality so tenuous that one did not own even the very breath of his or her life.” From Schomburg to this moment, Black Studies was always meant to be a repudiation of a cut and dried approach that teaches the basics, which often privileged learning about prominent and wealthy white people. Teaching only the basics, by necessity means some peoples will be written out, or removed “from the respectful commentary” which is exactly the goal of critics of Black Studies.

In criticisms of Black Studies, several Black scholars, activists, and ideas have been pointed out as being unnecessary or outside the bounds of respectability of education. Instead the Florida Department of Education points to state standards that require the study of Black history in the form of their “contributions of Americans of the African diaspora to society.” The implication is that those who are included are those who “contributed” to society, or the values of society that are deemed appropriate. Even in the early years of Black history, Schomburg noted the tendency for “exceptional individuals” of the race being “unfairly disassociated from the group.” That is precisely the aim of those who align themselves with the Florida Department of Education. There are African Americans who are deemed “great heroes” in the American story and worthy of study, and others who are not. This latter group includes law professor Kimberle Crenshaw, singled out for being the “founder” of intersectionality, and scholar-activist Angela Davis, who they cite as a “self-avowed Communist and Marxist.” The implication is that some parts of the Black experience should be excluded and removed from a nationalist or patriotic American narrative altogether, exemplified by conservatives behind the 1776 project. To promote a “patriotic” American narrative, there are “acceptable” African Americans who contribute to the contemporary status quo. Then there are “unacceptable” African Americans, who fundamentally challenge the core of a patriotic narrative. That is especially true of Black feminists like bell hooks, whose work speaks to the need to challenge and change systems of dominance. It is no surprise hooks was singled out along with the field of Black Queer Studies when DeSantis asked, “who would say that an important part of Black history is queer theory.” Such a perspective writes out self-proclaimed Black Feminist organizations, like the Combahee River Collective, whose work included picketing, “a hospital that is cutting back on already inadequate heath care” or setting up “a rape crisis center in a Black neighborhood.” Such a perspective would also omit from study Pauli Murray, the queer scholar-lawyer-activist-theologian, who was a key intellectual behind Brown v. Board of Education, and who helped ensure the inclusion of legal protections against sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Act, and who wrote on both Black and Feminist Theology. This of course underlines the entire point of Black Studies, to critique and challenge the American status quo. It is this activist bent that Black Studies critics find most problematic.

Schomburg’s perspective on Black Studies is normally reduced to the line, “The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future.” The key word here is “remake.” The past had been remade, not learned or found. To deliberately choose to remake was authorial and transformative and important for the process of self-identification and self-actualization. The intention was that this education would spur action to remake a new world and future, one more hospitable to African Americans. In case there was any confusion about the activist intentions that Schomburg’s conception of Black Studies entailed, he clarified that for future readers. The spread of education, not to just elites, but also to masses of students, was to “awaken the sensibilities, to kindle the dormant fibres in the soul, and to fire the racial patriotism” thatwould bring the race forward into the future. This sensibility is prevalent in contemporary Black Studies. Johnetta Cole’s vision of Black Studies centered around Black people’s struggle for dignity, integrity, and equality in American society. Black Studies was meant to have “a strong activist component in the curriculum.” This is the heart of complaints against studies similar to the original Florida AP African American Studies framework and college courses on Black Studies—the political framework. The curriculum was criticized as “a vehicle for a political agenda” in large part because of the “Movement for Black Lives” unit, which covered the recent activism around police brutality that has grown to encompass a broad critique of racial inequality.

The knowledge that Black Studies is, and always has been, meant to be a catalyst for social change, instead of a glorification of the present, is the main sticking point. The “six areas of concern” that the Florida Department of Education identified made that assessment clear. Singling out a topic on Black Struggle in the twenty first century, the concern in their own words were that Robin D. G. Kelley “argues that activism, rather than the university system, are the catalyst for social change.” And that is precisely the point. This accusation demonstrates the entire misunderstanding of what Black Studies is versus what critics want it to be. Black Studies was always meant to be a catalyst for social change. It was never meant to be simply an exploration of how racism was conquered, or a celebration of past struggles. African American Studies, Africana Studies, Black Studies are all based on the premise that racial injustice is not merely a fact of the past, but the present, and it is a collective social responsibility to change it.

In his 1930 meeting with future Pan-African scholar John Henrik Clarke, Schomburg imparted the wisdom to study one’s oppressor to understand why “they” chose to oppress “you.” It was a purposefully open-ended request that left individuals with much to determine for themselves. The liberating potential of Black Studies was that each individual could choose to find themselves, and see themselves, as part of a movement for change. The past was not simply a cut and dry story. The past trials and the past successes were also his one’s own, if one made the choice to embrace them. In that way, Schomburg was pushing for those like Clarke to exist not just in the moment, but to internalize the past as a crucial part of the present, to make a new future for Black America. It is the making of a new future, far different from the present, that is most problematic to those insistent that racial injustices have already largely been overcome.

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DJ Polite

DJ Polite, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department of History, Anthropology, and Philosophy at Augusta University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in American studies from Williams College, a master’s in education from CUNY-Brooklyn College and his Ph.D. in history from the University of South Carolina. Prior work includes teaching special education in a public charter high school, and as a historic guide and interpreter for home museums in South Carolina. His research looks primarily on the mutually reinforcing growth of U.S. Jim Crow policies and empire in the Caribbean, particularly Puerto Rico. It explores the ways that the solidification of both relied on each other and cemented secondary citizenship status for African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and especially women of both groups. He presented at organizations such as the South Carolina Historical Association, the Latin American Section of the Southern Historical Association, the African American Intellectual History Society, the Puerto Rican Studies Association, as well as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. He has a chapter in the edited volume Reconstruction and Empire, published by Fordham University Press and has written for online publications such as Black Perspectives, Washington Post, and the Activist History Review.