Ultimate Stakes and Realities: Program Building and the Future of Black Studies

*This post is part of our online forum organized by Drs. Charisse Burden-Stelly and Crystal Moten titled “Researching, Teaching, and Embodying the Black Diaspora”

Amherst College (Flickr: Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism)

When I was asked to talk at the AALAC gathering in Northfield, Minnesota — hosted by Carleton College — it was under the rubric of “administering Black Studies.” This was an awkward rubric for me, actually, because I have never been an administrator. It is a peculiarity, often a virtuous one, of Amherst College that our administration consists of about a handful of people, and I’ve never been one of those handful. I had been chair of my department for a few years, but the College is thoroughly faculty governed, including inside departments. When chair, I referred to myself, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as Emailer-in-Chief.

At the same time, my time as chair was exceptionally busy in terms of program building around the three central parts of the mission of Black Studies on college and university campuses: deepening and expanding inside one’s department, creating places of collaboration and support with students and staff, and advocating for the study of Black life across the campus. On this first charge, it was an exciting time as chair. We hired and expanded in important ways and developed into a vibrant department covering diverse geographies from a wide range of theoretical and empirical perspectives. On the second charge, our campus had a few moments of serious student protest that underscored the importance of Black Studies beyond the classroom, as students demanded a culture of inclusion and the transformation of long-standing campus habits and institutions that have never been particularly welcoming to Black students and students of color.

This last bit is especially important because it initiated a series of critical discussions — formal and informal, campus-wide and between individuals over coffee, lunch, in the quad, etc. — about how to complete the transformation of Amherst College after the multi-year project of creating a “majority minority” campus. In the academic year 2019-2020, for example, domestic students of color and international students comprise 54 percent of the student body. This is a very different college than Amherst College’s traditional role of training the elite for the perpetuation of its own economic and racial class. First-generation and working-class students are now significant in number. So, what does that mean for Black Studies, and for the study of Black life across the campus?

When I was chair, we moved quickly to grow as a department in this moment of campus self-reflection. It was an important moment and one made for our department. We are stronger for it, for sure. But we also took the opportunity to do what we could to encourage the study of Black life across other departments, whether very close to ours or far away. After all, what is Black Studies if it does not produce a political project of promoting study in every corner of a given campus and across academia more widely?

One of the things that has defined my department, since the beginning, is its orientation toward Black Studies as an intellectual tradition — diasporic, which means both the intersections of the Black Atlantic and the unicity of local and regional expressive and analytic culture. We’ve expressed this in our self-description, as well as our construction of the major with geographic distribution requirements, multi-disciplinary and multi-geographic core courses taught by every faculty member, and thesis advising that routinely asks us to step well outside our comfort zones. Historians advise cultural studies theses, theorists support projects with empirical content and positivist orientation, and so forth. I think this is a strength of the department and something that reflects our commitment to doing Black Studies in a Black Studies kind of way.

At the same time, the Department has always had to work with the constraints of area studies at a largely conventional liberal arts college. What this means is that joint appointments are the primary, and at times only, way to maintain and grow as a department. Currently only two of nine faculty members are wholly appointed in Black Studies, and until very recently that number sat at only one. This is tricky, for sure. Working with other departments means negotiating over methods and disciplinary disciplination. I am thinking here of a joint search with Anthropology a handful of years back, in which the (no doubt familiar to many) conflict over the purity of methods — we in favor of eclectic approaches, they in favor of very anchored work in the discipline — resulted in a failed search, but failed in a productive way. We as a department gained a lot of clarity in this failure: the limits of disciplinary thinking in Black Studies, the difference between Black Studies and the study of Black life, and the always precarious character of the sorts of research and teaching we do. For all the rhetoric of multi- and interdisciplinary work, no one much likes it outside of area studies. And even within area studies, it can be viewed with suspicious eyes, especially when one encounters candidates and scholars doing that sort of work in proximity to the discipline in which one has been trained. This is complicated stuff.

This returns me to the third charge that is constitutive of being a Black Studies department on a college campus: advocating for the study of Black life across the disciplines. This has proven to be an especially successful piece of our department’s work (lead by example, everyone loves strategies for growing their department faculty) but one that both raises difficult issues for the future of Black Studies and sharpens our sense of how necessary it is to define the specificity of Black Studies as a field. The difficult issues are pretty straightforward. Under a strictly white supremacist regime across the disciplines, Black Studies thrives as both the place to study race and racism and the focal point of the study of Black life. But when that study is represented in other departments, departments not joint-appointing with Black Studies, the racial and political magnetism of a department of Black Studies is fundamentally changed. It is not enough to point out the tokenism of so much diversity hiring in disciplinary departments. Students see courses in areas of interest and enroll there. Those are the facts of student population movement through classrooms. Sure, we might imagine radicalizing students into a more comprehensive, sharper approach to the study of Black life, yet the fact remains that students are omnivorous — for better or worse. They follow what courses sound interesting, and one can never discount the rhetorical and cultural appeal of disciplines; traditional disciplines seem more real to so many students, and also to other faculty and administrators. Coupled with the neo-liberal model of higher education, which has come to bear heavily even on resource-rich campuses like Amherst College (we too have to prove our worth through enrollment numbers), a department of Black Studies is in many ways put at risk by its own extra-departmental success. Our enrollments decrease, so too does support for our expansion (or even maintenance after retirements).

For some, this ought to be the endgame of Black Studies — to eliminate itself through integration of the study of Black life into traditional disciplines. In this imaginary, the origin of Black Studies is the exclusion of that life from disciplines, and the rigor and intensity of the study of the Black intellectual tradition by Black Studies scholars, in the end, aims at transforming the disciplines into diverse places rather than remaining the provincial, exclusive clubs they’ve always been. I understand that. Disciplines have their place.

But for me, and for my department, the precariousness introduced by the diversification of discipline-based faculties and neo-liberal models of importance was no moment of transition back into disciplines. It was rather a moment of introspection: what do we do as Black Studies that is indispensable to the study of Black life? For me, it’s a chance to reflect on how our moment is so very different than the now-classic debates about the meaning of Black Studies, perhaps best reflected in the debate between Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Manning Marable in the collection Dispatches from the Ebony Tower. In that debate, it was about the normative orientation of Black Studies departments: humanist inquiry or political responsiveness? That is still a live question, without a doubt. Yet, in a moment in which disciplines have become wise to the value of diversification of (sub-)fields of inquiry for both virtuous and crass reasons, we are thrown back to a monologic question: who are we to ourselves? What makes us distinctive? This is no mere navel-gazing question. It is a question of the survival of the area studies we call Black Studies.

In the end, for me, this is a question of materials and methods, and their intersection. What is distinctive about research material in Black Studies? And what methods bear on those distinctive materials that cannot be replicated or contained by traditional disciplines? How is Black Studies fundamentally excessive in relation to disciplines? If we cannot answer these questions with bold distinctions, then we have no real grounds for defending our right to exist as a department or field in academia. If Black Studies merely means studying things that focus on the lives of Black people, and that studying employs conventional disciplinary methodologies, then our destiny really is a return to the disciplines. But if we have distinctiveness in terms of the kinds of materials, combinations of expressive life, and eclectic methodological approaches, then we become, in some sense, a kind of discipline. There are plenty of examples. In terms of foundational texts, for example, where would one place W.E.B. Du BoisSouls of Black Folk or Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South? These works are un-placeable, if we think from disciplines. And yet they are foundational texts for the African American intellectual tradition. Or more recently, one can think of texts like Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well, which employs material from sociology, history, literature, autobiography, and flights of imagination — the poetic dimension, always so powerful in that book — and a similar bricolage of methods that produce a portrait of Black life that is in many ways a model for the field. And so on. So many examples.

When we begin with this question, “What is Black Studies?” and pursue it with rigor, we gain clarity about ourselves and what we do as a local, then national group. The answers will be different, always, which is a very good thing. Disputes over identity is part of being a self-reflective, self-aware field of study. (I am thinking, for example, of how philosophy’s most persistent question is “What is philosophy?”) Without clarity on what we do and why it is distinctive, we risk being left precarious in an age of diversification. For those of us who remain deeply skeptical of diversification within disciplines, suspecting it is often (if not always) tokenism, this precariousness is not just a professional question of disciplines, departments, and the allocation of funds and faculty lines. It is, rather, about ultimate stakes and realities: the integrity and dignity of the future of the study of Black life.

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John Drabinski

John E. Drabinski is Charles Hamilton Houston 1915 Professor of Black Studies in the Department of Black Studies at Amherst College. In addition to authoring four books, most recently Glissant and the Middle Passage: Philosophy, Beginning, Abyss (University of Minnesota Press, 2019) and Levinas and the Postcolonial: Race, Nation, Other (Edinburgh University Press, 2012), he has written over three dozen articles on Africana theory and French philosophy, and has edited book and journal issues on Fanon, Godard, Levinas, Glissant, and the question of political reconciliation. Follow him on Twitter @JDrabinski.