Black Student Union members at Rally, California Sate University at Fullerton (Flickr)

Black Studies, (also known as African American Studies, Africana Studies, and Pan African Studies) has its origins in the Black Campus Movements of the late 1960s. Black students and their Native American, Asian American, Latinx, and supportive white allies demanded relevant education that decentered European and Euro-American approaches to education. They desired a more inclusive and relevant education while simultaneously acquiring the knowledge, skills, and knowhow to be change agents in their communities and society at large.

Black Studies did not arise without critique even from within the Black community. Referring to Black student demands for separate spaces on campus in February 1969, Roy Wilkins, Executive Director of the NAACP, told Newsweek that by “demanding a black Jim Crow studies building within a campus and exclusively black dormitories or wings of dormitories, they are opening the door to a dungeon.”1 Here, Wilkins’ concern is the return to Jim Crow segregation in education and beyond, a cause he spent much of his adult life fighting against. In December of 1969 Black Panther Party Chief of Staff David Hillard spoke at a Black Student Union (BSU) Rally at then-San Francisco State College, saying “The Black Panther Party is not going to support any [BSU] policy that asks for an autonomous Black studies program that excludes other individuals.” Hilliard was concerned with isolating the Black revolutionary struggle from other oppressed groups because the Panthers asserted they shared a common enemy. But why Black Studies?

Maulana Karenga conceptualized Black Studies as an academic discipline, “a specialized branch of study and knowledge,” in which Black people, as a racial group, are the subject of investigation. Karenga defines Black Studies as “the critical and systematic study of the thought and practice of African people in their current and historical unfolding.” Here Karenga uses African and Black interchangeably. Black Studies, then, critically examines the history, culture, and experiences of African people and their descendants from ancient times to the present. He continues, “It is critical in that it is characterized by careful analysis and considered judgment. And it is systematic in that it is structured and methodical in its pursuit and presentation of knowledge.” The editors of the Black Studies Reader—Jacqueline Bobo, Cynthia Hudley, and Claudine Michel—add, “Black Studies, as a socially engaged field of scholarly inquiry, is the progeny of centuries of research that seeks to redress long-standing misconceptions of Black inferiority, African heritage, and cultural significance.” Black Studies is an intellectually and academically rigorous discipline that contributes to knowledge production, will correct and address misinformation, reaffirm individuals and their communities in their history and culture, as well as produce scholarship that will impact policy, curriculum, and legislation. As Serie McDougal contends, Black Studies “is designed to contribute to the emancipation of people of African descent and humanity by virtue of that contribution.” Black Studies, then, seeks to contribute to creating a world better than the one that was inherited.

It should be noted that Black Studies is not limited to Black history alone. A survey of introductory texts to the discipline such as Karenga’s Introduction to Black Studies or Talmage Anderson and James Stewart’s Introduction to African American Studies reveals that history, spirituality/ religion, sociology, psychology, literature, politics, economics, fine and creative arts, science, and technology are part of the interdisciplinary make-up of Black Studies. In addition to the diversity of areas of focus, Black people do not live in isolation from the rest of humanity. To this end, the focus of Black Studies on the Black experience necessitates an engagement with other racial/ethnic groups as Black people come in contact and interact with a diversity of groups. Racially speaking, Black people are all over the world, and Black Studies lends itself to the study of Black people not only in Africa and the United States, but in the Caribbean, Canada, Latin America, Europe, and Asia.

Black Studies’ maturation later led to the development of other areas of focus and discipline-specific resource material. For example Black Women’s StudiesBlack Men’s Studies, and Black Queer Studies are part of the Black Studies lineage. The common thread is membership in the Black racial group and how their racial identities intersect with other identities. But it is their racial group identity that binds them. As Black Studies matures, books like McDougal’s Research Methods in Africana Studies guides Black Studies students in the theories, approaches, and methods for scholarly research. In addition, my own book Building the Basics: A Handbook for Pursuing Academic Excellence in Africana Studies offers tips, tidbits, and suggestions for maximizing learning in the discipline.

Scholars in Black Studies have professional organizations such as the National Council for Black Studies (NCBS) and the National Association of African American Studies (NAAAS). The discipline also has journal outlets such as the Journal of Black StudiesJournal of African American Studies, and Siyabonana: The Journal of Africana Studies. Students can earn a doctorate, master’s, and bachelor’s degree in Black Studies at various institutions. Students of Black Studies have employment opportunities that include but not limited to teaching and research. A review of Robert Fikes, Jr.’s “What Can I Do With a Black Studies Major?” reveals over 1,000 notable people who have graduated with degrees in Black Studies and have become successful in a variety of fields such as: medicine and health; science and technology; law and criminal justice; politics and government; business, industry, and labor; performing arts and entertainment; visual and decorative arts; literature, poetry and drama; sports; education; news media and publishing; social and community services; religion; military; and more.

Black Studies is successful at developing young minds for productive lives and careers for at least three important reasons. First, regarding Black students, they are reaffirmed in Black Studies. The success, or lack thereof, of many Black students can be attributed to many factors, however, a common statement made by Black students in Black Studies is “why don’t they teach us this in high school or middle school?” This statement suggests that the students find value and relevance in what they are learning. Yes, they see “themselves” in the material, but more importantly they find significance and relevance in the content. When students take interest in a course beyond earning the desired letter grade en route to graduation, they have a deeper connection with the material and appreciation for the lesson. In other words, Black Studies connects with Black students culturally, emotionally, and intellectually because they are reaffirmed by the course content. A true commitment to Black student success includes bringing Black Studies content and perspectives into K-12 curriculum, as well as letting the students know about Black Studies as an option for majors and minors in college.

Second, Black Studies is not limited and exclusive to Black people. Christine Sleeter’s research contends that Black Studies, and other Ethnic Studies disciplines, have a great impact on students of color and an even greater impact on white students.  In fact, the contemporary emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion was championed by Black students and Black Studies advocates in the late 1960s, even if they were not using that language. Yes, they were saying, and it is still being said, that Black students need courses that reflect the Black experience. However, it was and is also being said that non-Black students would also benefit from learning about the Black experience. It contributes to diversifying not only course content but also the perspective. It encourages all students to appreciate the diversity of experiences and perspectives. Ultimately Black Studies, and by extension American Indian Studies, Asian and Asian American Studies, and Chicanx and Latinx Studies, move toward a more equitable curriculum for the benefit of all students. Including these disciplines within general education and requiring these courses as the California State University system has done, results in a more inclusive curriculum.

And third, Black Studies assists in the development of skills employers look for in job candidates. According to Indeed, employers are looking for many skills in applicants including communication skills, learning/adaptability skills, problem-solving skills, and open-mindedness, all of which Black Studies develops. Echoing the sentiments of Dr. David C. Turner, III, employers can demonstrate they value Black Studies by specifying Black Studies or related fields as a preferred qualification or desirable educational background on job announcements.

Ultimately the inception and maturation of Black Studies lays Wilkins and Hillard’s earlier concerns to rest. The question then, is not “Why Black Studies?” but “Why not Black Studies?”

  1. Wilkins, Roy, “The Case Against Separatism: ‘Black Jim Crow’,” Newsweek, February 10, 1969.
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M. Keith Claybrook, Jr.

M. Keith Claybrook, Jr. is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies at CSU, Long Beach, where he teaches classes on history and the social sciences. Claybrook serves on CSU, Long Beach’s Presidents Commission on Equity and Change Commission, and served two terms as VP of the Black Faculty and Staff Association. His research interests include the history of Black Los Angeles, the Black Freedom Movement, the Black Student Movement, 21st Century Black student activism, 21st Century Pan Africanism, Reparations, and Hip Hop. He is the author of Building the Basics: A Handbook for Pursuing Academic Excellence in Africana Studies. He is currently working on a book manuscript entitled Beyond the Spectacle: The Intellectual Work of the Black Power Era in Los Angeles, 1965-1975.

Comments on “Why Black Studies?

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    Great article, Dr. Claybrook.

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    It is important to be clear on when “black” is a metaphor and when it is not; to be clear on its use. When it literally describes a colour vs something else is not always discussed. The etic vs emic issue is also important.
    All indigenous/endogenous Africans are not “black” and all “blacks” (meaning dark skinned peoples) are not Africans in a recent temporal sense. Some genealogical lineages for uniparental markers are carried by people having a range of phenotypes.

    Not all people with dark skins due to African ancestry call themselves “black” or acknowledge their African ancestry in a primary fashion. Some, usually individuals, who may not have “obvious” and stereotyped African ancestry do call themselves black–and this has been known to fluctuate.

    It is worth discussing these issues and developing the language(s) to discuss them for both academic and other purposes.

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    But of course! These nuances are worth discussing. And this is yet another reason to champion Black Studies or Africana Studies! The discourse on Blackness is so layered, and it is as old as the concept of race itself. The moment that African heritage or features became the social determinants for the human value and worth of black skinned people–of slaveability or success, of privilege or punishment–African values of collectivism and oneness were threatened. All of a sudden, and almost all at once, being African was no longer the highest badge of honor for all African peoples. Being Black was not always a badge of honor for all Black peoples. This conversation, in my opinion, began in response to forces that attempted to break the ties that bind us. Although, I think that this conversation has expanded greatly since then, as it is true that time and the unfolding of global history has made it so that there are distinct differences in the African – Black experience, especially as it relates to spatial, temporal, environmental, and political developments that impact our livelihood, our cultural expansion, and our thought patterns. I do agree that these nuances must be discussed! It is my undying hope, however, that these discussions point us back to one another, seeing each other as our own reflections, and being unified in our identity as one proud African people.

    What I love about Black Studies is the emphasis on the reparation of Africa and African people and the African image. I, who’ve never touched African soil, am a proud African. Even when I meet continental Africans who occasionally, lovingly, jokingly, yet assuredly clarify that I’m “not REALLY African,” lol. I think of it as a beautiful exchange! Through the exchange, I’m able to understand the roots of their initial statement, but I am also always able to expand their concept of “the African” to include ME! And when I meet melanated folks who do not feel connected to Africa or to global Black peoples (be they Black Americans or the Dalit Indians, or melanated Puerto Ricans) I don’t argue with them, but I love them instead, hoping with all my heart that they will someday come home to us. We are one. It is in our best interest to operate as a collective. I think these nuances are worth discussing so that we can discover this together!

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    in the Caribbean we tend to focus on the ethnic nature of Black Studies as we do with Asian and other such studies

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