African-American Studies in the 21st Century

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
The Black Scholar (1992)

Source: The Black Scholar 22 (Summer 1992): 3-9.


First, the good news. For a woman or a person of color, there has never been a more exciting and rewarding time to be in the academy than today. More women and black people are tenured than ever before, and more occupy tenure-track positions. We are in the midst of a renaissance of black scholarship, both individual and collective! Robin Williams! and Gerald Jaynes! A Common Destiny, an updated study of the social and economic status of the black Americans since the Myrdal Report; Darlene Clarke Hines's monumental attempt to make systematic the scholarly literature about the social status and intellectual history of black women in the 19th and 20th centuries; Charles V Hamilton's encompassing Encyclopedia of Black Culture, now underway at Columbia; the Schomburg Library of l9th Century Black Women's Writings, published in 4 volumes by Oxford; the Oxford Companion to African American Literature and the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, both to be published in the next two years; The Black Papers Projects, including the collected works of Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, the Black Abolitionists, and the Papers of the Freedman's Bureau; the Black Periodical Literature Project, these are merely some of the research projects that are well underway and in need of support of foundations.

The particular burden of the scholar of Afro-American Studies is that we must often resurrect the texts of our tradition before we can even begin to analyze them. Few foundations have begun to acknowledge the importance of supporting this kind of "foundational" research - the sort of projects that consolidate previous gains. In research in the field, the sort of project that enables the work of other, younger scholars, of generations to come, the sort of work that provides a starting place for those who will come after us. I am speaking here of bibliographies, concordances, dictionaries, and encyclopedias. (My own great dream is to edit the Encyclopedia Africana, a project first defined by WE.B. Du Bois in 1910, and to edit which he emigrated to Ghana in 1961 at Kwame Nkrumah's request.) This sort of research may be unglamourous, but it is indispensable.

Black culture in America is a national concern, a "region" in the broadest sense of that term -- a region of the collective and richly diverse cultural mind of America. As we face the 21st century, changing demographics within our population - in which a majority our citizens will be people of color by the year 2020 - has impelled people to rethink the shape and function of our national cultural institutions, and indeed of the way that we define the relation between being "human" and what we think of as "the humanities" and the "the arts." For America has always been a multicultural state. Equal access to the arts and the humanities, broadly conceived to account for the comparable eloquence of the Asian, the African, the Latin American and the Middle Eastern traditions, as well as what's been constructed as the Graeco-Roman, Judaeo-Christian traditions, is the most important cultural project upon which we can embark in this last decade of the 20th century, as we seek to prepare our students and thereby our society to be meaningful parts of a 21st century world culture. For the humanities and the arts are the common property of us all.


Our generation must record, codify, and disseminate the assembled data about African and African American culture, thereby institutionalizing the received knowledge about African Americans that has been gathered for the past century, and which we continue to gather, as we chart heretofore unexplored continents of ignorance. For our generation of scholars in African American Studies, to map the splendid diversity of human life in culture is both our burden and our privilege.


But now for the bad news. This past decade has witnessed a disquieting coupling of trends. On the one hand, we've seen calls from on high to reclaim a legacy, to fend off the barbarians at the gates, and return to some prelapsarian state of scholarly grace. On the other hand, we've seen a disturbing recrudescence of campus racism sweeping the nation. Many of you will have seen lead articles about this in recent issues of The Chronicle of Higher Education, but the topic has been in the news for quite some time. For people who agitated in the civil rights era, and saw real gains in the college curriculum in the 1970s, the new conservatism seems to have succeeded their own efforts rather as the Redemption politicians followed the Reconstruction, threatening to undo what progress had been made. Whatever the causes, the climate on campus has been worsening: according to one monitoring group, racial incidents have been reported at over three hundred colleges since the 1986-1987 school year. And that's just counting the cases that made the papers.

At the same time, there's been, since 1977, a marked decline in overall black enrollment in colleges. The evidence suggests the decline is connected to a slipping economic situation, and cuts in available federal aid. In the Reagan era since 1977, federal grants and scholarships fell 62%, and that, of course, disproportionately affects minority students. Almost half of ail black children (46.7%) live under the poverty line, according to the Congressional Research Service. Indeed, if you look at students at traditionally black colleges, you find that 42 percent of them come from families with income below the poverty line; a third of these students come from families with a total family income less than $6,000 a year. So when it comes to larger economic trends, blacks are like canaries in the coal mine: the first to go when things are going wrong.

There's an even bigger problem than getting these students, and that's keeping them. The attrition rate is depressing. At Berkeley, one in four black students ... will graduate. The fact is, according to the National Center of Education Statistics, that of freshmen blacks in 1980, only 31% had graduated by 1986. While financial pressures explain some of it, they don't explain all of it.

Down the educational pike, things get worse. Just 2.3% of our full-time college professors are black, and the number is said to be decreasing. In 1986, only 820 of the 32,000 PhDs awarded went to blacks; less than half of that 820 plan a college career. A malaise of another kind has accompanied these bleak statistical trends. Many thoughtful educators are dismayed, even bewildered, when minority students -- at Berkeley or Stanford or Texas or Oberlin, it's become a familiar sentiment -- say that they feel like visitors, like guests, like foreign or colonized citizens in relation to a traditional canon that fails to represent their cultural identities. I'm not interested in simply endorsing that sentiment: it's not a reasoned argument, this reaction, but it is a playing out -- a logical extension -- of an ideology resident in the traditional rhetoric about Western Civilization. And I want to consider it in that light.

Once upon a time, there was a race of men (always men) who could claim all of knowledge as their purview. Someone like Francis Bacon really did try to organize all of knowledge into a single capacious but coherent structure. And even into the nineteenth century, the creed of universal knowledge -- mathesis universalis --still reigned. There's a wonderful piece of 19th century student


doggerel about Jowett, the Victorian classicist and master of Balliol College, Oxford, which rather sums up the philosophy:

Here stand I, my name is Jowett,
If there's knowledge, then I know it;
I am the master of this college,
What I know not, is not knowledge.

The question this raises for us, of course, is: how does something get to count as knowledge? Intellectuals, Gramsci famously observes, can be defined as experts in legitimation: and the academy, today, is an institution of legitimation -- establishing what counts as knowledge, what counts as culture. In the most spirited attacks on the movement toward multiculturalism in the academy today, there's a whiff of this: We are the masters of this college / What we know not, is not knowledge. So that in the wake of Bacon's epistemic megalomania, there's been a contrary movement, a constriction of what counted as even worth knowing. We've got our culture, what more do we need? Besides, there was Heidegger on stage right, assuring us that philosophy speaks Greek." And beyond the cartography of Western culture? A cryptic warning: Here Be Monsters.

I got mine: the rhetoric of liberal education remains suffused with the imagery of possession, patrimony, legacy, lineage, inheritance ... call it cultural geneticism (in the broadest sense of that term). At the same moment, the rhetoric of possession and lineage subsists upon, and perpetuates, a division: between us and them, we the heirs of our tradition, and you, the Others, whose difference defines our identity. (In the French colonies, in Africa and the Caribbean, a classroom of African students would dutifully read from their textbook, "Our ancestors, the Gauls . . ." Well, you could see that wasn't going to last.)

What happens, though, if you buy into that rhetoric -- if you accept its terms and presuppositions about cultural geneticism? Then you will say: Yes, I am Other, and if the aim of education is to reinforce an individual's rightful cultural legacy, then I don't belong there -- I am a guest at someone else's banquet. Foucault called this kind of contestation that of "reverse discourse": It remains entrapped within the presuppositions of the discourse it means to oppose, enacts a conflict internal to that "master discourse"; but when the terms of argument have already been defined, it may look like the only form of contestation possible.

0ne of the most eloquent reflections on this sense of entrapment is James Baldwin's, where the rhetoric of dispossession turns to that of cultural reappropriation . . . [He writes,]

I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathe-- dral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Build-- ing, a special attitude. These were not really my reactions, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any re-- flection of myself I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time, I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use - I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine - I would have to accept my special attitude, my spe-- cial place in this scheme - otherwise I would have no place in any scheme.

(Notes of a Native Son)

(This terror of having no place in any scheme contrasts oddly with the more familiar modernist anxiety of the Western writer, the anxiety that one fits into a scheme all too easily, all too well.)

If Richard Wright's comments are characteristically blunter, they are no less anxious: "I'm black. I'm a man of the West . . . I see and understand the non- or anti-Western point of view . . . " But, Wright confesses, "when I look out upon the vast stretches of this earth inhabited by brown, black and yellow men . . . my reactions and attitudes are those of the West" (White Man Listen). Wright never had clearer insight into himself; but his ambivalent relation to both the Western and non-Western cultures was never satisfactorily resolved. So long as we retain a vocabulary of heritage and inheritance in defining our putative national cultures, it cannot be resolved.


This suggests (if I may invoke the relevant stereotypes) that the old fogey and the young turk have a lot more in common than they realize; that they may, in fact, be two sides of the same debased coin; and that those of us who really care about humane learning should convert to another currency . . . The argument has been made that cultural nationalism has been a constitutive aspect of Western education. As humanists, our challenge today is, simply, to learn to live without it. Indeed, it saddens me that there should be any perceived conflict between the ideal of humanistic learning, and what I think of as the truly human, and humane, version of the humanities, one that sees the West not as some mythical, integrative Whole, but as a part of a still larger whole. In the resonant words of W.E.B. Du Bois:

"I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what should I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn and no condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, o knightly America?"

(The Souls of Black Folk)

Making a sharp distinction between the West and the Rest, I suggest, is neither justifiable in theory nor desirable in practice. Indeed, far from being inimical to traditional Western scholarship, humanistic scholarship in Asian and African cultures can be mutually enriching to it, to the humanities in general. And that's as you'd expect: the study of the humanities is the study of the possibilities of human life in culture. It thrives on diversity. And when you get down to cases, it's hard to deny that what you could call the new scholarship has invigorated the traditional disciplines. Historians of black American have pioneered work in oral history that's had a significant effect on the way nineteenth century social history is done. In art history, many Africanists have helped introduce ways of approaching artwork that takes a rich and sophisticated account of cultural context. Often it's when unfamiliar cultural formations are explored that the inadequacies of traditional disciplinary boundaries in the Western academy are made plain. The gap between the social sciences and the humanities is often bemoaned by those studying the complexities of African history and cultural forms. As Kwame Appiah observes, "methods normally used in anthropology and in art-history, for example, can provide profound and mutually reinforcing illumination of the cultural significance of a masquerade or the architecture of a shrine, but students and scholars who are taught to see these methods as radically incommensurable are bound to fail to achieve these insights."

Those scholars who have faced up to these challenges have had to develop theoretical and methodological tools and data resources that promise help in thinking creatively about the ways in which society and culture relate to each other quite generally. In short, the challenges posed by [for example] African materials and the new approaches and techniques developed to deal with the varieties of African experience, offer an opportunity to enrich and expand the perspectives of\ all humanities disciplines and to aid in casting off disciplinary blinders. I don't want to exaggerate the gains: the opening up of traditional disciplines to the scholarly insights of the new has only just begun, and hasn't progressed as far as it might have. (And of course, basic pedagogy earlier in the educational system has hardly registered these changes yet: some of you may be familiar with a recent study showing that only two black authors -- Lorraine Hansberry and Richard Wright -- appear among the fifty books most widely assigned by high school English teachers.)

In a more practical vein, it turns out that the affirmative action programs for recruiting minority faculty have only been successful at institutions where strong ethnic studies programs exist. Many ambitious "minority" scholars of my generation, feeling se-cure in their academic credentials and their ethnic identities, have tried to fill a lacuna they perceived in their own education by producing scholarship about, well -- "their own people." A lot of the social commitment that emerged during the 1960s has been re-


directed toward the scholarly arena: continents of ignorance have been explored and charted. At the same time, "minority studies" (so called) are not "for" minorities, any more than "majority studies" (let's say) are for majorities.


Each of us in this room entered our field in part, I believe, to undertake scholarly research that would fill those lacunae that we encountered in our own undergraduate educations, and to make a political statement -- whether an explicit political statement or an implicit political statement -- about the intellect and the intellectual attainments of persons of African descent in the Old and New worlds. Many of us were tutored by the true giants of the field -- St. Clair Drake, Margaret Walker, Rayford Logan, Darwin Turner, Saunders Redding, Charles Davis, Kenneth Dike, Sterling Brown, to name only a few -- many of whom are now sadly dead. We are the generation of leaders in African American Studies, and it is with our generation of scholars that our field, our discipline, shall rise or fall.

How do we do this? How do we insure the permanent institutionalization of our field, within the larger American academy? How do we address, if not resolve, that certain tension between the fact that, on one hand, there has never been a better time to be a person of color and a member of the academy, and -- on the other hand -- that there has scarcely been a worse time to be black in America. That we are doing vastly better in the academy and the curriculum than we are in the streets, despite the fact that both the multicultural movement and African American Studies are under a surprisingly sustained attack from a cultural right seemingly bent upon returning us to the days of yesteryear, when men were men, and men were white, and women and blacks knew their proper place.

I believe that an agenda for the 21st century must include an emphasis upon cultural studies and public policy, as two broad and fruitful rubrics under which to organize our discipline. Under cultural studies, we must continue to develop the strongest critical impulse to explicate our cultural achievements in literature, music, film, religion, the visual arts, the dance and the other forms of expressive culture, developing strong institutional links between our universities and our local and national cultural organizations, in order to facilitate their growth and permanence.

In public policy matters, our involvement is crucial and urgent. For outside of the academy -- and this irony is a painful one -- there has rarely been a worse time to be voting and black. One black man is in prison for every two black men in college; homicide is the leading cause of death for young black men, and three of every black women, it is estimated, will be pregnant by the age of twenty. Add to this the functional illiteracy rate and the unemployment rate, and we realize that the "two natlons" predicted by the Kerner Commission Report in 1968 may very well be upon us. And yet, if the Iraq War taught us anything, it is that this country can mobilize billions of dollars virtually overnight whenever it wants to. Let us collectively, as a body here and now, call for a Marshall plan for our cities. Let us use the National Academy of Sciences two million dollar study, A Common Destiny, and -- in concert with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, our civil rights organizations, civic groups, the black church and the Congressional Black Caucus -- take steps to counter and reverse governmental neglect of America's cities that began in the late 1970s. Is it beyond us to create the kinds of jobs training programs that can convert the permanently unemployed to the eminently employable? Federal scholarship assistance, as has been demonstrated a hundred times, raises the number of blacks who matriculate. College education should not be a luxury reserved for the affluent few. Our public schools should be centers of nurture and instruction, not laboratories for drugs and crime. And we know that none of these problems has to be intractable. James Comer's major experiments in the New Haven school system -- recently acknowledged with a 15 million dollar grant from Rockefeller -- demonstrates the headway that commitment


and common sense can make. Public schools curricula, from pre-K through 12, should enable our young people to learn systematically about the shaping of their cultural identities. African American Studies scholar should, properly, be at the heart of all these endeavors, and not peripheral to them. These things, after all, are what our field is about, and has been about since its formal inception sorne two decades ago.

Within the academy, I believe, we must seek to explore the hyphen in African American, on both sides of the Atlantic, by charting the porous relations between an "American" culture that officially, even today, pretents that an Anglo-American regional culture is the true, universal culture, and that African-American culture is, at best, a subset to it or a substandard and subservient deviant of it. (We hear the complaints, of course. Allan Bloom, for example, laments that "just at the moment when everyone else has become 'a person,' blacks have become blacks . . ." Unfortunately, "everyone else" can become a person precisely when the category person comes to be defined in contradistinction to black.)

We must chart both the moments of continuity and discontinuity between African cultures and African American cultures. Only a fool would try to deny continuities between the Old World and the New World African cultures. But equally misguided, needless to say, is any attempt to chart those continuities on the basis of a mystified and dubious biological or so-called "racial-science." Above all else, we are a people who were constructed as members of a new Pan-African ethnicity. We cannot -- and should not -- deny historical contingencies of this construction, lay claim to the ideal of "blackness" as an ideology or a quasi-religion, totalized and essentialized into a proto-fascist battering ram supervised by official thought police. (I remember as a student at Cambridge, I was about to have my first supervision with Wole Soyinka, then in exile from Nigeria, on African literature . . . though I was only twenty-two, I was certain I had a deep understanding of African culture. I had read Jahnheinz Jahn's Muntu, you see, and was fired up with the inspirational doxa of "nommo," which was the master concept, the distilled essence, of all African culture. "I hope you know something about Africa," Soyinka told me as I came for my supervision, viewing my Afro balefully. "Absolutely," I said, having just memorized the principles of nommo in preparation for our meeting. "Because the fact is," Soyinka added, "the only reason I accepted you as a student was that at least you didn't talk about that nommo nonsense." "Nommo?" I said. "Never heard of it.")

Those were, of course, the days when such facile and reductive concepts promulgated by good-hearted and systematic authors, often from Germany or Belgium, threatened to eclipse the real specificities of Africa's richly diverse cultural life. Soyinka's wariness was certainly justified. As satisfying as these one-size-fits-all, all-in-one rubrics were, they made real cultural work well-neigh impossible. So too with the romantic racisms of an earlier era. As the Benin philosopher Adotevi once remarked, "Negritude is the black way of being white."

We are scholars. For our field to grow, we need to encourage a true proliferation of ideologies and methodologies, rather than to seek uniformity or conformity. An ideal department of African-American Studies would have several of these approaches represented, rather than merely one officially sanctioned approach to a very complex subject. African-American Studies should be the home of free inquiry into the very complexity of being of African descent in the world, rather than a place where we seek to essentialize our cultural selves into stasis, and drown out critical inquiry.

And while I for one wish that all persons of color would pursue our discipline on one level or another during their undergraduate careers, our subject is open to all -- whether to study or to teach. After all, the fundamental premise of the academy is that all things ultimately are knowable; all are therefore teachable. What would we say to a person who said that we couldn't teach Milton be-


cause we are not Anglo-Saxon or male, or heterosexual -- or blind! We do nothing to help our discipline by attempting to make of it the equivalent of a closed-shop, where only black need apply,. On the other hand, to say that ethnic identity, is socially constructed, however, is not to say that it is somehow unreal, to deny the complexities of our own positionality, to claim that these are not differences that make a difference. We cannot, finally, succumb to the temptation to resurrect our own version of the Thought Police, who would determine who, and what, is "black." "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who's the Blackest One of All?" is a question best left behind in the sixties. If we allow ourselves to succumb to the urge to build an academic discipline around this perverse question, we will, like the fairy-tale witch, die from our own poison. For if the coming century in this country is black and brown, it is a blackness without blood that we must pass on.