Posted on Sun, Dec. 04, 2005
Black studies departments take on new global focus
SFSU, OTHER SCHOOLS CHANGE NAME TO `AFRICANA STUDIES'
By Lisa M. Krieger and Becky Bartindale
As a black child growing up in America, Krystal Quinlan learned all about slavery, segregation and the civil rights movement.
But it didn't really hit home. The daughter of Caribbean immigrants ``grew up not really identifying with the history of African-Americans in the U.S.,'' she confesses.
Quinlan, now a 21-year-old Stanford University senior, is part of a new generation of students and professors who are extending their intellectual reach beyond the confines of '60s-era black studies courses to examine the influence of African cultures around the globe.
``When I look at the African diaspora, I see that we're all connected,'' said Quinlan, who is researching the role of Africans in South America. ``I realize that there is a commonality of experiences.''
The shift can be seen in curriculum name changes at academic departments around the country.
This year, San Francisco State University switched from ``Black Studies'' to ``Africana Studies.'' That appellation also has been adopted by Cornell and New York University. Indiana University now offers ``African American and African Diaspora Studies''; Rutgers, ``African Diaspora Field Study''; the University of Texas-Austin, ``African Diaspora Studies''; and Northwestern, a new ``Institute for Diaspora Studies.''
Interest at Stanford
At Stanford, where there is a longstanding commitment to African academics, ``there is a more serious engagement with Caribbean, Latin and South American cultures,'' said Lawrence Bobo, director of the African and African American Studies Program. There also is increased interest in African languages on Stanford's campus.
``It is about evolving -- reflecting where the discipline is today,'' said Dorothy Tsuruta, chair of San Francisco State's Africana Studies program.
``The term `Black Studies' specifically identifies with the United States alone,'' she said. ``It limits the reach of the field. Now, the discipline has matured to place the African-American experience in a global context.''
``Once you understand who you are and where you are, you get to a point where you want to understand your relationship to the world in which you live,'' she said.
Black studies emerged in the late 1960s, in response to student complaints that the African-American experience was not represented in the traditional disciplines.
But issues of race, class and gender are now better reflected in the classroom, scholars agree.
An even larger factor is the changing student body. Since 1990, more African immigrants have arrived in the United States voluntarily than the number who came as slaves before international human trafficking was outlawed in 1807. About 50,000 legal immigrants come each year.
``The timing can be attributed to immigration flows,'' said Stanford's Bobo. ``There are more people and more students from different backgrounds coming in to universities. So there are more scholars focusing on how the concept of race develops in other countries, and comparing it to the U.S.''
Notes Tsuruta: ``Look at France right now. If you close your eyes, it sounds just like Watts.''
Immigrants and children of immigrants made up 41 percent of the black student population at elite schools such as the University of California-Berkeley, Yale, Columbia, Duke and Northwestern in 1998, according to a study by Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey. The proportion is believed to have climbed since then.
At San Jose State University, first-generation students from Nigeria, Ethiopia and Eritrea are helping revitalize the campus African-American studies program, said chairman Steven Millner.
The sons and daughters of these countries' immigrants ``are especially captivated by studying the connection between Africa and the American population,'' he said.
The faculty is changing, as well. Many who fought to establish black studies programs are reaching retirement age.
``The first generation of scholars in African-American studies is now being replaced by scholars whose breadth reflects the deepening appreciation of the connections between African, the Caribbean, South America and especially Brazil and the American black experience,'' Millner said.
More traditional black studies programs still exist in many schools. But, said Keller of the University of California-Los Angeles, ``Where such departments exist, they tend to be considered as legitimate but small departments, not expected to grow.''
At state universities, recent belt-tightening means survival is an issue for small departments. At San Jose State, for instance, discussions are under way about how to strengthen the school's ethnic studies programs, perhaps by combining them.
Some African-American scholars are not convinced by the new global focus -- and say aging programs may not be worth saving.
``Black studies programs have been dysfunctional since their birth. They were created out of a reaction to student unrest. There was no academic imperative,'' said Shelby Steele, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. ``The experience of blacks could be much better examined in the traditional disciplines of history, literature and sociology.''
Millner said mainstreaming reflects the success of the African-American studies discipline. ``But it can't be a trivial appendage to some departments,'' he added. ``Otherwise it becomes irrelevant.''
He sees the new emphasis on the African diaspora as a sign of a healthy future -- and also a return to roots.
W.E.B. Du Bois, the father of black studies, ``was always an internationalist in his perspective,'' Millner said. ``In that, this is a return to the vision of the founder.''