The Struggle for Black Studies at HBCUs

Of course black-studies programs flourish at historically black colleges and universities, right? Wrong.


Despite university budget cuts and a rise in anti-ethnic-studies sentiment, black-studies programs have held their ground in higher-education curricula. But while there has been substantial overall growth in the field during the last 40 years, it has happened primarily outside the community of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

"There's activity going on [at HBCUs]; it's just not as visible and as well supported as you might see at white institutions," says Dr. James Stewart, national president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Most HBCUs have established courses in black studies, but few have departments dedicated to the field, and only Howard and Clark Atlanta universities offer master's programs. Howard is also the only HBCU to offer a doctoral program in African studies, which is offered by eight traditionally white institutions.

The bottom line is money.

"A program in African-American studies is very difficult to sustain in good times, and it's near impossible in tough economic times," says Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. "However, some of the majority institutions have been able to get someone to underwrite less popular programs."

Dr. Mayibuye Monanabela, a professor in the Africana-studies department at the HBCU Tennessee State University, and one of the department's founders, points out that the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers bachelor's and master's degrees as well as a doctoral minor degree in black studies. "What black university does that?" he asks. "We have to do so much better. We should be leading the way."

Getting students to major in black studies is also difficult, according to Monanabela. "When students are ready to sign up for a major, they ask, 'What can I do with a degree in Africana studies?' " he says.

A lack of education in black studies was one of the reasons Miacia Porter, a senior at Tennessee State, decided to minor in African-American studies. "I felt like there was a void of history that I needed to know in my life as an African American," she says. "As far as history [goes], I got white mainstream views, and that was not enough for me."

In the past two years, however, there has been an increase at the university in the number of majors in black studies because students are encouraged to choose a double major, an initiative that has become a priority for the department: "They can have a major in a Eurocentric discipline and in Africana studies," Monanabela says.

Dr. David H. Jackson Jr. -- chair of the department of history and political science, which includes African-American studies, at Florida A&M University (FAMU) -- also identifies the current attitude toward black studies among black students and historically black schools as an obstacle in the field's development. He says, "If I looked at FAMU and the country in general from the 1980s and early '90s in terms of an aggressive attitude toward embracing black culture, I don't see that as much now."