The Struggle for Black Studies at HBCUs
Of course black-studies programs flourish at historically black colleges and universities, right? Wrong.
For Monanabela, the reluctance to major in black studies is a sign of fear of embracing anything African. "That fear kicks in from the weight of their experience in academics from elementary school to middle school to high school, where Africana studies was not given respect," 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."
"When I talk to black students at predominantly white institutions, a lot of them seem to think that everybody at HBCUs is African-centered and radical, and that is simply not the case," says Sean Blackmon, a senior journalism major at FAMU. "You have some students that come to FAMU and have never had a black thought in their life."
This growing apathy is in direct contrast with the roots of black-studies programs, which grew out of the fervor and advocacy of the black power movement. In the 1960s and 70s, students rallied on campuses across the nation, demanding courses that focused on the history and culture of African descendants.
In 1968 the Africana-studies department at San Francisco State University became the first black-studies department at a four-year campus. Several other institutions soon followed with their own programs, including historically black Howard University in 1969.
But from the start, HBCUs faced internal challenges in developing these programs. According to Stewart, administrators resisted establishing such curricula because of the association with "militancy" and for fear of losing support from outside communities. Some HBCUs also felt that because they were black institutions, they were not obligated to dedicate a department to the study -- just being a black school was enough.