The Struggle for Black Studies at HBCUs


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."

"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.

Blackmon was attracted to FAMU because he found its student body very representative of the black diaspora, but he still feels that black-studies classes — which he has taken independently — have a place in an HBCU curriculum. "I believe the history really tells you who you are, what you're capable of and what you've accomplished in history, and lets you know there is still work to be done."


Jackson, who has noticed a growth in enrollment in black-studies courses at FAMU, says that HBCUs are on a par with their traditionally white counterparts at the undergraduate level. It's at the graduate level where differences become more obvious. "The white schools have more resources, and have been able to utilize those resources, from the historic advantages they have in terms of large endowments to invest in new programs," he says.

One of the newest black-studies programs is at Princeton University. Its Center for African American Studies, launched in the fall of 2006, does not offer a degree program but has seen a steady growth in the number of concentrators in the field. In 2009, 40 students received certificates for their work in black studies, up from 32 the previous year. While the numbers may seem small, they're a testament to a burgeoning interest in black studies, and may provide ground for a degree program at Princeton. "I think we're seeing a new phase in the presence of African-American studies in higher education," says Dr. Eddie Glaude, chair of the center.


Regardless of the continuing disparity in African-American studies programming at HBCUs and traditionally white institutions, both sets of schools face the challenge of bringing black studies into the 21st century. "We need to find an institutional configuration that reflects the complexity and nuance of the field," Glaude says.

At Princeton, as at many other schools, the black-studies program encompasses racial and ethnic subfields that include Latino, Yoruba and Asian studies. It's important to broaden the intellectual scope of the field beyond the African diaspora, Glaude explains. "We haven't changed our name to 'diaspora studies,' " he says, "and we insisted on that in order to mark that, as a field, African-American studies should be thought of more broadly."


Aleesa Mann is a senior print-journalism major at Howard University, where she is also the editor of the campus newspaper The Hilltop.

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