What Now, Black Studies? Some Historical Observations and why it matters for CCSF
African American Studies is part of what we call here at CCSF the “Diversity Collaborative.”
The stories that once passed as history, the racist, sexist, class and gender biased dogma that portrayed itself has social science, what Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founder of what has become African American History Month, called “cant and propaganda,” have been challenged effectively.
But considerable hostility to these “non-traditional” departments and disciplines has remained, both inside and outside of the college community.
The most ferocious opposition to ethnic studies can be witnessed in Arizona, spearheaded by the most hide-bound, reactionary bigots.
In that context, recourse to open racism and ethnic bigotry has been able to operate relatively freely.
Elsewhere, however, and yes, here, in California, austerity is used as a means for weakening or eviscerating ethnic and diversity studies programs.
This is evident throughout the entire system of public higher education in California.
Here at CCSF, we have part-time faculty that teach at both U. C. Berkeley and SF State, and they immediately recognized the threat to CCSF’s diversity studies departments as something quite familiar.
I will never forget the first comment of my colleague, Dr. Johnetta Richards, a long time SFSU professor in the Africana Studies Department, when we discussed this for the first time in a department meeting: “You know they tried that stuff at State already.”
She then went on to talk about how the ethnic studies departments at SFSU organized against it.
More recently, we’ve witnessed students at U. C. Berkeley organizing against the assault on ethnic studies there in the context of austerity measures.
Needless to say, CCSF does not exist in a vacuum, or on some other planet.
Any notion that what is happening in the U. C. and state systems, and even at other community colleges might be something sinister, but what’s happening here is entirely different and necessary is, at best, spectacularly naive.
The African American Intellectual Tradition was born in the context of struggle and resistance. From its inception to the present, and every step along the way, it has been characterized by a dogged, yet creative resistance to a world of exploitation, marginalization, and domination, a world to which it stood as an abomination. That world would relentlessly seek to destroy it.
Its existence as a product of struggle and resistance is a most elemental feature of the Black Intellectual Tradition in this country. Another is its independence and autonomy.
From the time of The Enlightenment until the mid-20th century, the academic establishment, and the main currents of Western intellectual thought, held that the Black Peoples of the earth, Africans and peoples of African descent, have no history.
Historically at universities, including the “Negro colleges”—ancestors of today’s historically Black colleges and universities—no such thing as Black history existed.
In this environment, Black intellectuals (African Americans in the narrow sense, and also Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin intellectuals living and working in the U. S.) in search of Black history and African and African Diasporan cultures, were on their own.
Much of the research, writing and developments that would serve as the foundation for the first African American studies departments took place outside of the academy.
The period of the “Harlem Renaissance” is crucial to this development.
The library and art collection of Artruro Alfonso Schomberg, an Afro-Boricua scholar from that era, formed the basis of what is now a public library in Harlem, New York, which specializes in the history and cultures of the African Diaspora.
When at last, the first Black Studies departments appeared at colleges and universities in this country, it was not as the result of the outcome of some intellectual process, whereby the academic establishment recognized the error of its ways.
Rather, it resulted from struggle.
The timing of the appearance of these departments is not coincidental, a point that no one, supporters or detractors of these programs, will deny.
Nor is the fact that the first of these departments (and the first school of ethnic studies), that of San Francisco State University, was the product of five months of intense student and community struggle, one of the bloodiest such struggles in the history of this country.
To suggest that the shedding of blood was a necessary precursor to the appearance of the first Black Studies/African American Studies Departments is not hyperbole.
Where naivete is not a plausible explanation, duplicity certainly is.
If our department, and discipline, are to survive in the real world, and with initiative and possibilities for expansion, we will need resources.
An essential element of this tradition of struggle and resistance is autonomy. Such autonomy has been guarded tenaciously by African American Studies Departments, because enough African American scholars and intellectuals have done what they demand from their students: learn from history.
First and foremost this includes a departmental budget. Of fundamental importance is an autonomous departmental structure. Otherwise, African American Studies (or any other department) exists only on paper.
Things that exist only on paper are easy enough to erase.
One of the lessons of African American history is to resist being made invisible.
So, what now? “What now?” is what has characterized the African American Intellectual Tradition for three centuries.
We continue the tradition of struggle and resistance that is our genesis.
African American Studies Department
Chair (for the time being, at least)