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Black studies for everyone

It is a sad commentary on the state of education in this society that educators hesitate to include a subject in the curriculum because students want to learn about it.

—Armstead Robinson

In 1968, Yale University hosted the Black Studies in the University symposium. A product of the student activism of Yale’s Black Student Alliance, the symposium would be important for the foundation of what is now Yale’s Department of African American Studies. One of the symposium’s 16 participants was Armstead Robinson, a founding student member of the Black Student Alliance and co-editor of the book, Black Studies in the University: A Symposium. In the midst of the uprisings throughout the United States (civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, the women’s movement, etc.), Robinson’s goal was to place the university in the service of black liberation, which for him meant a university concerned with the needs of the black community. For Robinson, universities like Yale shrouded themselves in a cloak of “professionalism,” which often equated to white & Western knowledge frames. But Robinson argued that, like society, the system of higher education was on trial, and one thing was certain: “Trouble in schools will continue and increase” if black Studies was left off the agenda. Robinson would go on shape the legacy of Black Studies at the University of Virginia, founding the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies in 1981.

We are over 50 years away from Robinson’s statement, but the “liberation” that he associated with Black Studies remains as important today as ever. The racial violence that prematurely ended the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many more shows the necessity of bringing together critical knowledge & liberatory political practice, that which Robinson called Black Studies. And like Robinson, I suggest that we draw inspiration from the uprisings of the current moment to call for black liberation at the university level; building off the works of Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, along with the abolitionist university studies work, we should demand more from academic institutions. Put more bluntly, like the protests in the past, today’s protests can inspire us toward a trans/national establishment of Black Studies at all universities. By establishment, I do not mean adding another line to the list of diversity programs that many schools are promoting. I mean the material and epistemological backing (departmentalization, center-formation, and programization) of Black Studies to the point that it becomes as commonplace as our Mathematics Departments.

In 2000, Black Studies and cultural studies scholar bell hooks released Feminism is for Everybody. In it, she argued that the project of feminism was often popularly perceived by men as a project solely by and for “man-hating” women. But hooks counters: the institutionality of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia ensured that people of all backgrounds could enact oppression, and feminism was one mode of introducing alternative politics for all. As such, she produced a book that was designed to show us how sexism harmed all of us, and to liberate some people would necessarily liberate all. For hooks, this was a project that included and exceeded the university.

What hooks suggested 20 years ago was that liberation struck at the heart of epistemology, both within and outside the university. Likewise, Black Studies should be a leading mission of universities going forward, even as it exceeds the university, as we see on our streets right now. To some extent, the protests are not about Black Studies in the university, as universities have traditionally negated calls for any form of change with the conservative goal of equilibrium.

Yet, the protests are about Black Studies because they materialize a central critique made in Black Studies: scholars like Sylvia Wynter,Hortense Spillers, and C.L.R. Jameshave all noted that blackness is a movement against the grain of modern, Western ontoepistemological investments in the replication of one pure being—so often overrepresented as white, male, heterosexual, cis-gender, able-bodied, and wealthy.  In other words, Black Studies is not the study of race, per se (or rather, only race); it is the study of the ways that, despite the colonial and slavery frameworks that have pronounced some of us as dead on arrival, black people have expressed life not easily categorizable by the frameworks of Western humanness. In many ways, then, Black Studies exceeds black people, to consider the overlapping and contradicting ways in which people of all races have scratched out some semblance of life (and created solidarities) within/against/between Western neocolonial-capitalistic projects. Black Studies provides one framework to think the uprisings we now see worldwide. Indeed, Black Studies is for and about everybody.

On the streets of Richmond, Virginia, the heart of the former Confederate States of America, I see the continued importance of Robinson’s liberation. Here, Black Study/ies exceeds the university, calling for a transformation of knowledge and power. As per Robin Kelley’s definition, Black Study is happening on Monument Avenue in Richmond right now, with or without degrees in hand. Such study, between protesters, between pedestrians who stop and talk to those protesters, between those driving by protesters to pass out food and to honk support from their vehicles in the midst of a global pandemic, is why the formalization and support of Black Studies throughout higher education should not be controversial.

If universities and colleges throughout the country can release statements in support of the protesters, they also should be materially invested in the continuance (in some cases, the establishment) of Black Studies on their campuses. To do so is not to focus on one race of people, but to provide a necessary rethinking of the project of Western knowledge itself—what Ronald Judy called (dis)forming the canon. The point, then, is that Black Studies is for everybody. The question is: how long will it take for higher education to catch up to such a realization?

Featured Image Credit: by Archives Foundation via Flickr

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