African American Studies

African American Studies

African American Studies is an interdisciplinary academic field devoted to the study of the history, culture, and politics of African Americans. Taken broadly, the field studies not only the cultures of people of African descent in the United States, but the cultures of the entire African diaspora. The field includes scholars of African American literature, history, politics, religion and religious studies, sociology, and many other disciplines within the humanities and social sciences.

Intensive academic efforts to reconstruct African American history began in the late 19th century (W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1896). Among the pioneers in the first half of the twentieth century were Carter G. Woodson, Herbert Aptheker, Melville Herskovits, and Lorenzo Dow Turner.

Programs and departments of African American studies were first created in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of inter-ethnic student and faculty activism at many universities, sparked by a five month strike for black studies at San Francisco State. In February 1968, San Francisco State hired sociologist Nathan Hare to coordinate the first black studies program and write a proposal for the first Department of Black Studies; the department was created in September 1968 and gained official status at the end of the five-months strike in the spring of 1969. The creation of programs and departments in Black studies was a common demand of protests and sit-ins by minority students and their allies, who felt that their cultures and interests were underserved by the traditional academic structures.

Black studies is a systematic way of studying black people in the world – such as their history, culture, sociology, and religion. It is a study of the black experience and the effect of society on them and their effect within society. This study can serve to eradicate many racial stereotypes. Black Studies implements: history, family structure, social and economic pressures, stereotypes, and gender relationships.

The Rise and Fall of African American Studies

The Rise

In the United States the 1960s is rightfully known as the “Turbulent Sixties”. During this time period the nation experienced great social unrest, as citizens challenged the social order in radical ways. Many movements took place in the United States during this time period, including: women’s rights movement, labor rights movement, and the civil rights movement. This time period is marked American citizen’s being “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

The students at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) were witnesses to the Southern Civil Rights Movement, and by 1964 they were thrust into activism. On October 1, 1964 Jack Weinberg, a graduate student, was sitting at a table were the Congress of Racial Equality was distributing literature encouraging students to protest against institutional racism. Police asked Weinberg to produce his ID to confirm that he was a student, but he refused to do so and was therefore arrested. In support of Weinberg 3,000 students surrounded the police vehicle, and even used the car as a podium from where they spoke about their right to engage in political protest on campus. This impromptu demonstration was the first of many protests, culminating in the institutionalization of African American Studies.

Two months later students at UC Berkeley organized sit-in at the Sproul Hall Administration building to protest an unfair rule which prohibited all political clubs from fundraising, excluding the democrat and republican clubs. Police arrested 800 students. Students a “Freedom of Speech Movement” and Mario Savio became its poetic leader, stating that “freedom of speech was something that represents the very dignity of what a human is.. ” The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a well-connected and organized club, hosted a conference entitled “Black Power and its Challenges.” Black leaders who were directly tied to then ongoing civil rights movements spoke to a predominately white audience about their respective goals and challenges . These leaders included Stokely Carmichael Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), and James Bevel (Southern Christian Leadership).

Educational conferences like that of SDS forced the university to take some measures to correct the most obvious racial issue on campus—the sparse black student population. In 1966 the school held its first official racial and ethnic survey, it which it was discovered that the “American Negro” represented 1.02% of the university population. In 1968 the university instituted its Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) facilitated the increased minority student enrollment, and offered financial aid to minority students with high potential. By 1970 there were 1,400 EOP students. As the minority student population increased tension between activists clubs and minorities rose, because minority wanted the reigns of the movement that affected them directly. One student asserted that it was “backward to educate white people about Black Power when many black people are still uneducated on the matter.” The members of the Afro-American Student Union (AASU) proposed an academic department called “Black Studies” in April 1968. We demand a program of “Black Studies,” a program that will be of and for black people. We demand to be educated realistically and that no form of education of education which attempts to lie to us, or otherwise miss-educate us will be accepted.

AASU members asserted that “The young people of America are the inheritors of what is undoubtedly one of the most challenging, and threatening set of social circumstances that has ever fallen upon a generation of young people in history…”. AASU used these claims to gain ground on their proposal to create a black studies department. Nathan Hare, a sociology professor at San Francisco State University, created what was known as the “A Conceptual Proposal for Black Studies” and AASU used Hare’s framework to create a criteria. A Black Studies Program was implemented by UC Berkeley administration on January 13, 1969. Many Black Studies Programs and departments and programs around the nation were created thanks to the hard work of the students at UC Berkeley in America

When Ernie Davis from Syracuse University became the first African American to win the Heisman trophy in College football, it renewed debates about race in college campuses in the country. Inspired by the Davis win, civil rights movement and nation wide student activism, in 1969 Black and White students led by the Student African American Society (SAS) at Syracuse University marched in front of the building at Newhouse and demanded a Black studies be taught at Syracuse. It existed as an independent, underfunded non-degree offering program from 1971 until 1979. It became a when it became the Department of African American Studies that could offer degrees.


One of the major setbacks with Black Studies/African American Studies Programs or departments is that there is a lack of financial resources available to student and faculty. Many universities and colleges around the country provided Black Studies programs with small budgets and therefore it is difficult for the department to purchase materials and staff. Because the budget allocated to Black Studies is limited some faculty are jointly appointed therefore, which causes faculty to leave their home disciplines to teach a discipline of which they may not familiar. Budgetary issues make it difficult for Black Studies Programs and departments to function, and promote themselves.

Racism perpetrated by many administrators hinders the institutionalization of Black Studies at major university. As with the case of UC Berkeley most of the Black Studies programs across the country were instituted because of the urging and demanding of black students to create the program. In many instances black students also called for the increased enrollment of black students and offer financial assistance to these students. Also seen in the case of UC Berkeley is the constant demand to have such a program, but place the power of control in the hands of black people. The idea was that black studies could not be “realistic” if it was not taught by someone who was not accustomed to the black experience. On many campuses directors of black studies have little to no autonomy—they do not have the power to hire or grant tenure to faculty . On many campuses an overall lack of respect for the discipline has caused instability for the students and for the program.

In the past thirty years there has been a steady decline of black scholars.

Recent Trends: Emergence of Black Male Studies (BMS)

African American studies scholars have often explored the unique experiences of Black boys/men. This line of research dates back to W.E.B. Dubois in his analysis of Black male training in his book Souls of Black Folk. Though African American Studies as its own discipline has been in decline, its perpetuation as a sub-discipline in various social science fields (e.g., education, sociology, cultural anthropology, urban studies) has risen. This rise has coincided with the emergence of men's studies (also referred to as masculine studies). Since the early 1980s increasing interest in Black males among scholars and policy makers has resulted in a marked rise in the sub-discipline Black Male Studies. Today, numerous books, research articles, conferences, foundations, research centers and institutes, academic journals, initiatives, and scholarly collectives emphasize or focus entirely on the status of Black boys and men in society.

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