Considering and Reconsidering Black Studies: A Dialogue Between Jerry Ward and Abdul Alkalimat

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In July, we shared a post by Jerry Ward on the main HBW website regarding Introduction to Afro-American Studies: A People’s College Primer (1973) and African American Studies 2013: A National Web-Based Survey (2013). This post has since invited a response from Abdul Alkalimat, primary author of both documents. The HBW Blog would like to share this dialogue and open it up for further commentary from the authors and from readers of the HBW Blog.

Below the cut: Jerry Ward’s “Black Studies Reconsidered” and Abdul Alkalimat’s response, “Reconsidering Jerry Ward on Black Studies.”

“Black Studies Reconsidered,” by Jerry Ward (July 9, 2014)

Although the text may well incorporate the social norms and values of its possible readers, its function is not merely to present such data, but, in fact, to use them in order to secure its uptake. In other words, it offers guidance as to what is to be produced, and therefore cannot be the product. – Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading (1973)

Iser’s point about what the text cannot be is germane if you return to Introduction to Afro-American Studies: A People’s College Primer (Abdul Alkalimat and Associates, 1973) and then turn to African American Studies: 2013: A National Web-Based Survey (Abdul Alkalimat et al., 2013).

The survey poses the question “Is Black Studies a permanent project in higher education, or a passing fad?” and the authors delay an answer. They refer you to facts derived from surveying 213 public colleges and universities and 148 private ones.

Fact #1: “Black Studies seems to have achieved more permanence in public colleges and universities than in private ones.”
Fact #2: “…the West has proportionately more departments (46%) and the South proportionately more programs (64%) than other regions.”
Fact #3: “…programs are more typical across all sizes of colleges and universities. Large institutions are more likely to have departments (42%) than the other institutions.”

The survey report was not designed to inform you about pedagogy and learning within Black Studies. In a future, some study will indicate how instructors teach Black Studies as a discipline and what is the range of learning experiences that students have.

The silence of the survey report about how Black Studies functions in the lives of Americans who are not even remotely associated with institutions of education higher and lower is a teaser.  It guides you to conjure ideas about navigation between the 1973 didactic Introduction and the 2013 objective reporting. You find the conclusion of the 1973 text to be instructive, a charting for action. Pages 348-351 permit discovery (or rediscovery) that a 1973 reader was told that questions concerning a future (consider 2014 the future) could only be engaged “through how you lead your life and how you influenced others to lead their lives.”  There was no biting of the tongue about obligation, no hedging. The authors used the Langston Hughes poem, “Let America be America Again,” as the final verbal text and a fuzzy aerial photograph of “March on Washington, August 1963” as the closing visual text. The reproduction of the photograph was fuzzy because the book was printed on what Black South vernacular called “cornbread paper.” The Hughes poem references three colors–black, red, and white, forcing you to wonder why Langston Hughes chose not to throw yellow and brown into his melting pot.

Putting the survey report aside for the moment, you scan the topics the book invites you to ponder:
•    Africa before and after the slave trade–note that indigenous Africans and the Arabs had a continental slave trade prior to uninvited European penetration
•    Colonialism
•    Melting pot of African peoples–Michael Gomez’s Exchanging Our Country Marks (1998) and Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora (2005) are excellent studies of melting
•    The rural experience
•    The urban experience
•    Black workers and the labor movement–being locked out of non-Black trade unions in significant numbers
•    The black middle class
•    Black culture and the arts
•    Religion and the black church
•    Black women and the family–it is o.k. if you panic because “Black men and the family” isn’t a parallel category of analysis
•    Education and the school in the black community–it is not perverse in 2014 if you replace “education” with “miseducation,” “the black community” with “loosely confederated black communities of shared interests and their post-racial, post-black enclaves of dubious interests”
•    Black power and the U.S. political system–you feel a bite of inwit pertaining to the uses and abuses of your Kenyan-American President and sing a sorrow song
•    Civil rights and the struggle for democracy–you supplement “civil rights “ with “United Nations-defined human rights” and “democracy” with “practices appropriate in a non-Platonic republic”
•    Nationalism and Pan Africanism–how you sweat from thinking international cartels, Islamic and other varieties of terrorism, ancient African ethnic enmity, and Eurasian neo-colonial enterprises minimize or preclude the evolution of Pan Africanism on the African continent
•    Marxism and black liberation
•    The role everyone has to play

You are exhausted from pondering and speculating how a paradigm of unity in Afro-American Studies circa 1973 has slowly morphed into a digital paradigm of fragmentation in Black Studies circa 2014, especially in dealing with the logic and logistics of change and units of analysis in the study of African American literature and allied cultural expressions. You are exhausted from trying to make a text from a complex paradigm. Most exhausting is suspicion that higher education tends to defang Black Studies and limit its power to intervene effectively in the life and death issues in the United States.  Remember that higher education isn’t immune to surveillance. In 2014, immunity is impossible.

Nevertheless, your shuttling between the 1973 and the 2013 texts does yield a product: an idea.  It may be possible to use Black Studies digital tools to do meaningful work and assist other human beings, to live a valuable life in a “communiversity.” The practice of communiversity did thrive briefly in the 1970s; it still manifests itself in some reading groups and writing workshops that give scant attention to the performance of anxiety in academic circles. You also recall that BK Nation is a robust communiversity, one that makes real the idea you derived from the act of reading. The anxieties you want to read from the epics of capitalist economies and the novels of the everyday which are always seeking a textual home are, in old school language, “as real as real can get.” 

Your rereading of Introduction to Afro-American Studies and reading of African American Studies 2013 persuade you to maintain a more than safe distance between yourself and hyperbole about reform and revolution.  Both reforms and revolutions often prove to be absurd, very cruel, and very deadly perversions of good intentions, especially in academic contexts. The best sites for manifesting Black Studies are the home, the neighborhood, the prayer house you attend weekly, organizations to which you pay dues or make charitable donations, the political circus wherever you live. In a global community damned to have an unknowable but adjustable future, Black Studies finds it permanence or sustainability in how you and others take matters into your own hands, transform acts of reading into acts of doing, and remember that Black Studies has life-affirming rather than death-bound universal imperatives.

“Reconsidering Jerry Ward on Black Studies,” by Abdul Alkalimat et al. (December 3, 2014)

My first impulse is to thank Jerry Ward for taking the time to comment on work that my colleagues and I have carried out over the last several decades, actually from the beginning of Black Studies in the mid-sixties after the development of Black Power in 1966. I also want to thank Maryemma Graham, the founding director of HBW, the center that published Jerry’s polemic, for opening space for this dialogue.

This response is an invitation for others to join the discussion. We need an active discussion and debate to keep fresh with the issues. We especially need a trans-generational conversation to keep the past interacting with the present in order to fight for an even better future.

Ward raises at least three important questions about Black Studies using two works by me and others. Each of these is freely available online. The first work is the textbook Introduction to Afro-American Studies (link goes to the sixth edition) by Abdul Alkalimat and Associates, that is to say other members of People’s College. The second work is a 2013 survey of Black Studies by Abdul Alkalimat, Ronald Bailey, Sam Byndom, Desiree McMillion, LaTasha Nesbitt, Kate Williams, and Brian Zelip. At the core of Ward’s comments are three points entailing research, theory, and political agency:

1. On research, Jerry writes, “The survey poses the question ‘Is Black Studies a permanent project in higher education, or a passing fad?’” but the “silence of the survey report about how Black Studies functions in the lives of Americans who are not even remotely associated with institutions of education higher and lower is a teaser.”

2. On theory, he writes, “[The reader is] exhausted from pondering and speculating how a paradigm of unity in Afro-American Studies has slowly morphed into a digital paradigm of fragmentation in Black Studies, especially in dealing with the logic and logistics of change and units of analysis in the study of African American literature and allied cultural expressions.”

3. On political agency, he writes, “It may be possible to use Black Studies digital tools to do meaningful work and assist other human beings, to live a valuable life in a “communiversity.” However, “Both reforms and revolutions often prove to be absurd, very cruel, and very deadly perversions of good intentions, especially in academic contexts.”

On research: All empirical research asks a question and uses methods of data collection and data analysis to get at an answer. Ward correctly identifies our research question, which was a direct response to the negative impression promoted by the mainstream since the origin of Black Studies. We carefully examined a dataset from the Carnegie Foundation that included 1,777 institutions of higher education in the U.S. We found Black Studies in 76% of all institutions (20% with administrative units of departments, programs, institutes and centers, and 56% with courses reflecting the orientation of Black Studies courses born in the post-Black Power era). By referencing historical data together with these numbers, we demonstrated that there is growth and increasing stability (more permanent units, more Ph.D.-granting units) in the field.

Any research question when answered leads to new research questions. So I agree with Ward that our research points to opportunities for more research. But I remain convinced of the soundness of our method: constructing from each university’s and each black studies unit’s own online descriptions a comprehensive dataset that provides a foundation for future research on the field. (As the report itself indicates, the dataset is available from the authors for reuse.) This should also be compared to the census of the African American novel that we initiated with Dr. Graham when she was at the University of Mississippi that led to her current work at the University of Kansas. Identifying the population of units being studied is fundamental research and sets the basis for answering all other research questions.

On theory: We used Thomas Kuhn’s concept of the paradigm (from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) to escape the ideological trap of the “isms” that marked the origins of Black Studies as a battlefront of the Black Power movement. At that time, we were captured by the extremes of the Marxist versus Nationalist debate. People were not open to each other, did not study each other, and failed to find common ground. But over the years, as we studied Black intellectual history, we found fundamental agreement regarding the historical periodization of the African American experience. We also found it useful to identify the basic conceptual variables that anchor the various disciplines that feed into Black Studies. In Intro, we described this as a “paradigm of unity,” an attempt to set a framework for all scholars and students to share, even when holding different theoretical views. Our goal was to be able to talk with each other, learn from each other, and find ways to agree.

As the information revolution burst on the scene, the paradigm of unity had to go into cyberspace. This led to my companion volume to Intro called The African American Experience in Cyberspace. Many of us have taken advantage of the web as a free cultural space to share resources. My projects have included eBlack Studies and research sites on key figures such as Malcolm X, Harold Washington, and St. Clair Drake. More specific to the paradigm of unity, videos are freely available online from my 2007 course Introduction to African American Studies and my 2011 course Theory in Black Studies. The theory lectures also cover periodization, ideology, method and tradition.

On political agency: Black Studies began as an activist enterprise, and many of us have continued to carry that out. People’s College persisted for more than three decades, and some of its members continue to work today. We embrace the unity of theory and practice that is exemplified in the life of people like W. E. B. DuBois and Paul Robeson. And we have never turned away from the dialectical unity of theory and practice. It’s easy to see the mainstream academics from elite institutions moving in and out of government, in and out of policy making in the private sector, and always advocating their views in academic and non-academic contexts. Our alternative is to stand tall and represent Black interests. 

Why would we cower and fade from this responsibility, as some might suggest? NO. We embrace the radical Black tradition of C. L. R. James and Ida B. Wells, of Frederick Douglass and Margaret Walker, of Langston Hughes and Claudia Jones.

So, we appeal to Brother Jerry Ward to reconsider his attack on our work and at least give us the respect that a colleague can expect from a scholar with his record of serious scholarship. If we cannot persuade you to agree, at least give serious consideration to the work cited above in the interest of the ultimate journey we are all on: The liberation and freedom of our people.

In the search for unity, Abdul Alkalimat

An earlier version of this post mistakenly said that Dr. Ward’s original piece was shared in August, not July. The HBW Blog Editor apologizes for the error.