Notes & Comments December 1996
Knowledge or ghettoization?
On the Afro-American studies department at Harvard
Writing several years ago in The New York Times Book Review, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Harvard, observed that ours was the generation that took over buildings in the late 1960s and demanded the creation of Black and Womens Studies programs, and now we have come back to challenge the traditional curriculum. And, my, how they have succeeded!
We had occasion to recall Professor Gatess observation recently when the Education Life supplement for the November 3 issue of The New York Times ran an article entitled Can Harvards Powerhouse Alter the Course of Black Studies? The burden of this long and flattering effusion, by the Times reporter Peter Applebome, was that, yes, Professor Gates was doing terrific things at Harvard. Among other things, he had dramatically increased the profile of the Afro-American studies department, chiefly by hiring left-wing academic celebrities such as Cornel West and William Julius Wilson, but also by pursuing and instigating numerous research projects both in his capacity as chairman of the Afro-American studies department and as head of Harvards W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research. What were doing, Professor Gates noted in the Times, is trying to establish the field as a valid area of study, a valid area of intellectual inquiry. Elsewhere, Professor Gates has noted his ambition to effect the permanent institutionalization of Afro-American studies by producing or encouraging foundational research that would result in bibliographies, concordances, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference works.
If the production of print is all that it takes to establish an academic field of study, Professor Gates will have succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. He and his colleagues and collaborators are producing reams upon reams; just this week a plump Norton Anthology of African American Literature, co-edited by Professor Gates, arrived on our desk; a seven-hundred-page Dictionary of Global Culture, also co-edited by Professor Gates, is due out in January; together with Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor Gates is pursuing his dream of bringing Du Boiss idea of an Encyclopedia Africana into being; and so on.
But the question remains: is Afro-American studies a valid area of intellectual inquiry? Mr. Applebome clearly wants the Timess readers to think soat least insofar as Afro-American studies is conceived at Harvard under Professor Gatess leadership. To reinforce the impression of intellectual legitimacy, Applebome contrasts the activity at Harvards Afro-American studies department with the program as it exists at Temple University under the leadership of Molefi Kete Asante. Asante is a confirmed Afrocentricistnot indeed the furthest-out of this far-out group of racialist rabble-rousers (like Leonard Jeffries, for example), but still far, far from home. In his book The Afrocentric Idea, he rails against the preponderant Eurocentric myths of universalism, objectivity, and classical traditions, etc., urging instead a sympathetic understanding of African Nommo and The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Judging from Mr. Applebomes presentation, Professor Asante is deeply unhappy at all the attention Gates and company are getting at Harvard. (Were not waiting for the messiah to come from Harvard. The database is already at Temple.) But the main point of bringing in the Temple program was to suggest how respectable, by contrast, Professor Gatess enterprise seems.
It is now possible to major in Afro-American studies at Harvard; a Ph.D. in the subject is planned. But still the question remains: is it really a subject? Frederick Douglass observed long ago, No one idea has given rise to more oppression and persecution toward colored people of this country than that which makes Africa, not America, their home. And before he became radicalized, the novelist James Baldwin wrote that relations between Negroes and whites must be based on the assumption that there is one race and we are all part of it. The whole premise of Afro-American studies programs runs contrary to the spirit of Baldwins and Douglasss observations. Afro-American studies describes not an academic discipline but a political fiefdom; such fiefdoms are created and maintained not to aid in the pursuit of knowledge but to appease an ideological demand. The same, incidentally, goes for womens studies programs. Indeed, we believe (to adapt a mot from George Orwell) that all academic studies programs should be considered guilty until proven innocent. As the philosopher Roger Scruton put it, to construct a subject around a political agenda is precisely to relinquish the pursuit of knowledge, and to abandon the claim to a place in the curriculum. No matter how lavishly funded or expertly promoted, Afro-American studies, like womens studies, is a pseudo-subject, entirely parasitic on real disciplines (history, English, anthropology, etc.). Such programs exist solely to further a political agenda and to fulfill affirmative action quotas that have been imposed upon the academy. As such, they perpetuate and extend the ghettoization of their inhabitants. Of course, a few individuals lucky enough to be at the right institution at the right time will enrich themselves. But the sad irony is that Afro-American studies, like womens studies, serves to continue the intellectual disenfranchisement of the very people it was meant to liberate.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 4, on page 1
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