restricted access What Is African American Studies?
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What Is African American Studies? Derrick E. White What if I told you that most of the great American histories were half-truths and some were outright lies? Many of the great American heroes fell far short of heroism. In the “land of the free and home of the brave”slavery and cowardice reigned.The American Revolution was not for all. A central reason for the falsity of many great American histories has been the minimization or exclusion of African Americans (and other ethnic minorities ) from this history. Many Americans can recall the deeds of the Founding Fathers in the country’s rebellion from British colonial rule. But few Americans remember that the first person killed in the 1770 Boston Massacre, which sparked the American Revolution, was Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American descent. The United States’ political, economic, and cultural expansion was not solely the province of white Americans, but was intertwined with the institutions of slavery,segregation,and racism.When one considers the legal impact of the civil rights movement, true American democracy is barely five decades old. America looked and looks different with African Americans at the center of the story. The great abolitionist, statesman, and former slave Frederick Douglass declared in 1857, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightening . . .This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both . . . but it must be struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.” Unlike many academic disciplines that trace their origins to the early reaches of the Western tradition, African American Studies was born from the struggle for African American civil and human rights in the late 1960s. 2 Derrick E. White After America’s founding,its government,courts,and majority-white population treated African Americans (and other ethnic minorities) as either noncitizens or second-class citizens.Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney encapsulated the majority of white American thought when he declared in 1857 that African Americans had “been regarded as beings of an inferior order,and altogether unfit to associate with the white race” and they “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”The institutions of slavery and later Jim Crow segregation denied African Americans citizenship rights.Emboldened by the antifascism of World War II, however, black reformers were determined to make the United States live up to its “all men are created equal”credo.The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s made African Americans equal,legally.Through a combination of the legal victories,protests,and political agitation African Americans slowly ended their unequal legal status. However,many activists realized that each legal and political success revealed additional layers of American racial thinking and ideology.Frustrated by the slow pace of change, the stubbornness of the American public, and the revelation of the pervasiveness of American racism, both interpersonally and institutionally, some reformers advocated for Black Power, which was a declaration of black humanity in the face of white supremacy and a demand for African Americans to take immediate control of their lives and destiny.When civil rights and Black Power crusaders turned their attention to changing America’s racist culture,they knew that education, especially higher education, was a central issue. The modern American university is the product of the convergence of several socioeconomic forces that were in play after the end of World War II. First, the US government’s GI Bill (officially the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) provided monies that allowed more than 2 million men to attend college or gain additional training.Take, for example, the student population at the Ohio State University (OSU) before and after the war. OSU was already one of the largest universities in the country, with more than 15,000 students attending in the 1930s. In 1943 the loss of men to military service reduced OSU’s student body to 8,000,the lowest number since 1926.Three years later enrollment soared to more than 26,000. Colleges nationwide had similar stories of rapid growth. Second,the civil rights movement opened doors for more African American to attend predominately white colleges.Southern white colleges,which had barred African Americans before the 1950s,started to enroll small numbers of African American students. Other universities in...