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  • “Disturbing the Peace: What Happens to American Studies If You Put African American Studies at the Center?”: Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, October 29, 1997
  • Mary Helen Washington (bio)

I want to call your attention to the major contradiction of my standing before you as the president of the American Studies Association, a contradiction that has made it very difficult for me to write and give this speech: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of an American studies faculty. I was not trained in American studies methods, and have been only peripherally involved in American studies programs; nor did I read, until I had to write this speech, any of the traditional American studies texts. I am now and always will be, primarily an African-Americanist. Three years after the uprising in Detroit that whites called a riot and blacks called a rebellion, I became part of the small band of scholars who, in 1970, inaugurated the first Black Studies program at the University of Detroit. Like American studies we were committed to interdisciplinarity: there were four full-time faculty in literature, history, sociology, and religion; the three part-time faculty were in journalism, music, and art. While those in American studies were lighting out for the territory, on the pioneer trail from East to West, Black Studies was following other itineraries: the triangular slave trade, the underground railroad, and the Great Migration, the latter two on a north-south axis leading directly to issues of what José Marti [End Page 1] called, in his claims for hemispheric unity, Nuestra America—”Our America.” While American studies scholars were still immersed in Virgin Land, The Machine in the Garden, and Turner’s frontier thesis, we were reading Lerone Bennett’s Before the Mayflower, Malcolm X’s speeches, the essays and stories in Black World, John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery To Freedom, and discovering Charles Chesnutt, Gwendolyn Brooks, Chester Himes, James Weldon Johnson, LeRoi Jones, Alice Childress and Frances Harper. In the early 1970s, black scholars in these programs were doing a great deal of recovery work. Many of the texts we now consider classic African American texts were being brought back into print in the 1970s, but their life in print was erratic and unpredictable, and there was almost nowhere to go for critical commentary. It was an exciting and historic time, and I wish I had taken better notes to preserve for posterity everything that was happening.

Looking at my journal entries from 1975–1976, I was amazed to see what being at the Center for Black Studies entailed:

February 1975: helped students plan a dramatic performance of the literature of the Harlem Renaissance for Black History month; went very well; April: organizing a black alumni group to support the Center; May: up to the University of Michigan for the first meeting of the Michigan Black Studies Association; can we all get along? September 1976: freshmen orientation—prepared a slide show on black studies program for incoming freshmen; October: going up to Jackson State Prison with Gloria House of Wayne State to teach a class on black literature; October: invited Elder Stacks, a Sanctified minister to come to English 280 class where he gave a very moving religious testimony; now trying to get students to understand this voice in Baldwin’s novel.

Besides teaching a full load, fighting to increase the pitifully small number of black students on campus, negotiating with the traditional departments for their reluctant acceptance, we were under a great deal of pressure, in the Black Power climate of Detroit, to be politically involved; you had to read Mao and Marx and Malcolm; you had to be “in struggle.” I remember one meeting at Wayne State, where I went to hear the fiery Ron Dellums speak, that featured the entire spectrum of black political thought in Detroit: there were Black Muslims, Black Panthers, Pan-Africanists, black cultural nationalists, black Christian nationalists, Marxist-Leninists, and Communists; I was there as a closeted integrationist. In my journal I reported coming home that night and becoming deeply involved in cleaning my house so I could restore [End Page 2] my sense of...

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