- Purchase/rental options available:
CR: The New Centennial Review 1.1 (2001) 297-311
[Access article in PDF]
The Coming of Age of African American Studies
An Important New Contribution
Perry A. Hall
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal: An African American Anthology Edited by Manning Marable and Leith Mullings. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999
AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDIES, A FIELD BORN OUT OF SOCIAL TUMULT AND rebellion, has made significant strides toward institutionalization within the halls of academia in recent years. One indication of this greater level of institutionalization has been the development of exemplar programs that formalize distinct approaches and schools of thought that have arisen within the field, such as the well-known departments at Temple and Harvard universities. Another indication that African American studies is penetrating the academic (and social) mainstream is, for better or worse, the emergence of dominant personalities, or "superstars," "public intellectuals" who have come to personify the different approaches, philosophies, or standpoints within the discipline. For example, Molefi Asante, who presided over the first bona fide Ph.D. program in the field at Temple, has become a familiar [End Page 297] spokesperson for the "African-centered," or "Afrocentrist" tendencies within the African American studies discipline. From a vigorous discourse among the activists who energized the original Black studies movement, Afrocentrism 1 emerged to codify the cultural nationalist paradigms that guided many during that formational period. Originally led by the formulations of Maulana Karenga (who had already begun to popularize the African American "Kwaanza" holiday), Afrocentrists created a paradigmatic alternative to the conventional approach, favored by administrations and establishment academics, that merely included or "integrated" information about black people within conventionally structured disciplines. Asante emerged as the leading public spokesperson for this alternative approach during the 1980s when he published several important texts defining the contours of "Afrocentricity," and built a department at Temple University, eventually encompassing a full Ph.D. program, expressly organized around this framework. Since then, while weathering much controversy, Asante has essentially personified Afrocentrism as a mode of thought in African American studies, appearing countless times in various media as a sought-after expert.
A dominant "superstar" scholar, Henry Louis ("Skip") Gates Jr. has also emerged to personify the conventional "inclusionist/integrationist" framework approach that was vigorously opposed by nationalist/Afrocentrists and other activists in the original black studies movement. After assuming the chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University, Gates assembled an impressive team of scholars for that program, luring Cornel West and William Julius Wilson from Princeton University and the University of Chicago respectively, and bringing aboard his Cambridge University schoolmate, Kwame Anthony Appiah. Throughout the 1990s Gates has been highly visible as a "public intellectual," representing not only the African American studies discipline and black academia per se, but also, in many ways, the affairs of black people as a whole. While Gates's work in literary criticism is respected by black and white intellectuals alike, his emergence as an exemplar in African American studies has generated some skepticism, especially among those who identify with the activist tradition of the original black studies movement. In addition to criticizing his lack of grounding in history and in black social and political thought, many [End Page 298] feel he usurped and exploited groundwork laid by previous activists without paying sufficient "dues" in the process. (His credibility among black studies activists and other academics was severely questioned after his recent public television series, "The Wonders of Africa," aired earlier this year. This effort was vigorously criticized as historically inaccurate and distorted, and anti-African in tone and thrust.)
The interplay between these opposing points of view in African American studies roughly parallels the tension—between integrationist/ assimilationist tendencies on the one hand, and nationalist/separatist tendencies on the other—that has always marked historical dialogue among black leaders and intellectuals. The recently published anthology, Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal: An African American Anthology, edited by Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, comprises...