Black Lives, Black Studies, Black Futures

“Black Studies is revolutionary in its political and historical origins and intellectual impulses. To paraphrase C.L.R. James, who insisted that Black Studies was the study of Western Civilization, Black Studies is a critique of Western Civilization.”

–Cedric J. Robinson (1940 – 2016)

 

When African American Studies achieved departmental status in 2014, after four decades as an interdepartmental program, we celebrated.  But as we celebrated, Black people across the country and around the world faced a genuine crisis.  We launched our department as people took to the streets of New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, Toronto, Rio de Janeiro, London, and right here in Los Angeles, to protest the unceasing state-sanctioned and vigilante murders of Black people.  As we put out our shingles and printed new letterhead, the Black poor in urban Michigan found themselves stripped of local governance, denied affordable water in the face of privatization and rate hikes, and subjected to toxic water in the case of Flint.

Within a year, the rebellion in the streets spread to the university.  Led largely by Black students or coalitions of students of color, queer, undocumented, and white allies, protests against campus racism, administrative indifference, and the ethics of the university’s financial entanglements in prisons, war, and fossil fuels erupted on nearly ninety campuses in the U.S. and Canada.  The sites included Brandeis, Ithaca College, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Harvard Law School, Claremont-McKenna College, Smith College, Amherst College, University of Toronto, UCLA, Oberlin, Tufts University, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill and Greensboro), and, of course, UCLA.

For those who lived through or studied the origins of Black Studies, the revolts of 2014-15 will have a familiar ring.  Our interdisciplinary project has always been about Black lives, the structures that produce premature death, the ideologies that render us less than human, and the struggle to secure our future.  When the movement for Black Studies at the university began nearly half a century ago, it occurred during an era of social upheaval, urban rebellions, antiwar and feminist movements, Third world nationalism and militant opposition to anti-Black violence.  The demand for Black Studies came largely from students who cut their teeth in movements to democratize, revolutionize, and decolonize the United States and the Third World.  Black Studies was conceived not just outside of the university but in opposition to a Eurocentric university culture with ties to corporate, police and military power.

Black Studies at UCLA was established in 1969 with the founding of the Center for Afro-American Studies, now the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.  Student protesters first drafted a plan in 1968 and then embarked on a long, often bloody, protracted struggle to bring the Center to fruition.  I won’t repeat that history since a synopsis of the origins on the Bunche Center can be found here.   Still, my historian’s curiosity lured me to the archives where I spent part of the summer thumbing through original records and clippings in an effort to reconstruct the formation of Black Studies at UCLA and the vision—or, rather, competing visions—that animated the work.  As we react to the current crises and challenges and develop an intellectual vision for our department, it is imperative that we look to our past in order to better chart our future.

The original founding proposal called for a “Center for the Study of Afro-American History and Culture” that would serve as a research unit but in due course “evolve into an accredited academic department.”  In the meantime, its primary function would be to “sponsor and finance group research projects,” secure grants and support from foundations, encourage interdisciplinary symposia and colloquia, coordinate a Black Studies curriculum across existing academic departments, and “provide for maximum participation of the residents of black ghettos in the projects of the Center.”  Toward this end, the Center was to house a “Bureau of Urban Affairs” that would “help mediate problems in black-white communication and cooperation” and, somewhat paternalistically, channel university expertise and knowledge into “ghetto” communities to stave off urban unrest and help residents “shake off psychologically crippling effects of cultural oppression and racial prejudice.”[1]

Once the Center became a largely a faculty research initiative backed by the administration, it limited its focus from the Black World (Africa and the African Diaspora) to the United States.  Hence the name, “Afro-American Studies.”  Courses and research projects mainly emphasized the consequences of U.S. racism, demographic and political shifts, social problems, and Black social movements (although a few course offerings extended beyond U.S. borders).  The proposal concluded with an assertion that the role of the university—and by extension, the Center—was to “produce individuals who can not only take their places in the present structure of American society, but also in the society of the future.”

The students who demanded Black Studies as part of a nation-wide movement, from San Francisco State College to Cornell University, were not necessarily looking for a place in “the present structure of American society.”  They wanted to overthrow that structure.  They used the word “revolution” frequently, and some identified with militants fighting anti-colonial wars or wars of national liberation from Southern Africa to Southeast Asia.   At UC Berkeley, for example, a coalition called the Third World Liberation Front led the battle for Black Studies and insisted from the beginning that it become a department, not a center or a program.   They waged a successful student strike with strong support from campus unions and a group of professors calling themselves Third World Faculty.[2]  Chancellor Charles Young, on the other hand, ultimately came to see the value of Ethnic Studies at UCLA.  He had already defended Angela Davis’s right to teach at UCLA against the UC Regents’ effort to fire her because of her Communist affiliation, and he succumbed to Black students and faculty demands to house Ethnic Studies in Campbell Hall.  However, as Executive Vice-Chancellor William Gerbeding explained a few years later, “Chancellor Young was not anxious to subject UCLA to the same agonies that paralyzed Berkeley.  Instead, he was interested in the development of an academically and intellectually sound program that would have as its mission the investigation of events and conditions affecting ethnic minorities in the United States.”[3]

What about Africa?  It is no small irony that in 1969, the year Black Studies was established on campus, UCLA’s Center for African Studies celebrated its 10th anniversary.  Compared to the tortured and violent origins of the Center for Afro-American Studies, African Studies was founded with much fanfare and even more funding—from the university, the National Defense Education Act, and a generous Ford foundation grant as part of its support for area studies programs.  The press headlines promoting the Center’s work are telling:  “UCLA Center Throws Light on Dark Africa,” “UCLA Center Dispels Cloud Obscuring Africa,” “UCLA Proud of its African Studies Unit.”[4]  The Center focused on research, graduate education, preparing students for the diplomatic corps and business, training Peace Corps volunteers, and establishing public forums “to help Americans, and Africans too, catch up on the social and political revolution under way in the once-dark continent.  Their object is to narrow the knowledge gap which has handicapped foreign policy in the past.”[5]

Little wonder that Black Studies and African Studies emerged along parallel tracks, often politically and intellectually at odds.   Over the years, both Centers have expanded and evolved well beyond their original geographical and conceptual boundaries.  The Center for Afro-American Studies added Latin Americanists and Caribbeanists to its roster, took up the study of comparative racial formations, and covered more global concerns.  Colleagues in African Studies have expanded their sights to the Diaspora.  And there have been some efforts to bridge the gap—including proposals to merge the two Centers in to a single department.

While such a merger is unlikely, our new department places no geographical, temporal or spatial limits on Black Studies.  In a public symposium held in March of 2016 titled, “What is Black Studies?:  A Black Radical Roundtable,” professors Scot Brown, Jemima Pierre, Marcus Hunter, Gaye Johnson, Cheryl Harris, and Gender Studies doctoral student Sa Whitley, and a standing-room crowd of students, faculty, and staff engaged in an electric and immensely productive conversation about the objectives and vision of our new department.  We concluded that Black Studies is an intellectual and political project rooted in a Black radical tradition without national boundaries and borders.   Our faculty interrogate the construction of racial categories, examine the production of difference, the persistence of inequality; how the very category of “black” or “African” came into being as a central feature of Western thought; how the enslavement of human beings from Africa served as a fulcrum for the emergence of modernity, and in many respects presented political and moral philosophy with its most fundamental challenge; how people of African descent tried to remake and re-envision the world through ideas, art, and social movements.  We are international and transnational by necessity.  “African American” inadequately captures the scope of our field, let alone our department, which covers just about every continent on the planet.

Our colleagues, programs, and courses certainly reflect this global, radical perspective.  Thanks to the hard work of professors Sarah Haley, Aisha Finch, and Grace Hong, and support from the UC Consortium for Black Studies, we are proud to co-host“Black Feminist Vision: A Symposium on Possibility and Practice” (October 20 – 21, 2016).   Speakers will address feminism and race across the globe, from Canada and the Caribbean, South Africa to the U.K., and the United States.  On Thursday September 29, 2016, we are also hosting an historic concert by renowned pianist/composer Randy Weston, who spent over half a century synthesizing jazz and music of the African continent.  Our course offerings for the academic year 2016-2017 explore Black art, literature, music, politics, the media, as well as slavery and emancipation, capitalism and incarceration.  Courses include Sarah Haley’s “Abolition: Renouncing and Refusing Carcerality in America,” Mark Sawyer’s “Black Experience in Latin America and the Caribbean,” “Aboard the Mothership: Introduction to Afrofuturism” by visiting scholar and noted novelist, Tananarive Due, “The Long Civil Rights Movement” taught by visiting lecturer David Stein, and Bryonn Bain’s “Microphone Fiends: Hip-Hop and Spoken Word,” to name just a few.

If Black Studies is, indeed, a critique of Western Civilization, an interrogation of the very racial categories that produced Blackness, a genealogy of our very subjectivity as well as the fictions of racial ideology that stand in for our actual selves, then the project of Black Studies can never be fixed, never be stable.   Our work is a response to our times, a product of our times, and anticipates our times.  We struggle to make sense of the world, from the past millennia to now, aware that we are teaching, writing, and listening to those for whom “Black Lives Matter” represents the anger, anguish, and anxiety of a generation that has had to endure the snuffing out of Black lives in real time, a generation raised on drone strikes and drug wars, uprisings in Baltimore, mass murder in Charleston, and mass poisoning and mass unemployment in Michigan.    Black Lives Matter speaks to a generation raised on liberal multiculturalism, declarations of postracialism, a Black President, and new challenges to racialized state violence and neoliberal logic.

We have much work to do.  Come join us.

 

 

[1] All quotes take from “Proposal for a Center for the Study of Afro-American History and Culture,” (typescript 1969), Box 4, Center for African American Studies. Administrative Files, University Archives Record Series 512, UCLA Library Special Collections

 

[2] For an excellent overview of the history of African American Studies at Berkeley, see Ula Y. Taylor, “Origins of African American Studies at UC-Berkeley,” Western Journal of Black Studies, vol.34, no.2, (Summer 2010), 256-264.

 

[3] Quoted in Robert Peter Haro, “Ethnic Studies in California Public Universities: A Comparative Review and Analysis,” (Ed. D University of San Francisco, 1979), 146.

 

[4] Louis Fleming, “UCLA Center Throws Light on Dark Africa,” LA Times, August 21, 1960; Julian Hart, “UCLA Center Dispels Cloud Obscuring Africa,” LA Times, Nov. 15, 1964; “UCLA Proud of its Africian [sic] Studies Unit,” Los Angeles Sentinel, August 1, 1963.  On the origins, see also “UCLA Will Use Grant for African Studies,” Los Angeles Times, October 14, 1960; “African Studies Center Opens at University,” LA Times, Nov. 22, 1959.

 

[5] Louis Fleming, “UCLA Center Throws Light on Dark Africa,” LA Times, August 21, 1960.