Black Studies isn't 'claptrap' and is vital to intellectual diversity

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I knew from the moment that Naomi Riley’s “Case for Eliminating Black Studies,” a disingenuous diatribe against Black Studies, went “viral” that I wanted to avoid the usual kind of knee-jerk reaction to these kinds of flaccid attacks on cultural studies. The all-too-familiar dismissive tone and the requisite squabbles that accompany these attacks are normal fare for what constitute academic discourses in the modern era.

One element that we sometimes obscure in our fiery responses to what many see as a continuous racist attack against Black Studies — is the fact that these “critiques” are contiguous with a range of racialized/racist discourses in the public sphere — more on that in a minute.

As many have pointed out, Riley boldly concedes the fact that she did not read (nor did she care to) any of the dissertations that she mentions in her piece. For many in the scholarly community, this premise undermines and invalidates any of her claims to support the “elimination” of one of the most robust and socio-politically engaged interdisciplinary areas of study in the recent history of the academy.

Yes that’s the Black Studies – or more accurately, Africana Studies, African Diaspora Studies, and/or African and African American Studies — or Caribbean Studies, Jamaican Studies, or Black Diaspora Studies, Black Atlantic Studies, etc. Black Studies can be all of these things. To propose the “elimination” of this interdisciplinary field is to also simultaneously discount the single discipline fields when they intersect and interact with Black Studies. These include nearly all of the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, most notably: History, Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, Linguistics, (Fine) Arts, and Literature.

Clearly, Riley is not at all interested in acknowledging the scope, intellectually diversity, or even a cursory history of Black Studies before she condemns it — (nor is her partner, Jason Riley who defends the piece and offers a gloomy picture for HBCU’s — a not so subtle precursor to Naomi Riley’s condemnation of Black Studies).

Her opinion blog is inherently prejudiced because she judges an entire discipline, in fact an entire set of disciplines, without reading any more than three dissertation titles (and abstracts – really excerpts of abstracts). The piece is racist because its publication by the CHE and the continuous nature of these kinds of attacks are a part of the institutional biases directed at Area/Interdisciplinary Studies generally. Black Studies units are underfunded, have diminished or nonexistent space, and more often than not have programmatic, as opposed to departmental, status.

Imagine dismissing Irish Studies or British Studies based upon the perceived irrelevance of three dissertation titles — absurd, right? But let’s briefly take the subject matter of these dissertations: black women’s knowledge of childbirth including the history of black midwifery; black urban housing in the 1970s, and the impact of black Republicanism on civil rights.

Now, I’m not an expert on any of these subjects, but as director of a Black Studies program — the LU iteration of the field is Africana Studies — I can tell you categorically that these topics are in no way irrelevant to Africana Studies in the 21st century. It seems stupid to even have to say this, which is why I couldn’t see myself responding to Riley initially.

If Riley had any sense of the maternal mortality rates associated with childbirth especially along the axes of race/nation/class, she might better appreciate the intellectual investment in the literary and cultural histories that research and support the efforts to address these challenges throughout the black diaspora.

Maybe the fact that millions of white folk faced the housing crisis is enough evidence for Riley to discount any study that links housing policies across the historical experiences of black folks in this country. But surely we must consider the fact that this recent housing crisis represents the greatest ‘bleed off’ of black wealth in the history of the United States. What better way to determine the extent to which our history informs this particular present than to study it? Finally though, her cursory defense of John McWhorter and Clarence Thomas belie the crux of Riley’s agenda.

And here’s where my response might distinguish itself from the myriad of responses by many of my colleagues — although please note that many more of them, like me initially, decided to deliberately ignore Riley’s piece, mostly because its acute prejudice renders it DOA — a casualty of the culture wars from over 2 decades ago. Maybe there is a bigger picture here. There is a concerted, multi-pronged effort by those on the right to rollback certain progressive achievements — women’s reproductive rights, voter rights/accessibility, and healthcare for the poor and elderly and public education — especially the humanities.

Now this is my sinister cynical side speaking, but I can’t help but think that an effective strategy for justifying the kinds of cuts that some on the right would like to make — to health care, to public education, to women’s health, etc — absolutely requires the devaluing of those services; the deliberate attempt to systematically dismiss the role of Black Studies seems to fit neatly into this master plan.

Dr. James B. Peterson is the director of Africana Studies and an associate professor of English at Lehigh University. Follow James on Twitter at @DrJamesPeterson