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February 25, 2002

Struggle at the center of U.S. black studies

By Eric Rangus


The parlor in Harris Hall, a dormitory, isn’t the first setting that comes to mind for panel discussion, particularly one as high profile as the kickoff of a two-day symposium celebrating the 30th anniversary of Emory’s African American Studies program.

But the cozy atmosphere, with faculty and students of all races seated in easy chairs, on sofas and on a handful of folding chairs, and the panelists beneath an opulent crystal chandelier, made for an intimate and informative afternoon.

The Feb. 21 panel, “Founders of African American Studies,” brought together five scholars with more than 100 combined years of experience in black studies. Moderating the panel was Emory’s own Delores Aldridge, Grace T. Hamilton Professor of Sociology and African American Studies. Aldridge, in 1971, was hired as the first African American professor in Emory College, and she led Emory’s African American studies program from its inception that year to 1990.

For 20–30 minutes apiece, each panelist frankly discussed his or her own often personal struggles in establishing a field of study in atmospheres that rarely were conducive to change.

“Black studies was the intellectual arm of the civil rights movement that transformed America,” Aldridge said.

Carlene Young, emeritus professor of African American studies at San Jose State University, led off and called for a renewed activism in young blacks, and questioned whether modern programs have the same values as those that grew out of the civil rights movement.

“There are things on TV black people are doing that we would’ve marched about,” she said. “If you degrade yourself, what do you leave for other people to do?”

William Nelson, professor of black studies and political science at Ohio State, spoke of how the program could be used as a tool. “We need to use African American studies as a lever for power,” he said.

James Turner, sociology and Africana studies professor at Cornell, discussed black studies’ struggle against the entrenched culture and power structure of what he called “white institutions.” One of his most interesting vignettes was a story about when he was a student at Northwestern and inquired about starting an African American literature course. He was rebuffed.

“It wasn’t about the facts; it was about the perception that we were without culture,” he said.

James Stewart, economics professor at Penn State, defended the legitimacy of black studies. “We are on the cutting edge,” he said. “The way we approach knowledge is the same way as other fields.”

The fight for legitimacy was discussed by every panelist but perhaps none better than Nelson: “There are some people who think that all we need on campus is a coffee shop where we can debate the revolution,” he said.

Nelson’s comment served as a theme of the entire afternoon: sharp and defiant.

“Given half a chance and with little expectation of survival, we were able to survive and thrive, even under the most arduous of circumstances,” Young said.

The discussion was followed by a book signing of Out of the Revolution: The Development of African Studies, which was coedited by Aldridge and Young.